Every two years they come together to renew friendships, exchange war stories and reminisce. But, most of all the members of the Blackbird Association gather to honor what are heralded as the premiere reconnaissance aircraft in history. The SR-71 "Blackbird" and the U-2 "Dragon Lady."
More than 400 members of the association, some from as faraway as Germany traveled to Reno, Nev., for the Fourteenth Biennial Reunion in June. The Blackbirds are comprised of personnel connected with the programs including crew members, maintenance personnel, contractors, commanders and photo interpreters. The seeds planted more than 40 years ago at Lockheed's Skunk Works Plant in Burbank, Calif., have sprouted unsurpassed technology and milestones in reconnaissance programs. Deterrence of confrontation throughout the globe is largely due to the abilities of these aircraft and their crews. Although the SR-71 is now retired, the dedication of these men and women that were involved in the program stands firm like the planes they designed flew and maintained. They are committed to keep the Blackbird heritage alive.
"The Blackbird Association is a really neat way for us to get together and relive those moments of glory and prestige we shared together," said retired MSgt. Ronald J. De Lozier of Imperial Beach, Calif. From 1967 to 1971, De Lozier was assigned with the Blackbird as part of the maintenance crew, initially as assistant crew chief, then recovery team chief and, eventually, crew chief. "When I first heard of the SR being retired, I felt like I had lost a relative." De Lozier's feeling mirrors many of those who were associated with the program.
"The SR-71 could have flown well into the 21st century," said retired MSgt. Leland Haynes. "It could have provided presidents and defense analysts with real time photo and data information via uplinks from the aircraft back to the Oval office, instantaneously," Haynes said.
Haynes, of Stayton, Ore., served on the Blackbird's from 1969 to 1974 at the 9th SRW at Beale Air Force Base in California. Haynes was part of the crew that made history when in 1974, SR-71 tail #972 flew from New York to London in only one hour and 55 minutes.
"While we are not currently at war, instant reconnaissance such as the SR-71 could be a determining factor in future confrontations," Haynes said. "
More than 30 years passed since the SR-71's predecessor, the A-12 was flown to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa.
"I was among the maintenance personnel sent there before the aircraft arrived to set up the hangers and was on the launch crew when the SR-71 flew its first operational sortie," De Lozier said.
In subsequent years, the SR-71 flew more than 3,500 operational sorties over North Vietnam, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Syria and Cuba. The SR-71 holds seven world class absolute speed and altitude records, including one set in March 1990 prior to official retirement. In just over one hour, SR-71A, tail #972 flew from Los Angeles to the East Coast, (2,086 miles) averaging 2.124.5 mph.
Although, the Blackbird was officially retired by the Air Force in 1990, tail numbers #967 and #971 were reactivated in 1995, flying out of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. In the course of more than two years, Detachment 2 at Edwards flew 150 sorties. Then in October 1997 President Clinton line item vetoed the program.
NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., currently has two in storage. A number of Blackbird's can be see at various museums across the United States, including an A-12, SR-71A and D-21 Drone at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, Calif. SR-71 Tail #962 was officially dedicated in a ceremony at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, England. on June 14, 2001.
The U-2's first flight at a remote area of the Nevada Desert in 1955 proved to be the beginning of advanced aircraft and sensor technology. It became operational a mere 18 months after its first test. The Dragon Lady, as it is so fondly referred to, completed missions over the Soviet Union, Cuba, Southeast Asia, borders of Red China, North Korea, Central America and the East-West German border.
More than 500 U-2 combat sorties were flown between August 1990 and February 1991 during the Gulf War. Now the U-2 is constantly undergoing upgrades including the current model, U-2S. The new version boasts the latest in engine, navigation, sensor and data link technology.
Today, with the changing world around us, the U-2 is still the backbone of information for worldwide peacekeeping missions. In addition to bringing together the Blackbird Association members, the reunion honors those who have demonstrated exemplary service to the program.
This year the Kelly Johnson Award was given to Robert F. Murphy, former Skunk Works chief of manufacturing. This Lifetime Achievement trophy, created in 1981 in honor of Skunk Work's founder Kelly Johnson, is presented to an individual who has significantly contributed to the Blackbird program. A special honor was awarded to Mary Ulmer, who served as secretary to 22 different wing commanders at Beale AFB. She was presented a bronze statue with the inscription of all 22 commanders.
Featured speakers this year were retired Col. Tom Pugh and retired Col. Charles B. Stratton. Pugh's Air Force career spans 26 years, including 15 years with the SR-71 program. Stratton began his career with the U-2 Dragon Lady in 1959 as a crew member. Later he served as commander of the 100th SRW at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., and moved to Beale AFB in 1976 as the director of operations, 14th Air Division. Stratton has 1,450 hours in the U-2.
Recommended further reading on the SR-71 and U-2 programs:
SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story by Richard H. Graham, Col. USAF (Ret)
Blackbird Rising by Donn Byrnes and Kenneth D. Hurley
Me and U-2 by TSgt. Glenn R. Chapman (Ret)
Habu and Dragon Lady by Jerry F. Moncree
Recommended web sites:
The Online Blackbird Museum: http://www.Habu.org
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Posted Thornton D. BarnesBy Thornton D. Barnes Author Publisher