SR-71 Operations

Between March 1968 and November 1989, Lockheed SR-71s conducted a total of 3,551 operational missions. The highly classified nature of these tri-sonic recce flights ensured that all but a handful ever became public knowledge. Four years after General Larry Welch prematurely retired the SR-71 fleet, Paul Crickmore has completed the first comprehensive book detailing many of the programme’s more significant missions. It is published by Osprey and entitled SR-71 The Secret Missions Exposed – the following article is a series of some summarised extracts.

BETWEEN 1957 and 1959, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established a think-tank to define the type of vehicle capable of replacing the subsonic U-2’s Soviet overflight operations. By mid 1959, Project Gusto, as it was known, had made its recommendations on the two competing designs and Lockheed was again the successful contender. Its design was designated AT 2, and the project was code-named Oxcart.

The A-12 relied upon its speed and altitude to defeat Soviet defence systems, by cruising in afterburner at Mach 3.2 (about 1 mile/1.6km every two seconds) at altitudes of up to 97,000ft (29,565m). Another facet to help guard against interception was the platform’s shape and the use of radar absorbing materials (RAM) in order to reduce its radar cross-section (RCS).

Between March 16 and 17, 1960 plans were discussed to build on interceptor version of the A-12, designated the YF-12. In all, three were built and tested, but the planned 93 F-12B interceptors were later cancelled. It was during the initial stages of developing the YF-12, that it became apparent to a few Lockheed engineers that the basic interceptor airframe could be adopted to provide a strike bomber, thus saving millions of dollars in development costs.

Each would haul four internally-mounted nuclear missiles, which could be either radar or optically guided to the target. However, to many, the ballistic missile had come of age, making earlier systems redundant. The fall-out of such thinking within the Kennedy Administration was that McNamara cancelled the B-70 Valkyrie and never ordered weapons for the B-12. The lack of weapons procurement led Lockheed to produce drawings of a two-man, pure reconnaissance variant of the platform, designated the R-12.

The ‘R’ series, featured cameras and ELINT packages in what were formally long, narrow weapons bays, together with a sideways-looking airborne radar (SLAR) located in the nose section for ground mopping. The R-12 become known as the Reconnaissance Strike 71 (RS-71). However, when the existence of the programme was announced by President Lyndon Johnson on July 25, 1964 at the stroke of a ‘Presidential pen’, the aircraft was re-designated SR-71. The enhanced capability of this heavier, two-seat reconnaissance platform, led to the cancellation of the earlier Oxcart programme on May 16, 1968.

Gathering electronic intelligence (ELINT), establishes the enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle. In addition, if the signal characteristics of a radar-guided missile system are known, it becomes possible to build units that will jam or interfere with the ability of that system to intercept its intended target. Knowing how an enemy could exploit such intelligence, nations go to great lengths to hide such emissions. One particularly noteworthy SR-71 sortie from Kadena AB, designated Operating Location 8 (OL-8) took place on the night of September 27, 1971.

National Security officials were especially interested in obtaining fresh data on the signal characteristics of the Soviet’s SA-5. Reported in the late 1960s as the Griffon, a much-improved variant, given the NATO code-name Gammon, had been developed. The problem was that the various ELINT recorders carried on the SR-71 filtered the vast range of electromagnetic emissions transmitted from all sources and activated special recorders when receiving only certain signal types. Major Jack Clemence, a brilliant Electronic Warfare Officer Crow, who worked in the 9th SRW’s Electronic Data Processing (EDP) Centre, jury-rigged one of the ELINT sensors, by electronically cutting and splicing the pulse-receivers’ filtering system which allowed it to receive a continuous-wave signal.

Majors Bob Spencer and his reconnaissance systems officer (RSO) Butch Sheffield departed Kadena in ‘980, and headed off towards Vladivostok in their Habu (so named by the Japanese after a poisonous snake indigenous to the Ryukyu Islands). Their flight was timed to coincide with the largest Soviet naval exercise to date. Bank limitations on SR-71 night operations were set at just 25° for safety reasons — a fact that the Soviets undoubtedly knew, having frequently monitored the Habu on radar.

As Soviet air defence radar controllers studied the Habu’s course, there was no mistaking that a last-minute 25° bank would cause the American ‘spy plane’ to violate Soviet airspace. It would cross high over the Khrebet Sikhote Alien, exiting the area into the Sea of Japan, before returning doubtless to Kadena.

As Bob and Butch bore down on the target area, dozens of Soviet radars were switched on to record this flagrant act. The deception worked well, since ‘980 rolled into a 35° bank remaining throughout in international airspace. However, on their approach to the target area, Bob noted to his great dismay that the right engine’s oil pressure was dropping. He pressed on. Exiting the target area he rechecked that critical oil pressure gauge. It had fallen to zero. Bob shut the right engine down before it seized.

They were now in deep trouble. Forced to descend and continue the rest of their flight at subsonic speeds and having stirred up a hornets nest with their earlier activity, they were sitting ducks for any fast jets that might be scrambled to intercept. To make matters worse, they encountered extreme head-winds which rapidly depleted their fuel supply. Butch calculated that recovery to Kadena was out of the question; instead, they’d have to divert into South Korea.

Back at ‘home plate’ in the highly classified ‘Special Activities Office’, the OL Commander had been monitoring the progress of ‘980 as various US listening posts reported the intercepted RT conversations of the Soviets and Chinese. As the Habu approached Korea, they reported the launch of several MiGs from P’Youngyang, North Korea, on what appeared to be an intercept attempt. USAF F-102s were immediately launched from a base near Hon Chew, South Korea, and vectored to a position which put them between the MiGs and the SR- 71. It was later established that the MiG launch had been unconnected with the Habu’s diversion. Bob recovered ‘980 into Tagu, South Korea, without further incident. Their EMR ‘take’ turned out to be of monumental proportions, in all, Bob and Butch had ‘sniffed out’ emissions from 290 different radar sites. But of even greater significance to Western intelligence analysts was the SA-5 ‘print’ that they had successfully captured — the first of its type obtained by Western ‘observers’.

When Linebacker II kicked off, initial B-52 losses were worryingly high, mainly due to poor tactics. Large post-target turns disrupted jamming coverage, making the lumbering Buffs vulnerable to SAMs. During the night of December 27/28, Lt Col Darrell Cobb and Captain Reg Blackwell departed Kadena in Habu ‘975, destination Hanoi. Intelligence planners knew that North Vietnamese defensive radar systems would be working ‘flat out’ to cope with 60 B-52s and that such an electronic environment would be an especially rich ELINT collection opportunity. Additionally, the SR-71’s unmatched electronics could provide additional, much-needed ECM support to the B-52s.

As Darrell and Reg arrived over the target area, they observed numerous SA-2 firings and were able to radiate a blinding ECM blanket with their advanced defensive systems. During the course of the raid, only one Guam-based B- 52 was lost. Darrell recovered ‘975 safely back on Kadena at 0239 hours. The next day they learned that their mission had produced a wealth of intelligence data which included the discovery of two unique emitters which had been responsible for heavy B-52 losses. Subsequent Linebacker raids were carried out without the loss of a single B-52.

The war in Vietnam ended for the US when the Paris Agreement was signed on January 27, 1973, which committed the withdrawal of US forces from South Vietnam. Habus from Olka continued to fly reconnaissance missions in the area, their routes respecting the newly ‘united’ state of Vietnam.

Reach Capability

One day in March 1971, General P K Cadton — Commander of 15th Air Force, called his Director of Reconnaissance, Col Don Walbrecht, into the office and asked, «Recce, how long can a Habu stay airborne on a maximum effort mission?» Despite Don having accumulated neady 250 hours as a Habu driver he couldn’t answer — it had never been evaluated. As a result, PK tasked the 9th SRW with such a sortie and on April 26, 1971, Majors Tom Estes and Dewain Vick established a SR-71 endurance record of 15,000 miles. Completed in ten hours and 30 minutes it included five air refuelling (AR) rendezvous. Just two and a half years later this ‘global reach’ demonstration was to have an operational application.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War

At 1400 hours on October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a simultaneous strike against Israel. The speed and ferocity of the Arab attack caught the Israelis and Western intelligence off guard. As Israeli troops began to regroup and stem the invasion, plans were being put into effect for a SR-71 to monitor the situation. The initial plan was to fly missions from Beale AFB, California, to Egypt and recover into RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk. On October 10, the 9th SRW commander, Col Pat Halloron and a number of key ground support personnel departed the west coast base in a KC- 135 tanker, en route for the UK.

On arrival, Pat was scheduled to brief senior MOD officials in London. However, once at Mildenhall, it was discovered that the Heath government had denied the US authority to operate from the UK (this was designed to placate the Arabs and secure continuing oil supplies). The tanker departed in a matter of hours heading for Grifriss AFB, New York, where it had been decided to base the temporary detachment.

At 22.00 hours on October 11, Col Jim Shelton and Major Gary Coleman got airborne in Beale ‘979 and headed for Griffiss. They were joined shortly afterwards by Al Joersz and John Fuller, who ferried another SR-71 to the east coast base.

The Habu’s longest operational sortie to date got under way at 02,00 hours on October 13, 1973, when Jim and Gary headed east in ‘979. They completed three ARCPs en route to the Middle East, before penetrating Egyptian airspace at speed and altitude near Port Said.

Gary recalls, «My DEF panel lit-up like a pin-ball machine and I said to Jim ‘this should be interesting». In the event, no missiles were launched at the tri-sonic interloper, and once back over the Mediterranean, Jim eased ‘979 down toward his fourth air refuelling which was air-capped by US Navy F-14s. A fifth air refuelling was conducted near the Azores, before a final high-speed high-altitude dash culminated in a final AR off the US eastern seaboard. The 10 hour 18 minute sortie recovered back at Griffiss, where the high quality ‘take’ was down loaded and transported to the National Photographic Interpretation Centre (NPIC) for processing. It is believed that elements of ‘the take’ were also shared with the Israelis.

Three more Habu sorties were flown from Griffiss, the fourth, conducted on November 9, by Jim Wilson and Bruce Douglass, recovered as planned, into Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina. A further five sorties to the Middle East were flown from this Tactical Air Command Base, where the prevailing weather conditions weren’t as extreme as those at Griffiss.

A New Era

As the US disengaged itself from Vietnam and with the 1973 Middle East crisis over, the number of unit-authorised aircraft also declined. By 1977, the SR-71A Primary Authorised Aircraft (PAA) stood at six aircraft and funding was reduced proportionately.

At this point in its career, the SR-71 was dogged by several potential life-threatening problems:

1. The SR-71 was primarily an imagery platform which had lost most of its National Intelligence Committee support to satellites.

2. Although Strategic Air Command’s Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) needed Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), the SR-71’s high speed, meant that it couldn’t gather long on-station SIGINT samples like the RC-135s or U-2Rs. It therefore lost SAC patronage.

3. Having lost much of the clout of the former, powerful constituency, i.e.: the National Intelligence Committee, the SR-71 had to be funded entirely by the US Air Force, having to compete for funds against other AF programmes for much-needed updates — particularly a ‘Real Time Reconnaissance Capability’ which was never funded.

In the mid-1970s Senior Crown advocates embarked upon a public relations campaign within the Washington Intelligence Community to gather support for what appeared to be a mortally wounded programme. Following a SR-71 briefing to intelligence officers of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, Bill Flexenhar (a civilian analyst at the Naval Intelligence Support Centre at Suitland, Maryland), expressed an interest in the SR-71s sea-scanning radar capabilities to detect Soviet submarines in the vicinity of their home ports.

To fulfil this new requirement it was necessary to permanently base two SR-71s at RAF Mildenhall in order to reduce mission response times and costs. After a series of ‘budgetary battles’, followed by close co-ordination with the US State Department, the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committee, from Britain’s Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister, the plan was finally implemented.

The first SR-71 to visit these shores was on September 9, 1974, when Majors Jim Sullivan and Noel Widdifield established a world speed record in aircraft ‘972, from New York to London in less than two hours.

After nearly two years of coming and going, Detachment 4 (Det 4) of the 9th SRW was activated at RAF Mildenhall to support U-2R and SR-71 operations. By early 1980, SR-71 operations from the UK base had become much more routine and the rate of ‘deployment clearances’ increased. The three aircraft used throughout 1980 were ‘976, ‘972 and ‘964. The first two stayed for one month each, the third remaining for four months. In 1981 ‘972 arrived on March 6, and stayed for two months. Not all deployments to arrive at Mildenhall were scheduled however — as noted by a mission of August 12, 1981, which was planned as a Beale, Barents, Beale sortie. The mission had gone like clockwork until 8C Thomas and his RSO Jay Reid were in the ‘take’ area, where the Habu pilot noticed his left engine’s low ‘oil quality’ warning light began to flash. Back on the tankers boom, having completed the radar run, BC noted the oil warning light was shining continuously. The situation was a ‘mandatory abort’ item on the emergency check-list procedures — continued flight in such conditions could result in engine seizure. There were two preferred diversionary bases in northwest Europe; Mildenhall, a two-and-a-half hour, subsonic flight away, or Bodo, Norway, just 20 minutes away, so BC diverted into Bodo. A recovery team arrived from Beale in a KC-135 some days later and ‘964 was readied for flight.

With a million members of the Polish Solidarity movement going on strike on August 7, and mounting tension between Communist state officials and the rest of the Polish population, it was decided that ‘964 should remain in Europe to monitor any possible Soviet intervention. Consequently at 13.42 hours on August 16, BC and Jay departed Bodo in company with their trusty tanker and positioned the aircraft to Mildenhall.

Now christened The Bodonian Express ‘964 touched down at 14.52 hours, BC and Jay, together with other crew members flew a number of sorties into the Baltic, and the vicinity of Poland, before the former finally returned to Beale by tanker — completing their scheduled ten-hour SR-71 sortie, 21 days later.

The political situation in Poland continued to deteriorate as the clamour for reforms and democracy gathered momentum. On December 12, 1981, the Communist leader, General Jaruzelski, cut all communication links with the West, deployed troops and armour and declared a state of martial law.

Would Jaruzelski turn to the Soviet Union for help in his struggle to retain control of Poland? Would President Leonid Brezhnev commit Soviet troops to crush the uprising as he had in Czechoslovakia in 1968? Clearly the Reagan Administration needed some prompt answers.

On December 15, Majors Nevin Cunningham and Geno Quist (known within the crew force as Neno and Geno), got airborne from Beale in ‘958, after the primary aircraft, flown by Majors Gil Bertelson and Frank Stampf had to air abort. Disappearing into the cloudy night Nevin found it difficult to visually locate the tanker over Nevada. Once on the boom, heavy turbulence bounced both aircraft all over the sky. To make matters that little more interesting the fuel transfer operation was enshrouded in Saint Elmo’s fire, which lit up both aircraft like glowing Christmas trees. Topped-off, Nevin lit both burners, and climbed en route to their next ARCP over Maritime Canada. At Mach 3 and 75,000ft (22,860m) the journey was much sweeter, however, once back down in the AR track, the weather again conspired to make life difficult. After quickly crossing the North Atlantic, they descended for their third ARCP off the west coast of Norway. Here they were sandwiched between layers of stratus cloud, but the air was smooth in the Arctic dawn. The long Atlantic crossing required a ‘split off-load’, from two KC135s. After taking the first half of his load from one tanker, Nevin eased ‘958 off the boom and looked for the other ‘135. Closing on the second aircraft, he discovered he was joining up with what turned out to be a Soviet Illyushin 11-20 Coot, maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Nevin checked out the equally startled would-be tanker and dropped back to find the second ‘135, topped-off, and accelerated the Habu for the next high-hot run. At 72,000ft (21,945m) they headed into the ‘take’ area where it was especially dark at altitude. Having completed an inner loop’ around the Baltic Sea they made for another fuel top-off over the North Sea. Unable to make radio contact with the tankers, Nevin spotted their contrails well below and ahead of them and they followed the aerial ‘railroad tracks’ for a join-up. While on the boom, this epic sortie took another twist, when Geno informed Nevin that the Astro-Inertial Navigation System had failed. A return to Beale was out of the question, they therefore settled into formation with the tankers, which escorted them ‘low and slow’ to a snow and ice covered RAF Mildenhall. This ‘very entertaining and fun-filled’ mission come to a slippery halt outside the dedicated SR-71 barn, when Neno and Geno emerged from the cockpits after a flight lasting eight and a half hours — it was their 27th operational mission together.

At 0730 on Thursday December 17, BC Thomas and Jay Reid arrived at Mildenhall in a KC-135. Aircraft ‘958 was airborne again with Neno and Geno on the 18th and as a result of this and the previous ‘take’, intelligence analysts confirmed that the Soviet Union was not making preparations to intervene militarily to quell Poland’s political unrest. On Monday December 21, 1981, BC and Jay departed Mildenhall in ‘958 and completed the first of five air refuellings on their way back to Beale — a route which included a ‘look-see’ in the Baltic and Barents Sea.

These series of Baltic sorties not only obtained invaluable intelligence at a time of high international tension, but it also vividly demonstrated US resolve to stay actively engaged in the situation by using its key surveillance assets in the NATO — Warsaw Pact theatre of operations.

North Korea

The continuing belligerent attitude of North Korea has earned it a reputation as a Wild Cord, capable of igniting a war against South Korea and its Western allies. As a consequence, North Korea has long been under surveillance allowing US intelligence agencies to constantly assess its military capabilities and intentions.

In April 1981, SR-71 flights conducted in the vicinity of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), began collecting ELINT and other raw data on a suspected SA-2 site under construction on the island of Choc Tarrie in an estuary near the western end of Korea’s DMZ. On August 25, Majors Nevin Cunningham and Geno Quist climbed into SR-71 ‘967 for a ‘two-loop’ sortie of the ‘Z area’. During their fourth and final pass over the DMZ, the crew had excess fuel so Nevin flicked his fuel dump switch in quick Morse-code bursts which spelled out a well-known Anglo-Saxon four-letter expletive, for the benefit of the communist ground trackers who were attempting to follow the Habu visually.

The next morning Major Maury Rosenberg and Captain ED McKim launched in ‘976 for a planned ‘three-pass, Z sortie’. They made their first high pass from west to east along the DMZ, before turning south and flying down the east coast of South Korea towards their second air refuelling contact point (ARCP). With tanks topped-off, they left the tanker and climbed to altitude and speed off the west coast of South Korea, whilst heading north. On reaching their operational altitude, Maury turned ‘976 on to an easterly heading for a second run across the DMZ. Coasting out to the east, Maury entered a right and left 90-270° turn, rolling out on o westerly heading for his third and final pass at Mach 3 and 77,000ft (23,469m).

As they approached the western side of the Z, ED remarked that he was getting some del- system activity and that everything was turned on. In the next breath ED exclaimed, «Wow! It looks like we’ve had a launch». Maury then accelerated to Mach 3.2 and told ED, «I see a contrail… I’ll be damned, it’s coming right at us». The Habu pilot made a slight turn to the left, away from the rising contrail, which took them further into South Korean airspace and he watched as the SA-2 missed by a good two miles, exploding behind them at about 80,000ft (24,384m).

Always mindful of the sensitivity of such sorties, US authorities monitored these SR-71 flights closely. Almost as soon as ‘976 deviated from its approved track, ED received an encoded HF message from Skyking — part of SAC’s Giant Talk communications network — questioning the change of course. No mention was made of the hostile missile firing. ED responded, but discovered there wasn’t a specific coded message that he could despatch alluding to the missile incident (a coded message format was later added). It wasn’t until the Habu crew arrived back on the rock, that they could inform the staff that they had been shot at.

Message traffic was then despatched to the highest levels of the US National Command structure. Secretary of Defence, Casper Weinberger informed the President of the incident after which a series of high-level briefings followed. President Reagan was ‘furious’ over the incident. Dean Fischer, a spokesman for the US State Department said, «The Reagan Administration roundly denounces this act of lawlessness», adding that the attack violated «accepted norms of international behaviour». Despite faultless evidence, the North Korean Government denied the missile charge. While the diplomatic rhetoric continued, Det 1 was instructed to move the reconnaissance track even further to the south.

On September 26, Deputy SECDEF, Frank Carlucci visited Det 1, and was briefed on its operations and shown over a SR-71 for the first time. He later met Habu crew members and explained that after ‘certain preparations’ had been completed, SR-71s from the detachment were to return to their earlier DMZ route packages. Seven days later Lt General Mathis (Assistant Vice Chief of Staff) held a special briefing for Det l’s crew members, during which he revealed that four special category missions were to be flown over the following few weeks, which were to replicate the triple-pass track flown by Maury when he was shot at on August 26. He emphasised that timing would be extremely important and that the Habu was to be over the earlier mission’s firing pint within 30 seconds of their mission’s pre-planned timing. Timing control triangles would be built into the flight track after the second air refuelling to ensure that the precise constraints were met. One pilot asked why timing was so critical. General Mathis explained that Wild Weasel anti-radar strike aircraft would be airborne and ‘bombed-up’ poised to hit any North Korean SAM site within 60 seconds of a launch against the SR-71. The time constraint would ensure that the strike aircraft were headed in the right direction at the moment a missile was launched. President Reagan, as Commander in Chief of US Forces, had personally approved the plan. All four of these high-priority missions were ground-spared, as insurance against an abort of the primary aircraft. BC Thomas and his RSO Jay Reid, flew three of the four sorties and recalled: ‘We had to employ the timing triangles to lose a few minutes of ‘pad’; we also delayed with the tanker all the way to the end of the second air refuelling for the same reason. We flew over the critical point within ten seconds of the designated time feeling very proud of ourselves. We all felt that it was a mission which had such importance attached to it (and all of the preparation that had gone into it) to be the pinnacle of our professional efforts. Even though there was no firing, I experienced the greatest sense of well-being, knowing we did the whole operation ‘exactly as planned’. I must admit that I’d hoped that the North Koreans would fire at us. Their missile capability never bothered us, and I believe that it is fair for me to say that by immediately smashing their launch facility, our national resolve would have been most graphically demonstrated».

For whatever reason, the North Koreans chose not to launch a missile at this, or any other ‘trawling’ mission and BC and all who followed him recovered safely to Kadena, after each four- hour flight.


The intelligence-gathering capability of the SR-71 was considerably enhanced in 1983 with Loral’s development of an Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-1).

After ‘955 was equipped with the new system and initial evaluations were flown Stateside, it was time to test the system under operational conditions. On July 9, 1983, Maury Rosenberg and ED McKim deployed the platform on a seven-hour flight to Mildenhall via the Barents and Baltic collection areas.

As ‘955 was already well known by UK military aviation enthusiasts as the Palmdale test-bird, it was decided that to ensure against unwelcome attention and speculation during that unique deployment, ‘955 would be temporarily rechristened. Thus when the aircraft touched-down at Mildenhall, the local bird watchers peering through binoculars and telescopes from various off-base vantage points, excitedly recorded the arrival of ‘962, an aircraft that had visited Mildenhall on a previous occasion.

Ten days later BC Thomas and John Morgan flew ‘962 alias ‘955 on a two and a half hour ASARS operational test sortie to monitor military installations in East Germany. On July 21, it was Maury and ED’s turn for a four-hour sortie.

The final ASARS demonstration flight was conducted on July 30, when BC and John flew ‘955 on another seven-hour flight back to Beale via the Baltic and Barents Seas. The system proved to be a quantum leap in radar resolution and work began on re-equipping the PAA fleet — unfortunately, time was running out fast for the Senior Crown Programme.

The end of an era

Having lost the backing of the all-powerful National Intelligence Committee, which, as alluded, had become utterly enamoured by satellites, the SR-71 became a bastard child; funded by US Air Force money, despite being tasked by national agencies to support a variety of theatre intelligence requirements.

Without a ‘near real-time’ data down-link capability, the SR-71 was unable to compete fairly with overhead satellites. Most enlightened members of the Senior Crown community understood this weakness. Realising that diminished capability would result in diminished support for the programme, Dewain Andrews currently Assistant Secretary of Defence for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I), served as a staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Intoxicated by ‘overheads’, his often articulated, self-proclaimed goal was to ‘kill’ the SR-71 programme. Whilst serving on the HPSCI, he used his influence to block funds for the much needed data down-link.

Ex SR-71 crew member, Jerry O’Malley, helped keep the SR-71 programme alive as he rose in rank to become Vice Chief of the Air Force in 1980, CINCPACAF in 1982 and Commander of TAC in 1984. He had made all the right moves to become Chief of Staff in 1986 and perhaps, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1987. Everyone in the USAF knew it was likely to happen because General Charlie Gabriel had carefully steered his friend and this talented officer over all the hurdles to the top. Then on April 20, 1985, an appalling tragedy struck the O’Malley family, the US Air Force and the SR-71 programme. The T-39 in which he and his wife were travelling skidded off the end of a Pennsylvanian runway and burst into flames killing all onboard.

Having lost this outstanding officer, the only senior staff officer who had filled the right Pentagon positions was General Larry Welch,

One of the vagaries of change in any large organisation, especially at the top, is that the incumbent has his own agenda — Senior Crown didn’t feature in the non-O’Malley air force. The SR-71 programme was terminated by Welch on November 22, 1989.

Recently, there has been much press speculation about a very high performance aircraft — Aurora. If the Senior Crown programme was sacrificed to provide additional funding for Aurora, such a move could in these post Cold War years be understood. History, however already seems to indicate that if this was the case, it was, at best premature.

Following the successful conclusion of Desert Storm, an event that occurred just 15 months after SR-71 operations were terminated, General Norman Schwarzkopf openly criticised the lock of timely reconnaissance available to his field commanders. Such remarks surely question the decision to rely totally on overheads and would also seem to indicate that the Roman goddess of the dawn — Aurora, was still in bed.

Acknowledgement: The Author would like to thank Alison Silcox for her help with the preparation of this article.

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