Retired Pilot to Share Story Behind Air Force Spy Plane

Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird Was United States' Eye in the Sky

Jul. 12, 2012

U.S. Air Force Col. (Ret.) Richard H. Graham

Retired Air Force Col. Richard H. Graham describes a strict screening process and rigorous training before pilots were allowed to fly the SR-71. (Photo courtesy of Richard H. Graham)

Only 86 pilots flew reconnaissance missions in the ultra-swift SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. One who did was author and Retired Air Force Col. Richard H. Graham, who will tell about his experience in the elite aircraft at UT Dallas at 4 p.m. on Satuday, July 14.

Graham, who has written three books about the SR-71, appears for the 2012 George W. Jalonick III and Dorothy Cockrell Jalonick Memorial Distinguished Lecture.  The free public program will be in the McDermott Library Auditorium (MC 2.410). In advance of the lecture, Graham discussed his involvement in the Blackbird program and his membership in that rare fraternity of pilots who patrolled the skies in a plane like no other.

After earning college degrees in sociology and public administration, what led you to fly the Blackbird?

When I was a youngster, my dad took me flying often, and that's where I developed the love for aviation. When I first saw the SR-71 flying around the skies over Okinawa, Japan, I was flying the F-4 Phantom. I was ready for a change of aircraft and applied to the SR-71 program in the fall of 1973. I was notified around February 1974 to report to Beale Air Force Base in California for a week of interviews, flying evaluations and an extensive physical. About two weeks after the week at Beale I received notification that I was accepted into the SR-71 training program.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was capable of going faster than Mach 3 and once completed a trip from Oxnard, Calif., to Washington, D.C., in 64 minutes.

When accomplished U.S. Air Force pilots joined the SR-71 program, what were some of the special and/or extraordinary adjustments they were forced to make?

The SR-71 program at the time was highly classified.  That meant you were not allowed to discuss where you were going or what you were doing with your wife or anyone else who did not have a Senior Crown security clearance. Senior Crown is the unclassified name for the SR-71 program. Crew members were told when they came to Beale for their interview that they would be away from home well over 200 days a year and to make sure their wives were willing to make that sacrifice. Most crew members did not tell their wives the bad news . . . they wanted to fly the plane." 

When you first reached Mach 3.0 in the Blackbird was there a charge of adrenaline or was it business as usual?

I had over 135 hours in the SR-71 simulator before putting my first step into the actual plane. Crew members are so well prepared from the simulator experience that flying the plane for the very first time is relatively easy. I believe most crews considered reaching Mach 3+ as business as usual.

Were your operational missions charted to the minute detail or were you able or forced to deviate from plans on occasion?

We could only deviate from our flight plan in the case of emergencies, safety or necessity of getting the mission accomplished. Other than those reasons, we had to stay on the “black line” - the line on our maps depicting the entire route of flight. When I was doing my interview in 1974, part of the physical exam was to have a long session with a "shrink." Once I became part of the hiring process as the squadron commander, I finally realized what he was there for. The shrink’s main goal was to find out if the candidate pilot had an ego that would make him do something really stupid like flying the SR-71 wherever he wanted to go, possibly causing a major international incident. Every pilot had to have the discipline and mental attitude to stay on the black line the entire time . . . no time for improvising!

Book written by Col. (Ret.) Richard H. Graham

Graham has written three books about the SR-71 reconnaissance jet.

Can you mention some of the secret missions you participated in or are they still classified?

Everything with the SR-71 was declassified in 1990. I will state first that no Blackbird of any variety has ever flown over the landmass of Russia or China. After Gary Powers was shot down in the U-2 aircraft over Russia on May 1, 1960, no U.S. president would ever sign up for a manned over-flight of the two superpowers. Name any other foreign country that the U.S. wanted to gather intelligence on and I can guarantee we most likely flew over it.

Blackbird 972 made the last SR-71 flight in 1990 and now sits in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. What happened to the program after so many spectacular moments in aviation history?

There are many reasons why the SR-71 retired in 1990. Many people in the Pentagon didn't want the SR-71 around anymore. To them it was an expensive program and they could use the money elsewhere. The chief of staff of the Air Force at the time basically stated that “If it doesn't drop bombs or shoot missiles, I don't want anything to do with it.” Satellite capability was dramatically improving at the same time. One of the major reasons is that the SR-71 did not have any "real time" capability which is now needed by theater commanders.


Media Contact: Tom Koch, McDermott Library, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4951, tkoch@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, 972-883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu
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July 12, 2014