The Liberty Gazette
December 2, 2014Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: I was flying back to Ontario from Tehachapi, a small town in California's Southern Sierra-Nevada Mountains, to pick up another load from UPS. My ship was a Twin Otter, a big, bulky, slow twin-engine turboprop. It's also a STOL airplane, short for Short Takeoff and Landing. It's the kind commonly used thirty-ish years ago as a commuter airliner, and a freighter, and as a platform for those crazy people who like to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.
As I crossed the high desert an air traffic controller radioed me to say that an SR-71 would be taking off from nearby Palmdale shortly. If I wanted I could loiter around to watch.
"You bet," I said with enthusiasm. This was to be the last flight of an SR-71 operated by the U.S. Air Force. NASA had one for a while after this but that too has been retired.
Linda: The SR-71 is also called Blackbird, or "Sled" to the pilots who flew them. It came into being around 1964. It moves fast - we know it was designed to exceed Mach three, three times the speed of sound - but we can't tell you how fast because that is both classified and untested data. As their pilots say, when they needed it, it could always give a little more.
When the Air Force really decided to show what the airplane was capable of they sent it out to break some records. On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set two world records for its class: an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet. One SR-71 zipped from New York to Paris in just a few seconds under one hour and fifty-five minutes - even though it slowed three times for aerial refueling.
SR-71 pilots were a small and proud group who loved what they did. Anyone trying to play one-upmanship would surely lose a contest of who's flown higher, who's flown faster.
One of those few was USAF Major Brian Shul. From his book Sled Driver comes this humorous exchange between a controller and some ego starved pilots. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controller for a groundspeed reading.
"90 knots" replied the controller.
The pilot of a twin engine Beech 18 who was listening on the frequency probably chuckled at that 90-knot ground speed. He couldn't resist asking the controller to publicly announce his speed.
"120 knots," came the reply.
Not to be outdone by a couple of little civilian piston-driven airplanes, a chest-thumping pilot of a Navy F-18 Hornet asked for his ground speed.
"We have you at 620 on the ground."
Major Shul says he thought (figuratively), that Hornet must die. But before he could say anything his backseater Walt Watson asked for a groundspeed check.
The controller simply said for all to hear, "I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground." Wish I could have seen the Cessna pilot's reaction.
Mike: As I circled above in my lumbering Twin Otter watching a U-2 and then the SR-71 taxi out and takeoff I remembered back to the first time I saw the sleek black airplane and how it roared long after it was out of sight. I watched as it accelerated, surpassing 400 knots by the time it lifted off the runway and blazed out of sight.