Area 51 Refugee – Close Encounters of the Blackbird Kind!
Did that title get your attention ?
These pics are a couple of years old now, but I hope to add some more new ones in the next year or so. All were taken at the March Field Air Museum in southern California on a couple of different visits. There are no Blackbirds in or near Las Vegas, so I have to travel to southern Arizona or California to see one. I’m hoping to go visit Glenn sometime in early 2011 and maybe we can get over to the Blackbird Air Park in Palmdale, but until then these will have to do
I’ve gotten the bug again that starts me to learning about the secrets of the southern Nevada desert and the black (as in secret) aircraft that were born in this desolate region of the United States. I’d been interested before I moved here, but that got a huge jump start when I met TD Barnes at the 2004 Nellis AFB Airshow – Aviation Nation. TD is the President of The Road Runners Internationale and also runs another website about Area 51 special projects. TD has worked at Groom Lake and at the Nevada Test Site. It’s thanks to him that I’m an associate member of the Road Runners and because of that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of the people I’ve only read about before and who made the U-2, A-12, YF-12A, and SR-71 possible. Click on the links in this paragraph if you want to know the extent of the extraordinary accomplishments achieved by these Cold Warriors which have been totally secret until very recently.
You’re probably wondering what an F-101 Voodoo has to do with Blackbirds and I wouldn’t blame you. These were the jets most used as chase aircraft during flight test out at Groom Lake – AKA Area 51. The men who flew them are characters like you’ve likely never met and from what I’ve heard they still haven’t changed much at all over the years. One of my favorite stories from a Road Runners’ reunion was that of an F-101 pilot who had made it his daily habit to perform a low level supersonic pass over a remote brothel. One can only speculate as to the reaction from both the clients and the proprietors of that business when he passed overhead!
Back in 2006, I made the trip down to March Field for the airshow and to visit the air museum across from the operational part of the base. I didn’t expect to find the cockpit on the museum’s SR-71 open, but I was more than happy to contribute $5.00 for the privilege of occupying a cockpit I never thought I would find myself in.
If you remember the period of time when the SR-71 was operational with the United States Air Force, you no doubt remember the incredible shroud of secrecy and fortress of security that surrounded the entire SR-71 program. Armed men guarded the jets and pilots would answer questions about the aircraft vaguely if at all. Back then you’d have to have a security clearance to do what I got to do here. The Blackbirds have come into the light gradually over the intervening years and now the entire flight manual is available online at SR-71.org.
Pilots and the public today expect to see Multi-Function Displays (MFDs). The SR-71 is still the fastest manned, air-breathing aircraft but it’s important to remember the time this jet comes from. The original Blackbird was the A-12 which was known under the names Project Oxcart or Cygnus with the jets themselves referred to as “Articles.” Design began in 1958 and the A-12 first flew in 1962 with the YF-12A and SR-71 following a few years later. These gauges are often referred to as “steam gauges” and were what the pilots of this extraordinary jet used to operate it at speeds of Mach 3+ and altitudes well over 80,000 feet.
Part of the price of going Mach 3+ is dealing with the heat associated with the friction of the air at those velocities. Nearly everything on the jet had to be created and the process to produce it had to be invented. One of the problems with flying a jet heated to between 500° and 1500° Fahrenheit is trying to keep the fuel from exploding. A special fuel known as JP7 was created for the Blackbirds which was very difficult to ignite – you could throw a lit match in a puddle of JP7 and it would put the match out and it wouldn’t ignite with an electric spark either. The solution reached was to use a chemical ignition system. Triethyl borane (TEB) is pyrophoric – it ignites on contact with air. The Blackbirds had two TEB tanks – one for each engine – with each tank containing enough TEB for about 16 shots. One TEB shot was needed each time the engine was started and each time the afterburners were lit. Servicing the TEB tanks required a special cart and the use of full fire suits. The filters on the TEB carts had to be changed from time to time and you can imagine how much fun that was with flame going everywhere! TEB would also occasionally leak from the tanks, but it wasn’t considered dangerous – it would usually just leave a soot trail.
With TEB being vital to flying the Blackbird and a limited supply on board, the designers provided the pilots with counters on each throttle to tell them how many TEB shots had been used and therefore how many remained. You can see the TEB counters in the picture above. Also because of the reliance on TEB for afterburner ignition and the requirement for afterburner operation to fly at its designed speed and altitude, the Blackbird family of jets is one of the few aircraft which is limited in range in spite of the availability of aerial refueling.
Along with the fuel, hydraulic fluid, and everything else that had to be invented for the Blackbirds to work, the landing gear and tires were specially made. The Blackbirds were made of titanium which is light, but they’re so big that they’re still very heavy. Empty, an SR-71 weighs 59,000 pounds but it can reach 170,000 pounds loaded with gear, pilots, and fuel. Three specially made tires were required on each of the main landing gear assemblies to distribute this load. Early on in the program the tires had a habit of blowing out due to the heat and weight on them after a flight. It became standard practice to place fans near them to cool them off and keep this from happening.
Aerial refueling ports are common on Air Force jets, but the SR-71 has something unique on the top side of the fuselage – a star tracker. This instrument (circled in red above) tracked stars in a 62 object database day and night and in concert with the inertial navigation system (INS) to provide reliable navigation anywhere on the planet in the days before GPS. When you’re flying over “denied territory” they don’t tend to give you points of reference like radio beacons to use on your way.
With its long fuselage with its distinctive chines, blended delta wing, massive J-58 engines, and inward canted vertical rudders, the SR-71 is unmistakable and unique. Its records have yet to be publicly surpassed even though it hasn’t flown since 1999. Other aircraft may be flying at the Blackbirds’ original home in the remote desert of southern Nevada, but until they too come into the light, we still have this fine aircraft to marvel at and dream about.
This post merely scratches the surface of the history of the Blackbird family and those who designed, built, flew, and maintained them. I just wanted to shine a bit of light onto them if I could and give them a tiny fraction of the recognition they deserve. Those men and these machines kept the cold war from going hot and allowing for the eventual victory of west over east.
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