Posted on: 15 January 1997
Last updated on: 15 January 1997

SR-71 DE-ACTIVATION (January - December 1990):

These were some very sad days indeed! Even when the program closure was announced, I never really believed it would actually happen. I had a hard time accepting that anyone in their right mind would retire the world's fastest and premier reconnaissance aircraft. I figured they would come to their senses, and do the right thing. The politics played out here was a hard pill for many of us to swallow.

On the very day it was announced, our Aerospace Ground Equipment (AGE) shop came out to the flight-line, and started removing all our support equipment. This was quickly stopped, as we were still going to maintain flying operations for the next several months. From that point on, anytime we needed any support, such as specialists to work maintenance problems, fuel, parts, or equipment, we took a back seat to the U-2 operation across the ramp. This was a dramatic change in our operation as we were used to being the highest priority on base. This loss of status is something we had to endure for the entire year.

Then something happened that left a bitter taste in all our mouths that lasts to this very day. AF man-power teams were sent to Det 1, Det 4, and BAFB to provide a selection of future assignments for all personnel. These included going to such programs as the F-117, F-15, F-16, and many other weapons systems. After the team completed it's business with the Dets, they came to the 9RW. They were met by a few folks from our squadron supervision, and were told that we all wanted to be absorbed into the U-2 program. We were never told they were coming, nor when on base, and we wouldn't find that out until three months later after it was finalized and too late. How's that for gratitude and proper treatment? I'm here to tell you that about 80% of our personnel would have opted for an assignment to another airframe.

Shortly after that, nearly half of all our personnel were moved to the U-2 side. That was to be expected, but they forgot one important thing. Our flying tempo stayed the same. Now we had to support all sorties with half the people. If that wasn't enough, the flying schedule slightly increased so our Pilots could get in many more hot flights before it was too late. This created nothing but tension, and we ended up working twelve hour shifts to support our Pilots. So, here we are busting our butts to support an aircraft that's being retired! Talk about some very angry Crew Chiefs!

The program was also given forty million dollars to close it down. Many plans were made, such as more speed records, and a six ship formation fly-by as a send off. Well, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) took care of that, as they pulled thirty million dollars of it back for their use. Not only that, but the 9RW was instructed never to fly supersonic again, with the exception of the upcoming retirement ceremony. Keep in mind, what we call supersonic is a speed above mach 2.6. So for the rest of our flying, the Pilots simply flew around the local area a lot. It was really sad to see the returning Det aircraft. The normal four hour flights from Det 1 were accomplished in six and a half. One of their returning aircraft depicted the mood in an accurate fashion. A drawing of a head stone with RIP inscribed had been placed on both rudders.

The retirement ceremony was also a very sad day. Many media and local personalities were on hand, and the base was opened up for all to see. We started it out in dramatic fashion, as we opened all the SR-71 shelters simultaneously for all to view. All twelve shelters had an SR-71 in them. Aircraft 971 was flown that day, piloted by the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (1SRS) Commander Lieutenant Colonel (LtCol) Rod Dykman. He took her to speed and did a high pass over the base while dumping fuel. This was the best way to depict the speed on the SR-71, as all could look above at an aircraft at 80,000 feet, and see the swift contrail produced by the fuel hitting the cold air. In just a few seconds, it was out of sight. Shortly thereafter, he performed a few fly-bys, landed, and taxied her to the place of honor in front of the stage setup for the ceremony. During the ceremony, Rod's face told the story as he was nearly in tears. General Chain, the SAC Commander, seemed most happy with himself to announce that the SR-71 was now officially retired. There was no applause what so ever. Later, there was a banquet, also chaired by the General, and again with negative responses to his speech. Out of all this, how appropriate it was to see 971 as the first aircraft re-activated!

It was now time to start sending the aircraft to Palmdale and museums. All remaining personnel got their chance to go on one of these trips. All aircraft were flown subsonic to these locations. Once there, they were de-commissioned. We simply drained all fluids, removed the pyrotechnics from the ejection seats, and removed a few classified components. No components or systems were properly preserved, to include the engines. I was part of the team that took 976 to the AF Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. This was the last flight of any SR-71 by the Air Force. This is also where reality finally set in for me. After we decommissioned her, I helped the museum folks clean her up a bit, and tow it across the field to the main building. It would remain outside for all to view for two weeks, then would be placed inside the museum. Once we got her in place, it started to rain. I just sat there in amazement. My SR-71 had never been left out in the rain! I just stared at it for a couple of hours, realizing that this was itís final destiny. I can't begin to describe how that felt inside. If there was any silver lining to this trip, it was the special tour we were given of the XB-70's cockpit. All and all, that was the worst trip I ever went on!

Upon returning to BAFB, most of the remaining personnel migrated over to the U-2 side. I wasn't going to go without a fight. Myself and four other Crew Chiefs were all that remained assigned to the SR-71. We were placed in charge of the turn-in of equipment, and assisted other museums prepare two non-flyable SR-71s for shipment. We had three such aircraft left which had been stored at BAFB since 1976. They were non-flyable because we had taken parts off of these for use on mission aircraft over the years. SR-71C 981 was cut into three pieces, and placed on a C-5 and sent to the Hill Air Force Base Museum. The cuts were made on both inboard wings just six inches outboard of the MLG trunions. The main section of that aircraft was towed onto the C-5. 961 was dismantled and sent to a museum in Minnesota, I believe. We put 963 back together, sealed the cockpits, and prepared it for static display at BAFB. Base Civil Engineering folks poured some concrete and asphalt per our specifications next to the control tower. This was done in the shape of the SR-71 three plus diamond patch, and we painted it as such. We then towed 963 into place, and it sits there today. All equipment was turned in by Christmas, and it was now time to be absorbed into the U-2 organization.

Introduction     Acronyms & Abbreviations     SR-71 Maintenance     A Typical SR-71 Maintenance Process
SR-71 Deactivation     The U-2 World     War Stories     SR-71 vs U-2     Conclusion     My Biography

© Christopher W. Bennett

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