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Fall from an SR-71 Blackbird

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 12, 2022 3:01 am

Fall from an SR-71 Blackbird

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 12, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, In 1966, an SR-71 "Blackbird" disintegrated at 78,000 feet. The pilot's first thought was "No one could live through what just happened". Therefore, I must be dead." For more stories of forgotten history, please subscribe to his YouTube Channel, The History Guy: History Deserves to be Remembered.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we continue with our American stories. And our next story comes from a man whose YouTube videos are followed by hundreds of thousands of viewers of all ages.

And he's simply known as the History Guy. In 1966, an SR-71 Blackbird disintegrated at 78,000 feet. The pilot's first thought was, quote, no one could live through what just happened.

Therefore, I must be dead. Here's the History Guy with the story of the SR-71 Blackbird disintegrating at altitudes unknown to most men. There's an old airplane story that's called the LA Speed Check.

It goes something like this. A pilot of a single-engine Cessna calls the Los Angeles Air Route Control Center and asks for a speed check, wants to know how fast he's going. And the center tells him he's going about 90 knots. Immediately thereafter, another pilot, someone in, say, a twin-engine Beechcraft, trying to make fun of how slow the Cessna goes, asks for a speed check. And the center tells him that he's going around 121 knots.

But almost immediately thereafter, another voice chimes in. And this is a Navy pilot who's flying in an F-18 fighter jet. And he doesn't really need to know how fast he's going. He's got an airspeed indicator inside his cockpit. He's just trying to prove to everybody out there on the frequency that he's flying the biggest, baddest, fastest jet in the world and show all those Cessna and Beechcraft owners how fast our plane really flies. And the LA Center radios back that he's going an impressive 620 knots. And you think that would be enough to win this little contest. When another voice casually asks, this is Aspen 30, can you give us a speed check? And after a moment, the center responds, Aspen 30, we have you going 1,993 knots. That story, which was related in Brian Scholl's book, Sled Driver, Flying the World's Fastest Jet, shows how extreme the world's fastest air-breathing manned jet aircraft in history, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, really was. But, you know, if you fly in an airplane that can go more than three times the speed of sound and almost into outer space, one thing's important, you don't want to fall out.

And if you did, it would be history that deserves to be remembered. In late 1957, the CIA approached the defense contractor Lockheed, asking them to secretly design an undetectable spy plane. Lockheed's Advanced Development Project unit was called the Skunk Works, a nickname it had gotten since the original facility had been built near an old plastics manufacturing plant that produced awful smells. In 1955, the Skunk Works had gotten a CIA contract to build an ultra high altitude spy plane designed for flying over the Soviet Union and photographing sites of strategic interests. The plane was the Lockheed U-2, a plane able to fly at such a high altitude that it was thought to be outside Soviet radar capacity and invulnerable to Soviet fighter aircraft and ground-to-air missiles. The new request was for a plane that could go even higher and faster than the U-2. The plane ended up with the designation SR for Strategic Reconnaissance 71.

Painted a blue so dark that it was almost black to camouflage the plane against the night sky, it earned the nickname Blackbird. The SR-71 was designed for flight at over Mach 3 with a flight crew of two. Traveling at supersonic speeds meant that the outside of the aircraft would get very hot, more than 600 degrees, so Lockheed could not use aluminum. The plane was 92% titanium inside and out. But most problematic is that the ore needed to make titanium is rare and in short supply in the United States. The major supplier of the ore was the Soviet Union.

The U.S. surreptitiously worked through third-world straw buyers to acquire the ore. The plane was designed to reduce its radar cross-section, an early version of stealth. That combined with its speed and altitude made the plane virtually invulnerable to countermeasures. There were also challenges given the plane's altitude ceiling, above 80,000 feet. A normal pilot's mass cannot provide enough oxygen for a pilot above about 40,000 feet, and breathing becomes impossible above 49,000 feet, as the pressure at which the lungs excrete carbon dioxide exceeds outside air pressure. At 62,000 feet, some 18 plus kilometers, the pressure reaches something called the Armstrong limit. The Armstrong limit represents the altitude above which atmospheric pressure is sufficiently low that water boils at the normal temperature of the human body.

Simply put, a human cannot survive above this limit, as their blood would literally boil. To withstand the conditions, aircrews for high altitude craft have to wear pressurized suits. In the terrible scenario where an air crew had to eject at extreme altitudes, the suit had a built in oxygen tank designed to keep the suit pressurized. Of just 32 SR-71s built, 12 were lost to accidents, and the first of those accidents occurred during the plane's testing phase of January 25th, 1966. The plane, tail number 952, took off from Edwards Air Force Base at 11 20 a.m. The pilot was Bill Weaver, an experienced Lockheed test pilot. Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight test reconnaissance and navigation system specialist, was in the rear.

The two were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high Mach cruise performance. Weaver increased the plane speed to Mach 3.2 and climbed to 78,000 feet. Several minutes later, the right engine automatic inlet control system failed, requiring a switch to manual control. This was common in the early test phase of the aircraft. But as Weaver took the plane into a scheduled 35-degree bank turn to the right, the right engine suffered a dreaded inlet unstart.

The resulting asymmetric thrust caused the plane to roll further right, increasing the bank to 60 degrees, and pitch up. Knowing the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 feet was not very good, Weaver hoped to be able to get the plane to a lower altitude and speed to allow a safe ejection. He yelled for Zwayer to stay with the plane as they attempted to gain control, but the g-forces were so strong that the words came out garbled and unintelligible. The radical g-forces were beyond human limits and Weaver and Zwayer lost consciousness, neither able to activate the ejection system. SR-71, tail number 952, disintegrated in mid-air. Back at Edwards, the plane disappeared from radar and they lost radio contact. The initial assessment was, was that the flight crew could not have survived such a violent breakup at that speed in altitude. When Bill Weaver woke up, he thought he was having a bad dream. His next thought was, no one could survive what just happened, therefore I must be dead.

But as he became more aware, he could hear rushing wind and what sounded like straps flapping. He was alive and had somehow separated from the aircraft, despite not activating the ejection system. In fact, he had been thrown clear in the accident. His ejection seat was still with the wreckage of the plane, falling to earth at that very moment. The flight suit had apparently done its job, with the oxygen tank that was attached to the parachute harness inflating the suit to keep it pressurized.

That was itself astounding, given the violence of the plane's breakup, and it was a good thing, otherwise Weaver's blood would be boiling. But the visor on his helmet was iced over. While he could tell that he was falling, he couldn't see. The parachute could not see. The parachute system was supposed to initially deploy a small chute that should keep him from tumbling, but he couldn't be sure that it had deployed. As he had no idea how long he'd been unconscious, he didn't know how far up he was, or how long before he might experience the rapid deceleration caused by colliding with the earth. But the small chute had deployed and he was falling vertically. The main chute should open automatically at 15,000 feet, but it could not be sure the automatic systems were functioning. He tried to find the manual activation for the chute, but his hands were numb by cold, and with the suit inflated, he couldn't find it. But just then, he felt the reassuring sudden deceleration caused by the opening of the main chute.

He lifted the faceplate on his visor, only to find that the latch was broken and he had to hold it up. Given the plane speed, he couldn't even be sure which state he was going to land in, and the ground below looked desolate. He could see the burning wreckage of the airplane on the ground some miles away, and most importantly, he was reassured to see Jim Zwayer's chute open some distance off. Despite being an experienced test pilot, Weaver never actually jumped out of an airplane before, this was his first parachute landing, and he said it went okay, despite nearly landing on what appeared to be a very surprised antelope.

Given the size that the search area must be, he figured he'd have to figure out how to survive the night before he could expect rescue, but on that count, he was wrong. He was busy trying to collapse his parachute while having to hold up his faceplate, when he heard someone behind him say, can I help you with that? It turns out the plane had broken apart over a New Mexico ranch owned by Albert J. Mitchell Jr. Mitchell and several ranch hands were branding cults when they heard a noise and saw parachutes descending from the sky several minutes later. Mitchell was a pilot and owned a small Hughes 300 helicopter, and it immediately flown to where Weaver had landed. After helping Weaver collapse the chute, Mitchell flew to where Jim Zwayer's chute had landed, only to find that Zwayer was deceased. His neck had apparently snapped when the airplane broke up. After the accident, Weaver found out that the flapping noise that he'd been hearing as he was falling was because the heavy nylon straps that had strapped him into the aircraft had been shredded by the accident, and that shows how impressive it was that his flight suit held together through all of that, but he also found out that the oxygen tank that connected to his flight suit was connected by two tubes, and one had torn loose and the other was barely hanging on.

If that second tube had torn loose, then the flight suit would not have inflated and he would have died. Albert Mitchell flew Weaver to the nearest hospital which was in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Weaver remembers being terrified because Mitchell kept the little helicopter speed above the red line for the entire trip, and Weaver was thinking how ironic it would be that if he survived falling out of an SR-71 at 78,000 feet, only to die in a little helicopter on the way to the hospital. The Air Force retired the SR-71 in 1998 and NASA retired theirs in 1999, but there are persistent rumors that the Skunk Works is working on a successor to the SR-71 that some people claim will be twice as fast. In its 33 years of service, Jim Zwayer was the only SR-71 crew member to die in a flight accident. Bill Weaver was back flying SR-71s within a week and eventually became Lockheed's chief test pilot. He retired and lives in Carlsbad, California.

The man who survived the disintegrating Blackbird, his story, Bill Weavers, here on Our American Stories. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, next-gen earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound, so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, sound shape to you.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-12 04:31:22 / 2022-12-12 04:37:22 / 6

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