Posted on: 15 January 1997
Last updated on: 15 January 1997
WAR STORIES (SR-71 and U-2):
Pull a Spike or Wait? At times on SR-71 inlet inspections, nicks are found on engine blades. This requires further inspection to decide the best course of action. The spike must be removed to allow a mechanic to perform this task. The spike itself only takes about thirty minutes to remove, but creates hours of inlet checkouts once re-installed. My assistant, TSgt Terry Melanson is a little skinny guy, or vertically challenged as he like to be called. He was one of the few capable of crawling an inlet without removing the spike. He worked the swing shift, and many times we placed maintenance on hold until he came in to perform this function. As you can imagine, he saved us tons of work, and was loaned out to other Crew Chiefs a great deal. He would evaluate the blades, and at most times blend them into acceptable limits.
Pilots: All the Pilots I encountered in the SR-71 program were very professional, and maintained a great relationship with us maintenance toads. They were generally a Major or above, with tons of flight hours under their belt. They appreciated the maintenance aspect of the program, and took the time to actually learn the workings of the aircraft. They were the "fly by the seat of your pants" types, and would do anything for the mission and country! The majority of the U-2 Pilots were young Lieutenants and Captains, and kept their distance from maintenance folks. Of course there were exceptions, especially in the higher ranks, but for the most part, there wasn't much of a team concept. It's quite interesting to note that while the U-2 Pilots and maintenance folks belong to the same squadron, they hold different Christmas parties.
Let's Mess with the New Guy: In the AF, it is a common practice to mess with, and embarrass the new kids. In the SR-71 branch, we were no different. First, they had to be initiated with the start carts. These are the twin v-8 powered carts we used to start the engines of the SR-71. We would take the kids out back and have them participate in the starting of these units. We would get it rolling down hill, with all pushing, and an experienced mechanic would start the unit. When it was all over, we would have them believing that starting one of these was the same as popping the clutch on your car. Next was the voice activated light cart. We would place a mechanic inside the unit, and close it back up. Then we'd bring the new kids out and show them this state of the art unit. We would tell them to command the unit to start. They would say "light-all on", and the mechanic inside would start it. Usually, each new guy would embarrass himself naturally. Usually, when participating in their first launch, they would accidentally walk behind the running engine, and get blown over. They only did this once, and were quick learners. These were traditions that everyone went through.
We're Back! When we would recover an SR-71 at night, it was traditional for the Pilots to let us know if the jet flew good. They accomplished this before the aircraft landed, and through the use of non-verbal communication. When they entered the local area, they would quickly come into the pattern with their landing gear up and lights off, then throttle back to kill the sound, and bring the aircraft over the top of the shelters. Once over us, they'd put her into AB, and scare the living daylights out of us. This tradition faded away towards the end of the program, but none the less, it was a unique way to tell us they had returned from a good mission.
Deployed at Beale: During the summer of 1987, we were asked to demonstrate the deployment capability of the SR-71 in the form of an exercise. Shelters 115 and 116 were designated as a simulated overseas locations. All equipment was stored in 116, and 962 was placed in 115. We were to only use the resources positioned in 116 throughout the five day duration. We flew 962 four straight days. That might not sound like a big deal, but for an SR, it was incredible. It went flawlessly, and proved our capability. After it was all over, I had one broke jet that needed a lot of attention.
Oops: In my early days, I was the Crew Chief of SR-71B 956. After one flight, a crack was found on a fillet panel located just aft of the right MLG. This panel was held in place by rivets, and our Structural Repair folks came out, removed it, and re-installed it after the repair. The very next flight, 956 came back early for a severe fuel leak. Seems that when the panel was re-installed, the "over-sized" rivets used punctured the bottom of tank six. Once the aircraft took on fuel from the tanker, out it gushed!
Another Oops: Again, while crewing 956, I had an unprecedented string of 17 Code-1 sorties in a row. During flight number 18, a landing light fell off the KC-135 during an in-flight refuel. It entered and damaged the left engine. I never came close to that string of great flights again.
Dayton Air Show 1985: The SR-71 was always the hit of every air show we attended. We probably got over fifty requests a year, and participated in about ten. The Dayton Air Show was always outstanding, and we made it a point to regularly attend. We rarely flew during these, and simply sat on static display. One of our BAFB KC-135s would bring all personnel and equipment to the locations, and usually sat on display itself. On one such occasion in 1985, we had just arrived, and expected the SR in the area within an hour. Some young Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadets were charged with maintaining crowd control during the recovery. I met with their Captain, a female probably about 16 years old, and told her our plan of attack for the recovery. She must have had about 50 cadets with her, and she lined them up holding ropes to hold back the crowd. I noticed one of her human lines was much too close and would probably not do well with our jet blast. I told her this, and she sarcastically blew me off. When the SR-71 landed, and for some strange reason, turned into position very sharply, which required a lot of thrust. Needless to say, people scattered rather quickly. Once she was shut down, the local Sheriffs department was our security, until the military guards could show up from Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Once the crowd busted through the CAP's perimeter, the cops had no idea what to do, and people were everywhere. When the military cops finally showed up toting M-16's, the people quickly dispersed. I guess the CAP felt really guilty for allowing that to happen, so they quickly regrouped and again formed a human line around the aircraft. As we were preparing to tow the aircraft to a hanger, I asked them to move. They told me they were ordered to maintain there position. So picture this: We towed the aircraft about a half mile with this human line completely around us, walking with us. That must have looked extremely silly. Once we were hangered, we told the kids what a great job they had done, and gave them a personal tour of the aircraft. One kid, about 15 or so, started to ask me questions about the defensive systems. Of course I told him I couldn't discuss it for security reasons. After further discussions, it became apparent to me that he probably knew more about the defensive systems than I did. Where do they grow these kids? This was also one of the rare trips where the U-2 accompanied us. You had to feel sorry for them at times though. I'd look through the eight rows of crowds around the SR to see only a dozen people around the U-2. They rarely went with us for that reason, and usually attended the shows we turned down. Once the show was over, we refueled the SR-71 from the tanker on the ground, preflighted her, and launched the next day in front of thousands.
New Orleans Recovery: In 1988, 962 diverted to the Naval Air Station at New Orleans Louisiana due to an engine problem. Since we knew we would be changing an engine, we utilized a KC-135 from Beale and a C-141 from Travis to transport all personnel and equipment. Once, there, the C-141 had another commitment and departed. We quickly changed the engine, and two days later, sent her back home. Since the C-141 was no longer on station, and being the nice guy that I am, I volunteered with nine others to stay behind with the rest of our equipment, until the airlift could return. We had to wait three days for it, and life was just miserable, as we were all alone in New Orleans with no work to do. Another great trip!
Chicago Air Show 1994: This was a real experience. We took the U-2 to this one. When we arrived at O'hare International, it was obvious we had some problems ahead. As a civilian airport, there were many signs all over it, and many that the U-2's long wings could not clear. The air show was to be held across the field at the Air National Guard base there. We surveyed the situation, and chose the best taxi route to use. Murphy's law came into play here. The winds shifted, and the U-2 was forced to use a different runway than what had been planned. It was most interesting seeing how we had disrupted their normal traffic lanes. Since the U-2 is so slow, it was difficult for the tower to put her into the pattern. Once they did, there was this huge gap in that lane, as everything had already landed ahead of it, and nothing could be put close behind it. Once the aircraft landed, it came to a stop near the United terminal. The maze of tall signs and sharp turns were everywhere. To make a long story short, for the next 45 minutes we pushed her around several turns, and lifted the wings over many obstacles. We saw ourselves on the local news that night, as they talked about the AF aircraft that had landed, and how it appeared to be broken by all they had witnessed. The air show went well, and we had no such problems on the launch.
Help from Above? When we arrived in Saudi Arabia with the U-2s, we were all told not to question the locals about their religious beliefs. This was a good idea for all concerned, and would eliminate any arguments in that area. At times, we were a bit short on equipment. On one occasion, we borrowed a mobile light cart from the Saudi AF. One night, it broke, and I asked our guys to take it over to their repair shop to get it fixed. They dropped it off, and later that night, they returned to check on the status. They came back and told me not to hold my breath. I asked them why? They said that when the inquired about it, the Saudi mechanic told them "If it is Ala's wish, it will be fixed". We never saw that unit again.
Driving in Saudi Arabia: Our mode of transportation in Saudi Arabia was primarily rental cars. First, they had a real annoying device on them. When the vehicle reached a certain speed, it would start chiming "ding dong, ding dong". Obviously, this became known as ding dong speed, and equated to about 125 kph. They had some super highways there which didn't do well in the rain. At times, after just a short ten minute cloud burst, two feet of water would cover some sections of the freeway. The neatest sight was watching how they transported their animals. It was very common to see camels strapped down in the back of a Toyota pickup, or goats inside their Suburban trucks. In fact, some of the vehicles we saw had the goats in the front seat, with the wives in the back. Women were also not permitted to drive, and they really hated our females doing it as well. It was also quite common place to talk to your buddies on the freeway. It was perfectly acceptable to stop in the fast lane, and talk to a friend who had also stopped in the fast lane on the other side. One of our CMSgts learned that one the hard way, ,as he moved to the fast lane to pass a truck, and plowed into the back of a parked car. No one was injured. If you're driving towards the Red Sea, and need to go through near Mecca, you really have to be careful which road you take. There are two roads on the way to Mecca. The bypass around it, which is the non-Moslem road, and the Moslem road straight into it. Mecca is their religious center, and no infidels are permitted within the gates.
What a Welcome Home: The majority of personnel that accompanied me to Saudi were only there for less than three months. We road on a C-5 aircraft all the way home to Beale with stops in Spain and Westover Massachusetts. We were taken a bit by surprise at Westover. Once the aircraft was parked, we were taken via bus to an aircraft hanger. When we exited the bus, we were greeted with hugs and the "I'm proud to be an American" song playing in the background. We were then ushered down a red carpet, lined with the flags of all fifty states, and greeted along the way by many volunteers. There were all sorts of food and drink available, and all free of charge. Commercial vendors such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Coors, and many others were participating. We were allowed to make free phone calls to our families, and led to a needed shower. We never expected such a welcome, and we all felt like we had just done our job. We weren't the guys near the front lines living in tents and fox holes. To us, it was just like any other deployment, only with worse food, a motivating desire, and a stronger sense of urgency. I must admit, I felt a bit choked up, and I can't tell you what an awesome feeling that was. But at the same time, I think back to how the Viet Nam veterans were treated, and feel I didn't really deserve what I experienced at Westover that day. The best part of the whole trip home was arriving at Beale to be reunited with my wife.
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