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A former pilot reveals what it's like to fly the Blackbird.

In The Cockpit


So how fast is the SR-71 Blackbird?

"Flying westbound at night, you actually end up catching up with the sun so you see the sun rising in the west instead of the east," recalls Tom Alison.

Chief of collections at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum, Alison knows his Blackbirds. He piloted them from 1974 to 1981 at California's Beale Air Force Base. In 1984, he was promoted to commander of the Blackbird unit in Japan and later became director of wing operations at Beale until the Blackbirds were retired in 1990. During his career, he flew almost the entire fleet, including the one the Virginia Aviation Museum is getting.

At the high altitudes flown by the Blackbird, sometimes instrumentation was the only way to gauge its supersonic speed, unless you could see through the clouds to the ground — or unless you have a slightly closer encounter. "I've had occasion to be flying past a weather balloon," Alison says. "It goes from a little dot to Boom! you're by it very quickly. Those are the kinds of things where you get a sense of speed."

Pilots who flew the SR-71s are known as "Habus," after the Japanese word for cobra, which the SR-71 resembles. There's a widely held myth that SR-71 pilots receive astronaut wings, but there's no truth to it, Alison confirms.

However, it is true that the Blackbird does essentially operate at the barrier between space and the atmosphere. "You're above 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere, let's put it that way. ... It's not space, in that you're not in a vacuum, you're still in the Earth's atmosphere, but it's extremely high."

In fact, at that level, "even in the daylight," Alison says, the sky is not its familiar hue. "It's more of a darker blue." And at night, when they flew over unpopulated areas, they could see so many stars "it looked almost like you were flying upside down. With the stars above you, it looked almost like a city."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the planes fly smoothly. Alison compares piloting an SR-71 with "driving a big Cadillac down the Beltway." The trick wasn't flying them fast, it was flying them slow, he says.

Pilots flew their missions, usually averaging between four and seven hours, wearing astronaut-like pressure suits and strapped into ejector seats. They could barely move and lost a lot of fluids. You had to move as much as you could to keep your circulation going, he says.

As for the missions themselves, many of the operational sorties Alison flew have now been declassified. One he recalls best was a reconnaissance mission over Cuba in the late '70s. Intelligence experts believed the Soviet Union was shipping aircraft equipped with nuclear weapons to the island nation, but on fly-overs, his SR-71 was able to determine that they were non-nuclear-equipped defensive fighters.

As usual, no one realized what a crucial role the SR-71 had played in the nation's defense. Though President Carter announced that Cuba didn't have the nuclear-equipped jets, and the photos taken on Alison's mission appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the nation, there was no mention of the SR-71, which operated in top secrecy. But it didn't bother Alison.

"As far as I'm concerned," he says, "the SR-71 was a major player in the U.S. winning the Cold War and being a part of that was kind of

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