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SR-71 Blackbird Communication to Tower (econrates.com)
422 points by da5e on Nov 22, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

Same pilot, different anecdote, "how slow can it go?"


The Blackbird is full of amazing stories. Skunkworks - Ben Rich's memoirs [1] is full of ridiculous stories, both of making the SR-71 as well as stories from pilots (as well as a lot of other projects).

Not every thing in there can be taken at face value (his rant against the paint locker on the Sea Shadow for example... it's really the 'toxic solvents and chemicals locker'), but still full of gold.

For example, they had into all sorts of problems wielding titanium for the first time. Chlorine would wreck all sorts of havoc on the plates they used, which they discovered when someone drew on a plate with a ball-point pen. And then they completely ripped their hair out when the municipality increased the chlorination in the water they were using to clean the plates.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Skunk-Works-Personal-Memoir-Lockheed/d...

I second the recommendation for Ben Rich's book. It's a great history lesson and explanations behind the thinking of some of the greatest aerospace hackers & out-of-box thinkers.

I thought the passage about "600 mph birds" was particularly humorous because that was the first thing my young hacker mind thought of during a training section on the radar cross-section of the aircraft I was working on. It went something like this:

Instructor: "So the radar cross section is reduced considerably to approximately the size of a small bird"

Me: "So why don't they just look for a small bird going 600 mph?"

Instructor: "..."

Some years after, an F-117 was shot down during the Kosovo War, reportedly using this method (I had nothing to do with it :). I think this was probably a big learning lesson in regard to stealth technology.

And no disrespect to my instructor, he was a professional and a god of his domain.

>Some years after, an F-117 was shot down during the Kosovo War, reportedly using this method (I had nothing to do with it :). I think this was probably a big learning lesson in regard to stealth technology.

It was a bit more complicated than that ;-)

The full account how they managed to shot down a "stealth" F-117A with some modifications to cold war era Russian missiles, microwave ovens as radar decoys and in-promptu installed landlines can be read here: http://xmb.stuffucanuse.com/xmb/viewthread.php?tid=6376

Of course it was a bit more complicated than that, that's why I recommend the book :)

I can believe the rabbit story in that link. ECM radiation is nasty.

From that article:

>The spies and observers enabled Zoltan to keep his radars on for a minimal amount of time.

Reminds me of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

my favorite sr71 anecdote is how it leaks fuel when on the runway because all the joints were all designed to fit loosely until it reached pressure at altitude.

ah the skunkworks

The funny thing is, interesting as some of their projects may be, these days they still have the same mundane shit to complain about as everyone else (IT changed the security policy on my desktop so now I can't run MATLAB, etc).

I do get the impression Skunkworks is not what it once was.

And another (includes OPs story):


His book Sled Driver is selling for ~$2500 USD on amazon, and The Untouchables (which I haven't heard about) is here:


Woah. $2500 is a lot of money. Is it out of print?

Looks like it's available for ~$200 as well. That's still pretty pricey, but I bet the $2,500 is due to some weird pricing arbitrage or something, you see that with used books fairly regularly on Amazon.

The $2500 one is, if I'm not mistaken, a limited signed special edition (they only printed a couple of hundred copies). The $200 one is the regular edition.

(Disclaimer: I own one of the regular ones, and didn't pay $200 for it. But it's a large form factor hardback printed on high quality glossy paper -- full of breathtaking colour images -- so even if they reprint it, don't expect to see copies on sale for less than $50.)

That sounds a little more reasonable. Hopefully they do a reprint, I am a big fan of those large format coffee table style book, presuming it's about something interesting.

It looks like there is a reprint?


Which takes you here where you can purchase a limited edition for ~$400 USD


Awesome, good find. I'm too Amazon centric and missed it.

Different pilot, but an impressive story as well:


The story he touches on at the top about the libyan missiles is excellent as well, sadly I can't find a link.

Pretty much anything Shul writes is excellent and readable.

The Libya story is here: http://blogs.jobdig.com/wwds/2007/11/19/sr-71-now-that-was-s...

I love that he accidentally overshoots the refueling in Gibraltar -- and ends up next to Sicily.

The more detailed Libya stuff is at the end, though he summarizes it in the beginning.

One of my favorite quotes:

"On a typical training mission, we would take off near Sacramento, refuel over Nevada, accelerate into Montana, obtain high Mach over Colorado, turn right over New Mexico, speed across the Los Angeles Basin, run up the West Coast, turn right at Seattle, then return to Beale. Total flight time: two hours and 40 minutes."

Puts the speed in such great perspective.

I can see why it's a more often requested story; I found that one far funnier than the parent article.

Thank you again, http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/ , for making my web browsing experience safe from the onslaught of backgrounds and fonts.

This is AMAZING. I didn't mind the maroon on beige as much as some, but I hate the crammed feel of a blogspot page, and it does an amazing job of freeing that content.

I’m using the iReader extension for Chrome. Works like Safari’s integrated Readability.

Thanks! This is a bit easier than hacking the DOM. Could have saved a few seconds.

I was wishing for a site exactly like this when I was reading.

Wish I knew about this before reading; much thanks.

I knew Readability, but just used "no style view".

I know this has been posted many times before, but I love it every time.

Comic Sans MS, maroon on a beige background, this is what Readability was made for.

IMHO, I thought this was one of those occasions when the content and its delivery trumped presentation.

The content is why I googled for the Readability bookmarklet instead of just closing the browser tab.

I think you need a link there to http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/ : thought you just meant it wasn't readable! Readability is great: before that I was just copy & pasting to a text editor...

Agreed, has the visual readability of a Captcha

I honestly don't see what the big fuss about Comic Sans MS is. I read the original page just fine.

I read this on my RSS reader and was shaken when opening the original page. Why would anyone do this?

In reference to the uniform voice of center controllers--the "Houston Center" voice, Tom Wolfe tells a related story about pilots in "The Right Stuff." He asserts that all of the test pilots of the era copied the slow, calm, and always subtly positive delivery of Chuck Yeager as the pre-eminent pilot of the day. Other pilots in turn copied the test pilots and so Yeager's voice floated down and became the mold for all American aviation radio communication.

I'd guess that the author is correct in that the controllers copied the delivery of the voice of the space program from Houston, but those controllers were usually former test pilots or members of the military flight programs themselves, so we're probably still thinking of the same unflappable voice.

Here's good audio of that voice. Listen to Capt Sullenberger calmly tell the tower "we're going to be in the Hudson"


I like the metaphor of being "ahead of the jet." as a term for mastery. I know that feeling exactly sometimes.

When I was learning to fly complex high-performance single-engine aircraft, my instructor took me aside after one of our first flights and said, "Good news, Markham, you won't have to worry about being in a wreck in this airplane"


"Yep. You're so far behind the plane that you won't show up to the accident until ten minutes after it happens"


It's a great phrase. I think flying is absolutely the best hobby anybody can have. I could read stories like OP all day long.

There is a plane called a Beech Bonanza that is nicknamed "The doctor killer."

It gets this name because it's a single engine plane, which attracts wealthy hobbyist pilots (like doctors) but it's fast. Much much faster than what these hobbyist pilots are used to. This causes "the plane to get in front of them", and for them to crash.

In fairness, the other part of the killer reputation has to do with apparent design instabilities as a result of the V-tail on the x35 models. Both these and the x36 models really are beautiful planes.

Another airplane with the killer epithet because of its on average high power to wisdom of pilot ratio is the Piper Malibu and its later brother the Mirage. Again, a beautiful, fast, well-designed plane that gets out in front of you if you let it.

Growing up, my father flew thousands of hours in both of these planes with me in the right seat, and he was always careful to warn me about having respect for the plane's power lest it get away from you. In a way, I think he was reminding himself as much as me.

And of course, there's the classic Lockheed Widowmaker, the F-104 Starfighter -- in the "G" variant, purchased by the Luftwaffe, who ordered this high-speed fair weather interceptor with a whole bunch of bells and whistles bolted on, to turn it into a low-level all-weather fighter-bomber:


"Luftwaffe losses totaled 110 pilots" -- production run: 1,122 F-104G airframes.

A downward firing ejector seat is certainly an interesting feature of a plane you intend to fly at treetop height

Would you please explain what is meant by "get out in front of you"? I have very limited flying experience and am not familiar with what this means, in pilot terms: i.e. what would you experience as a pilot, and what would be happening to the airplane. Google didn't help in this matter.

The aircraft is flying faster than it is taking you to process the changes that are occurring during the flight.

There are a number of things you need to process as you fly, from radios to maps to situational awareness. For less experienced pilots, or when you have passengers than are pointing out all sorts of shit, this can take time. During all this time the aircraft is moving and the condition is changing.

You need to not only know where you are now, but where you will be in the future. If you lose this, you find the aircraft getting to places faster than you can prepare for, and that can be nasty.

To relate, it's very similar to driving a car for the first time. There seems to be so much more to check, from mirrors to gauges to the road. The reaction for new drivers is to slow down to give yourself time to catch up.

Another analogy would be sports. If you play a team sport with those that have played for years, you can find yourself reacting to things after they have happened. This isn't because you don't know what to do, but more so because by the time you've figured it out and acted, the event has already occurred.

Or for a geekier analogy, it's like StarCraft. When you first play, your APM is low, so you build things slowly, collect fewer minerals, and produce fewer troops. Then your opponent shows up on your doorstep with a much bigger force, micros them well, and before you can even control your dudes, they're all gone. And then you're like "Hey, what happened to my base? AAAAH I'm dead. GG."

As you gain experience, you can spend much less cognitive attention paying attention to what's going on in the game. So actions become reflexes, and suddenly you're catching up. And then you run up against an opponent who's like you were a couple months ago, and pwnage commences.

If your OODA Loop iteration falls behind the changing conditions, you're in trouble.


When you're flying, your constantly planning what you're about to do before it happens. So like, when I get to this point on the map, I'm going to turn that direction. WHen I get to this point on the map, I'm going to take this altitude. When I get to that position relative to the runway, I need to make a 90 degree turn. When I get to this airspeed and this position I'm going to apply flaps.

And so on. Everything when you're flying is checklists.

Letting the plane get ahead of you means that things are happening before you're ready for them. This problem is made much worse in fast planes (like the bonanza) because things happen much more quickly.

I fly the right seat in a Bonanza pretty regularly too. A V-tail, no less D-:

I worries me a little, but we're not doing anything nuts in the thing.

Here's the scoop... In turbulance slow down to "manovering" speed. Don't fly in IFR conditions unless you must. Stay VFR. The airplane is designed for VFR. You say, this is not true... how many backup instruments does it have? A turn and bank? How many "partial panel" non-prcision approaches has the pilot flown in the last six months... I will anwser. NONE! Can you do a timed turn using only the wet compass? NO! Can you fly an approach using only the altimeter, VSI and wet compass? NO! Remember... only one engine and one set of primary instruments without a standby horizon and power supply. It is just common sense.

Not really. It is an advanced design for a civilian airplane. Most Cessnas are capable of only 4g's at cruise speed. The Bonanza is capable of 11 or 12 g's. It has the potential to destroy itself due to the dynamic energy it has available at cruise speed. The V tail is very well designed. As airspeed increases the pull on the yoke is less rather than more for increased G. One design flaw was to increase the tail cord length starting with the C model without moving the front spar. This created a dynamic twisting which, under G load, causes the aircraft G load to increase without pilot input. The fix was to tie down the leading edge of the stabilizer. I have owned a Bonanza for 28 years and love it. It is an aircraft designed about fifty years ahead of itself. It is very, very safe when flown by pilots aware of the design. Unfortunately the FAA does not require owners to be trained in the capabilities of the design. Whose fault is that? I love the airplane.

It means you know where the plane is going to be before it gets there, if you didn't already know. As in, you're planning ahead, rather than reacting to what's happening. Which I would imagine takes a lot of experience at 1900 knots.

Submitted 7 months ago on a more readable, seemingly more original site.


http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1247709 (good amount of discussion)

this is one of those stories that is re-submitted every 6 months or so and everybody goes 'oooooooohhhhhhhh' and sends it to the top.

You cite a different story by the same author.

The SR-71 flight manual is (mostly) online, if anyone is interested: http://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/manual/

Great story! Those SR-71s were amazing machines in the air. On the ground was a different story. I remember reading about how they leaked all sorts of fluids on the ground because the body was designed to expand at the higher altitudes and speeds. Amazing engineering.

stolen from http://www.pprune.org/tech-log/423988-concorde-question-3.ht... Ancient tale.

There's this SR-71 Blackbird stooging around Cuba on a top-secret mission, at FL500+ and Mach 2+.... when they get a call requesting them to change heading "because of traffic at your altitude". Traffic at THEIR altitude ?? Anyway, they comply, and shortly, yes, there's an Air France Concorde out of Caracas (Air France flew there in the early days) slowly sailing across their flight path.

Just imagine... two guys in bonedomes and full pressure suits, in a cramped cockpit, watching something like a hundred people in shirt sleeves or summer dresses, sipping their champagne and maybe just starting on their smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres, flying at their altitude and nearly their speed....

There is a similar one of an SR71 tooling around over Cuba at god-knows-what 1000s of feet being asked to move to make way for another airplane. A Concorde goes past, with people in shirt sleeves happily sipping their champagne.

The SR-71 Blackbird went from LA to DC in around an hour. Imagine if (when) a passenger jet could go that fast -- it would transform our country.

Pop over to the East Coast for the day, head home in time for dinner.

People aren't willing to pay extra for speed, which makes the planes uneconomical. And now with wifi, internet and an entire office on a plane, there is even less emphasis on getting there faster.

Civilian aircraft are also not allowed to go supersonic over the continental US, which killed the Concorde for domestic routes among other reasons...

The Concorde was fast, it just wasn't a commercial success.

man thats so bad ass

hey? whyd you down vote me?

Your were probably down voted because your comment added nothing to the discussion and those types of comments are generally discouraged on HN.

Walter spoke: "Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?" There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request.

"Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground."

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