SR-71 Blackbird: Gone but not Forgotten

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An SR-71 takes off at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo)

For those of us who remember the fantastic grace and raw power of the SR-71 Blackbird in flight, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 26 years since the supersonic spy plane’s effective retirement. Yes, three Blackbirds did make an all-too-brief foray back into active service in the late 1990s, but as a global resource, the fleet has been grounded for a quarter century now. It is arguably the most beautiful aircraft ever to take to the skies and even now, looks like something dreamed up for a futuristic science fiction movie. Such is the popularity of the Blackbird that not one of the twenty surviving examples of the thirty-two produced ended up in a scrap yard, with each being eagerly snapped up by a museum around the USA (with one going to Duxford, England).

Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, California, was the home port for Blackbird operations with the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing from January, 1966 until the type’s initial retirement in January 1990. It seems fitting that Beale was able to keep one for display; maintaining SR-71A 61-7963 in their Heritage Park alongside a D-21 drone, T-38 Talon and U-2 Dragon Lady. The 9th RW and a band of volunteers take great pride in looking after their Blackbird, and Staff Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs office recently posted a piece describing the team who take care of their historic aircraft.

…for Master Sgt. Floyd Jones (ret.) and a local group of former Blackbird maintainers, the mission continues, not with turning wrenches, but with the same elbow grease. “It’s not glamorous but it needs to be done,” said Jones, who worked on the Blackbird for nearly 20 years. Floyd and members of The Blackbird Maintainers Group wash and scrub down the SR-71 periodically to ensure the static display is looking its best. “It’s a beautiful aircraft,” said Master Sgt. (ret.) John Olp, a 10-year Blackbird veteran. “But some of the local wildlife prefer to roost on it.” Local birds, weather, wind and dust are all contributing factors that lead to the Blackbird getting an occasional bath. “We try not to let it get too dirty,” Jones said. “We take a pressure washer to it and scrub it down, it takes a couple of hours but we have a good time with it.”

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Members of Team Beale and Blackbird Maintainers clean the SR-71 static display at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. (Courtesy photo)

In addition to the Blackbird Maintainers, the 9th Maintenance Squadron intermittently performs spot cleaning on the aircraft. Jones said that for many former maintainers it’s just another way to reconnect with fellow servicemen and trade “war stories” about the Air Force and the aircraft they enjoyed working on. “It’s a rare plane,” Jones said, adding “We have to take care of it for future generations to cherish. … “We all love this aircraft and none of us mind taking care of her into the retirement years.”

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Members of the local Blackbird Maintainers group pose for a picture at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 08, 2015. The group is includes former Blackbird maintainers and personnel that contributed to the SR-71 program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo)

 

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