Monday, March 10, 2008

Time to Indulge the Aerospace Geek In Me

Ok, I've been writing a lot of very heavy homeschooling blog-posts lately. Time for something that's actually interesting for a change. ;-)

Courtesy of the Instapundit, here's an excellently-written reminiscence by Major Brian Shul, who was the SR-71 pilot who performed the Battle Damage Assessment mission after our Libyan strike in April 1986. He talks about the plane, what it was like to fly it, and especially what it was like to fly wartime missions in it. Here's one sample I particularly liked:
One day, high above Arizona, we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. 'Ninety knots,' ATC replied. A twin Bonanza soon made the same request. 'One-twenty on the ground,' was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was 'Dusty 52, we show you at 525 on the ground,' ATC responded. The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walter's mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, 'Aspen 20, I show you at 1,742 knots on the ground.' We did not hear another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast.
On one mission, he wanted to get a really good look at the heavens, so he turned down the cockpit lights for a while. Here's a little of how he described it:
Where dark spaces in the sky had usually existed, there were now dense clusters of sparkling stars. Shooting stars flashed across the canvas every few seconds. It was like a fireworks display with no sound. I knew I had to get my eyes back on the instruments, and reluctantly I brought my attention back inside. To my surprise, with the cockp lighting still off, I could see every gauge, lit by starlight. In the plane's mirrors, I could see the eerie shine of my gold spacesuit incandescently illuminated in a celestial glow. I stole one last glance out the window. Despite our speed, we seemed still before the heavens, humbled in the radiance of a much greater power. For those few moments, I felt a part of something far more significant than anything we were doing in the plane.
Yes, every aviation geek out there knows and likes that plane, so it's perhaps a bit cliche to pen yet another rhapsody to the glory of the SR-71. But it was a ship like no other. I've read reminiscences of awe-struck pilots flying down canyons of light, with the shifting curtains of the Aurora Borealis on each side. I've read reminiscences of pilots being scared to death, because they were throttling down and the plane nevertheless kept going faster and faster. I actually knew someone who worked on the plane, who had all kinds of memories of all the maintenance oddities that had to be strictly observed to keep the plane from self-detonating at those high speeds and temperatures--like, no fingerprints on the plane: the oil from your fingertips is flammable, if you get it hot enough. So was this old crew-dog pulling my leg? Quite possibly. But considering the weird stuff that we know for a fact did happen on that plane--like on that early Blackbird mission where all the electrical insulation burned off the wires, nearly causing a catastrophic condition--that I'm in no position to doubt anything the guy said.

The plane simply affected anyone who got near it. Yes it was weird; yes, it had its quirks; yes, it leaked fuel like a sieve (by design!) when the skin wasn't heated to 1100 degrees--but she still managed to inspire reverence that was nothing short of worshipful.

Oh, and if you're an aviation geek, and are ever passing through the Central Valley of California, there's one at the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, CA--about two hours south of Sacramento. This was only a few miles from where I lived when I was in high school. I remember when the Air Museum managed to score it; and then they moved it to a spot right by the road, where I nearly drove off into a ditch when I first saw it there.
So anyway, if you're at all into pilot stories (like I am), check out the linked article. I enjoyed it a lot.

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