The SR-71B Blackbird, flown by the Dryden Flight Research Center as NASA 831, slices across the snow-covered southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California after being refueled by an Air Force tanker during a 1994 flight. SR-71B was the trainer version of the SR-71. Notice the dual cockpit to allow the instructor to fly the airplane.
Last week, there were major delays at LAX that disrupted flights across the country. NBC reports the culprit may have been a U-2 spy plane that wreaked havoc with airport computer systems. But it shouldn’t be a surprise: Southern California has a long history with spy planes.
Off-Ramp contributor Robert Garrova reports from the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale.
50 years ago, the United States Air Force made aviation history in California with a covert flight. On December 22, 1964 the SR-71 Blackbird made its first test flight high above Palmdale.
No remote pilots and joysticks here though -- the Blackbird actually had someone in the cockpit when it first reached speeds of more than 1,000 miles-per-hour.
Robert Gilliland was the first to take the Blackbird to the skies in ‘64, but while pilots were achieving Mach 3, there were people on the ground looking up too, like Chris Spicher, who's lived in the Antelope Valley pretty much his whole life.
"Well, you know, when I was a little kid, I remember being out on the playground at school and I’d see things go over and I’d hear things. They would break windows when the sonic booms happened -- It was just an amazing place to grow up and live in. There were classified missions, like the dad that lived across the street he’d jump in his car in the morning and nobody knew where he was going. He’d come back that day or the next day... It was like, what is that guy doing?"
Who knows? Maybe it was Bill "Flaps" Flanagan, a retired USAF Lt. Colonel, who says he flew in the back seat of the SR-71 for 5 years, out of Palmdale. Now, he's a docent at the Blackbird Airpark, "the only place on Earth you can see an A-12, which was the secret CIA single seat version of the Blackbird."
(Blackbirds at the Flight Test Historical Foundation. Credit: FTHF)
Flanagan has a lot of respect for these old Cold War era planes.
"Sitting over there in the corner there’s an ejection seat. My ejection seat. I actually had my hand on the handle preparing to eject because we were doing an edge of the envelope test... we flamed out both engines. So I have about five minutes of supersonic gilder time because our engines had quit. We fly so high that it takes us six minutes to fall down to 16,000 ft., which is where normally you separate from the seat and your parachute opens. So every time I look at that ejection seat, I think about the time I had my hand on that handle, ready to finally bail out of an airplane. I figured, I’m gonna be okay, but the paperwork I’m gonna have to fill out, when we don’t bring the plane back, is gonna be staggering."
Flanagan calls the Blackbird, made over 50 years ago, "the height of aeronautical engineering."
"These airplanes were the only airplanes designed to cruise at three times the speed of sound -- in the history of aviation. I was lucky enough to host Senator John Glenn back in 1983, who was very interested in the airplane. I remember as he walked away he looked at the airplanes and said, ‘You know, this is really the Mona Lisa of aeronautical engineering. We’ll probably never do anything like this again.’ And thus far he’s been proven right."
See for yourself: The Blackbird AirPark is open Friday through Sunday, 11-4, and admission is free. 2503 E Avenue P, Palmdale, CA (661-274-0884).