SR-71 Blackbird: From the Cockpit

Brian Schul’s book Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet.

Military aviators, Brian Schul and Walter, are piloting an SR-71 somewhere over Colorado to complete the required 100 training hours to attain Mission Ready status. This would be a final training mission for Brian and Walter, as they would pass the 100 mark turning over Arizona.

Brian describes the jet performing flawlessly that particular day. After numerous hours training in military flight simulators, they were starting to feel ahead of the military jet and pretty good about themselves. They would soon be flying real missions. At 80,000 feet below the coast of California could be seen out of the cockpit window from the Arizona border they had just crossed over.

Brian describes feeling a bit sorry for Walter, who was sitting behind him. The 80,000 ft view was quite marvelous, but Walter’s backseat view had limited views preventing him from taking in the full experience. Suddenly, radio chatter from Los Angeles Center, far below them, could be heard. It was a Cessna pilot asking Center for a readout of his ground speed. Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m showing you at ninety knots on the ground”

Brian elaborates a good point about Center controllers: whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna, or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional, tone that made one creel important. Brain referred to this as the “Houston Center voice.” Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry to Los Angels Center, they hear another voice come across the radio. It was a Twin Beech, in a more superior tone, requesting his ground speed. “I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed.” Then out of the blue, Brian and Walter hear another military flight, a Navy F-18 fighter pilot from NAS Lemoore, “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check”. 80,000 feet above, Brian and Walter are thinking, so why does Navy jock need a readout when he was a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit…suddenly, it occurs to them Dusty 52 just out to show the radio traffic what real air speed is. He’s the fastest guy in the valley and no one can travel faster than him. “Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground.”

Thirteen miles above Arizona, Brian’s instinct was to hit the mic button of the SR-71 Blackbird and show Los Angeles Center what true airspeed is. He hesitated as he was unsure of how Walter would react to such nonsense. But after all, they had met their training requirements and were homeward bound. The mic button clicks. Walter was already on track with this conversation. Walter spoke: “Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?” With no hesitation at all, “Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground.” Next came the precise point Brian knew he would become great friends with Walter. In a voice mocking the F-18 pilot, Dust 52: “Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to nineteen hundred on the money.” Center replies back, “Roger that Aspen, Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have a good one.”

Brian and Walter’s fun had lasted for just moments, but from 80,000 feet above, all aircraft contacting Los Angeles Center were forced to bow before the King of Speed. They never heard another frequency transmission all the way to the coast.

Tales from the SR-71 Blackbird

by Military Travel Exchange

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