Richard H. Graham's FLYING THE SR-71 BLACKBIRD; in the cockpit on a secret operational mission
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This book is a nuts and bolts — and almost minute to minute — description of what an SR 71 Blackbird pilot did before, during, and after secret intelligence gathering flights.
Cruising at Mach 3 at 70,000 feet, beyond the reach of adversaries, the Blackbird, which first flew in 1964 and was decommissioned in 1998, still holds a massive number of aircraft speed and performance records. While the book is sprinkled with mentions of such records, the real focus here is on operational specifics, such as:
- How missions were planned
- How pilots and crew were prepped for flights
- How preflight checks were conducted step-by-step with references to the different parts of the instrument panel
- How in-flight refuelings were conducted
- How airflow was managed through the engines at various speeds and throttle settings (I had to read the definition of “unstart” several times)
- How different sensor and imaging technologies impacted the run through (or rather over) the target “sensitive areas”
The author makes little mention of the politics that gave rise to the use of this amazing aircraft. That’s appropriate given his military status. The book does conclude with an extended lamentation about the wisdom associated with ending the SR 71 program given availability of increasingly sophisticated and cost-effective satellite reconnaissance. (It’s interesting to consider how such discussions might fare today give availability of unpiloted reconnaissance drones that can be sent in large numbers against well defended targets.)
You can’t help but read this book and be amazed at the performance of this aircraft in comparison with the state of technology when it was designed and flown. Just the guidance mechanisms alone seem primitive compared to the turn by turn driving directions of today’s smartphones. Yet here we have a human controlled aircraft cruising at Mach 3 at the edge of space for hours on end.
This book gives a good technical insight into what was actually involved in doing that along with what the pilot had to do to constantly monitor and maintain the aircraft’s performance. If you’re intersted in gadgets this is a really good read. It’s also fascinating to consider that this plane was designed long before modern computers.
Review copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald