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The Thrill of Flying the SR-71 Blackbird (vfp62.com)
333 points by jaxc on Apr 7, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

I just wanted to chime in that the reason I'm a programmer today is that my grandpa helped program the navigation systems on the SR-71. I found that slightly inspirational :)

That's so cool. Imagine, most of us don't even have dad programmers, and you have a granddad programmer and one working on such interesting stuff to boot.

Is he still alive today? And if so does he still work with computers?

He passed (at 82, I believe) about seven years ago. It was both sad and not sad, as he lived a long and amazing life.

He programmed the guidance systems of one of the Titan series rockets. He also was in the Navy in WWII. At one point, his destroyer was sunk, and spent a few days in the open ocean before being rescued. He was also present at the Japanese surrender ceremony.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of learning to play chess with him over Christmas vacation. He was a truly kind man, and an inspiration to many.

My dad passed away a few years ago. He worked in defense electronics for 30+ years. It's kind of weird that I know very little of what he actually worked on. I know he did a lot of work on what became GPS and on Tomahawk and F/A-18 projects, but so much of what he worked on will probably always be a mystery to me.

Quite a guy, that's a grandfather to be truly proud of.

You're privileged to have known someone like that from so near.

Interesting. My grandfather died about ten years ago at 86. He was in the Navy during WWII, and was among the first Americans in Tokyo after Japan surrendered. And after the war, he worked on the UNIVAC that was used for the census. We still have all of his UNIVAC programming manuals.

Third generation programmer here too.

My grandfather worked on the guidance systems for the Australian missile program run out of Woomera.

Both my uncles are programmers, and my mother is a programmer too.

It's kind of the 'family trade'

so what's the conversation around the dinner table like? =)

Difficult because everyone speaks a different language ;)

Ha Ha, that conversation would be pretty cool. I never knew there was a program in Womera!

I'm a third-generation programmer too.

My dad's dad was a programmer, as a desk-captain in the Navy right after WWII. He was still programming well into his retirement in the early nineties, writing little database apps for his PC. My dad started programming while working on his PhD at Berkley in the early sixties, well before UNIX.

My mom's stepmom was an early non-technical employee of a computer accounting startup in the seventies (shared mainframes!), grew more and more technical as they transitioned to PCs, and eventually became the CEO. The company sold to Intuit a while back and she was a VP there for a few years. My mom started programming around the same time, her high school had access to a PDP somewhere.

My parents met when they both worked at a PC database vendor (Condor) in the early eighties, got married, and founded a startup together by poaching one of their customers (which lasted about 20 years).

Slightly? The account was so moving in its description of supreme, beautiful engineering achievement, I f-in cried -- no joke.

What's really sad is that 70s-era technology is better than what we have today. No more SR-71. No more Concorde.

> What's really sad is that 70s-era technology is better than what we have today. No more SR-71. No more Concorde.

Define "better".

The Concorde was a scam - middle class citizens were taxed by England and France to subsidize a supersonic luxury plane that only the rich could afford to buy (subsidized) tickets on.

The SR-71 was the best tool we could build at the time. Once technology got better, we replaced it with satellites.

The fact that it leaked fuel, flew at Mach 3, had a crew of 2, etc. are not features, they are flaws.

Yeah, it's cool as all heck.

...but don't kid yourself that it's better than what we've got now.

The current airlines are subsidized, too. If you want to fly to Small Town, USA, the airline isn't making any money. It's paid for by the people that live in cities that can actually sustain an airport.

The reality is that it takes 6 hours to fly across the Atlantic now. The reality is that 10 years ago, it took half that. That's not progress, even if it is profit.

The Concorde was not a scam, sometimes the state has to subsidize some technology so it could become available.

Think of the moon landing. Not everybody had the chance to be an astronaut on the Apollo mission, but I believe that US citizens were "happy" to pay taxes because they got something to be proud of.

And being french, I'm very proud of the Concorde.

Little that we know about, that is.

Blackbird was black for a very long time.

As for one program that we do know a little (more) about, there's X-37B:

http://www.physorg.com/news189528362.html http://spaceflightnow.com/atlas/av012/100402x37update/

And the X-43D and X-51A Waverider and DARPA FALCON hypersonic aircraft, and various other X planes.

Various known and likely various unknown black UAVs.

And whatever Burt Rutan is up to.

That's kinda true for software too. Symbolics Lisp machines still have features that no other OS/IDEs have.

Well... At least you can emulate a Symbolics with a PC or, with some luck and effort, on FPGA.

Sadly, you can't do so with a Blackbird or a Concorde...

Oh... And they had no cursor keys.

I spoke with David Schmidt (of symbolics-dks.com) on the phone recently.

Sadly, there is no way to legally emulate a Symbolics machine on a PC. Symbolics' intellectual property is basically in purgatory, the people who own it or have owned it apparently vastly overestimated the value of the IP and refuse to do anything with the IP aside from exchanging it for large sums of money - which nobody is willing to do.

There is a copy of a more recent version of Genera floating around on torrent sites, but from what David Schmidt tells me, it's pretty incomplete.

Please elaborate.

Example: Anything that printed out something anywhere automatically generated a hyperlink to open an inspector on the underlying objects. No additional coding necessary. The facility was provided through around inheritance in MOP.

Right, and now Swank/Slime does this. Not to mention whatever Eclipse does for Java, etc., etc.

As I understand it, with Genera you could inspect that all the way down to the kernel.

Really? The actual runtime objects? Not the source code of the script, the exe file, or anything hokey like that but first class Objects as in OO and the particular instance that was sent the print message?

You're confusing interface and implementation. You can inspect objects and click links to follow the object graph, and you can change the objects as you like while the program is running.

An around modifier, IMO, is a terrible way to implement debugging functionality, because now everything that's not debugging also gets the side-effect that the method modifier adds. This is a better idea: http://common-lisp.net/project/closer/contextl.html


What makes me sad is the disproportionate amount of money and efforts that the US seem to spend on military projects instead of civilian ones(1). Surly the US did and do great civilian projects, but maybe it's greatest achievements are in space where there's also military motives. While it's European countries and Japan which have developed efficient and high speed civilian transportation.

(1) I mean engineering oriented projects like train, cars, telephone networks etc. not academic research where the US clearly is great.

Still got the U-2, that's 50's technology right there :)

Don't forget the B-52, still the core of the USAF's "drop lots of explosive stuff at once" fleet.

That doesn't mean we couldn't make a better B-52 or U-2 right now (and I don't mean a B1 or B2, I mean a big dumb cheap subsonic bomber), it just means that we couldn't make one sufficiently better to be worth the replacement cost. We could also build a better Brooklyn Bridge, but the existing one works just fine for now.

The B52 program was driven by Colonel Pete Warden. He's no relation unfortunately, but its birth was an amazing engineering story:


I've heard from former Lockheed engineers that the F-22 outperforms anything we've ever seen -- only that the "official" specs are still classified.

I'd give it altitude possibly, but the raptor isn't a speed machine.

Mach 3.5 is a speed attained by two things: Space ships and aircraft built specifically to achieve it. The F-22 is neither, as cool as it is.

While I don't doubt (especially with super-cruise and such) that the Raptor is significantly faster than reported, I'd be very surprised if it is actually Blackbird fast.

I do agree that it "outperforms" anything I've seen, but performance isn't a speed thing alone.

You're probably right about the speed records. There really isn't any reason to design aircraft that fast with the satellite technology and weapon systems we have now.

Yeah, sorry for editing my post. I couldn't figure out how to explain what I was trying to say. But said former Lockheed engineers did specifically claim that the F-22 breaks both speed and altitude records. I don't really know what to believe. It does seem smart to release false information about that kind of thing though.

...and soon no more space shuttle, or any other way to get people in orbit other than hitching a ride with the Russians or Chinese.

The Space Shuttle is glorious, but it's also an example of how even a bad idea can be made to work if you throw enough cash at it.

Do you know what percent of the weight of the shuttle is cargo?


It makes zero sense to loft tons (literally. tons.) of ceramic tiles, wings, engines, control surfaces, hydraulics, and more into orbit, just to bring them back down again.

Small capsules with ablative heat shields can ferry astronauts down from orbit for a trivial percentage of the price.

You're looking at all this cool technology and thinking it's a win, but it's not. It's a cost. It raises the cost of spaceflight to the point where you and I will never be able to afford it.

Kill the Space Shuttle and develop something more efficient. It might not stroke the egos of the engineers and the NASA administrators as much, but it will make space more affordable.

It also doesn't make sense to spend the ridiculously high amounts of money required to fly things through the air (what are we, birds?) when trains do just fine.

It also doesn't make sense to store all of those files in a mainframe when the filing cabinets do just fine.

It also doesn't make sense to spend the absurd amounts of money required to develop a packet-based communication network when telegraphs and telephones do just fine.

It also doesn't make sense to go to the moon with humans when we can just send a probe there.

It also doesn't make sense to spend the ridiculously high amounts of money required to fly things through the air (what are we, birds?) when trains do just fine.

Yes it does, flying is faster.

It also doesn't make sense to store all of those files in a mainframe when the filing cabinets do just fine.

Yes it does, mainframes are smaller.

It also doesn't make sense to spend the absurd amounts of money required to develop a packet-based communication network when telegraphs and telephones do just fine.

Yes it does, PBC is more mobile

It also doesn't make sense to go to the moon with humans when we can just send a probe there.

You're right, this one makes no sense. Kinda like the shuttle.

Yes it does, flying is faster.

It wasn't at first.

Yes it does, mainframes are smaller.

They weren't at first.

Yes it does, PBC is more mobile

It wasn't at first.

You seem to have completely missed the point. Technology doesn't happen overnight. It's all about costly, seemingly stupid incremental improvements. The shuttle doesn't make sense in its current form, what does make sense is the shuttle as an innovation springboard.

There is really no reason however to have a space launch platform be reusable. The whole idea behind it is that it was supposed to make things easier and cheaper, and it's done exactly the opposite.

I'm not missing the point at all. You, however have equated every innovation to be progress. Wise people realize that sometimes, despite our good intentions, innovations are sometimes negatives overall, and it's best to take a step back to take two more forward.

In fact, once you get by the "cool" factor of the shuttle, what you end up seeing is that is has in fact been a large step backwards. It has prevented the one nation that could actually dream of furthering space exploration from doing exactly that. The US basically uses the shuttle to do what the first Mercury flights did when we were all watching black and white tv's.

Think back to aviation. The wright brothers used a canard design on the Flyer. While ultimately proven to be safer and more fuel efficient, we needed to have a hundred years of non-canard aerospace development to realize everything between the Flyer and a Eurofighter. Fixating on canard designs may very well have held us in the balsa wood aircraft stage for 10-15 years.

Perhaps, one day, the innovation that is the shuttle will come full circle. That day is not tomorrow though, and no amount of emotional attachment to the idea stops it from being anything but a costly and inefficient nightmare.

(btw, both mainframes and PBC were smaller and more mobile right out of the gate, compared to the status quo.)

I guess you are trying to be funny, but I don't see the point. Your first 3 points are clearly false (the 4th is not clearly so). Are you suggesting that there is benefit to the pursuit itself? If so, then yes it is good that we developed the shuttle... but why continue to use it?

And both were the most beautiful machines ever built...

It never ceases to sadden me.

I know what you mean....this is the kind of stuff I want to build at least once before I die. Something that is so good it's in another class and changes the world.

That is pretty exciting and inspirational :) I owe a lot of what I do today to my parents/grandparents as well... pretty much everyone on my dad's side of the family has worked or is currently still working for Lockheed at their Skunk Works plant (the guys that did the SR-71) in Palmdale, CA.

My dad and grandpa were both illustrators, drawing out schematics and stuff for Lockheed. I really think a lot of my design abilities are genetic, and I owe it to my dads side of the family.

Sup "my grandpa was an engineer/programmer for the blackbird" buddy :). Maybe they knew each other !

Did he like to hold cool confidential information over your head, too? Like how fast the blackbird could really go?

I like the more complete version of the "ground speed check" story (which I heard from Brian Shul directly): he says he and Walt hadn't really "clicked" yet, that they were just kinda co-inhabitants of the same jet but not really a team, until that moment. It was when Brian was about to ask the question, and the radio clicked on and Walt asked the exact same question, that he felt they finally became a team.

For those concerned with the level of "mysticism" in this: Brian Shul is a remarkable pilot from a technical perspective. But do you really want to read his technical descriptions of flight? He's done a good job of describing the sensations in a way non-pilots can understand.

You can read the full version of the story here:


Definitely worth reading, more detail on that incident that the parent article. And just awesome.

It must be a pilot thing. I've read a bunch of books by Richard Bach, and he falls in to this 'mode' quite a few times as well.

Agreed that it's a way to take it out of the technical area, but I don't think the story needs embellishing, it is already more than powerful enough by itself.

Great read anyway, be sure to check the story linked elsewhere in this thread as well.

i find this [http://www.sunlakesaeroclub.org/updates_web_data/050828/SR71...] to be even more amazing...

Wow. That's just plain scary. It also makes me appreciate more why high jet fighter suits look like space suits, without it the guy would have surely been dead.

Another interesting bit: "The SR-71 had a turning radius of about 100 mi. at that speed and altitude".

And "The ejection seat had never left the airplane; I had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, seat belt and shoulder harness still fastened.". Just wow...

What a pity his buddy didn't make it.

  "Bill! Bill! Are you there?"
  "Yeah, George. What's the matter?"
  "Thank God! I thought you might have left."
The rear cockpit of the SR-71 has no forward visibility--only a small window on each side--and George couldn't see me. A big red light on the master-warning panel in the rear cockpit had illuminated just as we rotated, stating, "Pilot Ejected." Fortunately, the cause was a misadjusted micro switch, not my departure.

If anyone is interested in a bit more of the history behind the aircraft (also the U-2 and the F-117), do check out Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir... by Ben Rich

It's a great read!


Seconded, it's a fascinating book, both as a memoir of how to do fantastically ambitious engineering, and also how to manage a remarkable group of engineers. The analogue for the web would be something like reading an account of Google written by Page or Brin.

The author states that he graduated high school in 1966 and that he built a model of the the SR-71 when he was 10, presumably 1958 if he graduated at 18. He also states that the SR-71 was designed in 1960. Some of this doesn't quite seem right.

This is true, but I wouldn't necessarily say it's a smoking gun- "concept models" come out long before the actual plane is built. I remember playing a computer game called "F-22 Raptor" in 1997, and the plane officially entered service in 2005.

Perhaps he built an A-12 model. This was the direct predecessor of the SR-71, designed in the 50s. A very similar aircraft:


That doesn't necessarily mean anything. As a kid, I built a model that was supposed to be the "super secret stealth fighter" before people knew what it looked like. It was based on all the leaked reports of what the aircraft might look like. In the end, it was similar but not identical to the actual plane (owing to the fact that nobody predicted how jagged it was going to be). In fact, it looked a bit like a miniature SR-71.

There is a Colonel Walter L. Watson though:


The story feels a little strange though, the amount of 'mystic' connection between the plane and the pilot would make me worried if someone that prone to it would be piloting a 747 I'm a passenger on.

The pilot would be 'Brian Shul' http://www.sleddriver.com/

The story feels a little strange though, the amount of 'mystic' connection between the plane and the pilot would make me worried if someone that prone to it would be piloting a 747 I'm a passenger on.

Really? "Mysticism" scares you so much that you'd rather your flight be piloted by a clock punching union man then what the Air Force deemed to be one of the best?

Strawman much ? There is a long way to go between a clock punching union man and a person that does not let his love for the machine get in the way of objectivity.

Personally I think that those bits are just to juice up the story, but you really have to wonder at passages like: "Like the combat veteran she is, the jet senses the target area and seems to prepare herself." and "There seems to be a confirmed trust now, between me and the jet; she will not hesitate to deliver whatever speed we need".

At least two things at play there:

1) Intuition. His non-conscious brain has developed an understanding of the machine.

2) Focus. When you're a warrior in his situation, you can't be second-guessing your horse. That calculation was made on the ground, and now he's committed -- to be effective, he needs to be fully confident that he's well-taken care of. The human brain seems to be wired for a euphoric reaction to complete and utter trust (parental/social/religious bonding?), and that he was able to let that system kick in at such a moment speaks a lot about his abilities as a pilot and about the engineering feat embodied in that jet.

Ok, and one more thing -- poetic license. The guy is a great storyteller.

Don't worry. Commercial airliners will make various loud noises to prevent the pilots from getting too distracted with flying and forgetting about those mountains that are coming up.

But he seems like the kind of guy who graduates at 16.

I'm not a big plane or car nut, but the SR-71 just emanated cool. Having a modified carbon copy as the X-Men's "Blackbird" certainly helped...

The speeds mentioned in this article (Mach 3.5+), are significantly higher than the official airspeed records, set by the SR-71 itself (about Mach 2.9):



You're calculating it with speed of sound at sea level. At 80,000 feet the 3,530 km/h speed record is Mach 3.289 according to wolframalpha, still bellow the 3.45 claimed in the article. Although it is understandable that this mission wouldn't count for a speed record.

"With all inlet doors tightly shut, at 3.24 Mach, the J-58s are more like ramjets now, gulping 100,000 cubic feet of air per second."

Wow... what an awesome job to be able to fly one of these birds!

I had a friend in Boston who first flew fighters (F-16 IIRC) and then managed to switch over to the B-2 Stealth Bomber. Apparently it is not common to switch between the two types of platforms. It's a shame he was retired from the AF or I would have begged a ride. :-)

This reads a bit like fan fiction. Anyone know its authenticity?

It seems to be from the book 'Sled Driver' by Brian Shul [1] according to the following website [2], on which I found the same article of the parent link.

I'm a bit confused though, as I have read the part about the groundspeed check before, I found it again here [3]. This version is longer and worded more beautifully in my opinion. The poster below that is mentioning that it's from the same book so I'm a bit confused.

[1] https://galleryonepublishing.com/sleddriver/index.html [2] http://blogs.jobdig.com/wwds/2007/11/19/sr-71-now-that-was-s... [3] http://www.expressjetpilots.com/the-pipe/showthread.php?3197...

If you'd like to get a close look at one, there's one in the SAC museum, just outside of Omaha, NE.


There is also one in the AirZoo in Kalamazoo, MI. http://www.airzoo.org/ http://www.airzoo.org/page.php?menu_id=3

Picture of the SR-71: http://www.airzoo.org/page.php?menu_id=108

It is a very nice museum, well worth some visits.

Add in a M-21 (predecessor, nearly the same but built to launch an unmanned drone) plus the cockpit of an SR-71 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA. I enjoyed seeing this last year, remembering the narrative. I could almost see the fuel dripping from the plane!

Reading this article was the most interesting experience I have had in a long time. The passion and feel of the description and the imagery being described really resonated with my geeky soul. RIP SR-71. You are a truly magnificent creation.

I've loved this plane since I read about it in popular science as a grade school kid. I still remember this line from the article, "after it lands it so hot you can fry an egg on the fuselage".

Nice video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1250fZuhUg

Issues with fuel reported in the story @3:09.

All I can say about that page is thanks Readability for actually making it readable/viewable! (What's going on with the massive images?)

some great blackbird info on this site, including the flight manual! http://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/

If this plane looked ugly, would anyone care that it is the fastest plane ever made?

There was a saying on the Lockheed Martin Skunkworks department where this plane was designed: "If she looks beautiful, she'll fly beautifully"

Possibly not. The X-15 (while arguably a rocket with wings rather than an aeroplane) was much faster and less pretty, and you won't find so many nine-year-olds with posters of it.

It also never flew a real mission. The SR-71 was a real airplane that could take off, fly a mission, and land. The X-15 had to be ferried into space by another aircraft, then it flew around for a while, and then it could destroy part of itself, and finally land.

Pretty or not, the SR-71 was a lot more practical.

Never flew a real mission? It was an experimental research tool. Or is Mach 6.72 not 'real' enough for you?

It was carried aloft, not into space, by a B-52.

I'm just explaining why I think kids don't have posters of it on their walls. Experimental research plane? Yawn. Real plane? Awesome.

Posters!? [starts Googling]

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