By Stan Gudmundson
“Tom, do you see that airplane out there? Do you suppose that he is going try race us?” I asked my pilot. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I’ve been watching him. We will find out.”
We had just started our northbound leg along the border with Czechoslovakia and East Germany. We were at 75,000 feet, plus or minus, and traveling at Mach 2.8 (1850 MPH). The airplane we were watching was in Warsaw Pact airspace, a little lower than we were, on a parallel course, at our about our two o’clock position. It had to be a MIG-25 since that was the only airplane the Soviet bloc had that could fly nearly as fast and high as we could in the SR-71.
And he did. He raced us on a parallel track until we reached the Baltic sea. When we started our turn back to England, the MIG-25 was at about our 4 o’clock position. We won. Tom maybe cheated just a little though. It was supposed to be Mach 2.8 leg but he might have pushed the throttles up just a little.
As far as I know, that was the first time that a MIG-25 actually tried to take us on head-to-head in that manner. It didn’t turn out to be a trouble-free sortie for the MIG pilot as he had to shut one engine down and make a single engine landing. After he landed, they also found that the other engine had to be replaced as well since it was no longer serviceable.
After I retired from the USAF, I ran into an Indian Air Force pilot who had flown the MIG-25. I had lots of questions and so did he. He told me that the MIG-25 could go MACH 3.2 briefly but was not capable of intercepting anything at that speed. He said that beyond Mach 2.7 the airplane was way too much to handle.
On very cold days, that is when the temperatures at our altitudes reached -75 degrees Celsius or so, the SR-71 position could be seen by the contrails we formed. We could also see the Soviet airplanes conns as well as we watched them trying to get into a position to intercept us.
They almost always attempted to establish a ‘wall’ of fighters between our flight track and the Soviet Union. They were interesting to see. Although we were fairly confident they weren’t going to attack us, they gave me kind of a funny feeling since we weren’t always 100% absolutely sure. Even though they couldn’t have shot us down anyway.
The Soviets however, maintained that they could get their MIGs in positions to intercept us. Not so. Intercept sorties against the USAF’s top fighters proved that. We flew just too high and fast.
That was pretty incredible performance for an airplane of that vintage with old technology I’m sometimes told. It became operational in the mid-’60s. I usually point out that it flew just like every other Mach 3+ airplane.
How fast did we fly? Usually MACH 3.0 (1982 MPH), occasionally 3.2 (2114 MPH), and where we needed a smaller turning radius, MACH 2.8. I was convinced that no one had flown MACH 3.5 (2300 MPH+) but found out later that there were crews who had. Sporty, really sporty. The SR-71’s world speed record is 2,193 MPH and we all exceeded that at one time or another.
Unrefueled range was 3,600 miles. We flew a cruise climb profile where we leveled off (kind of) in the high 60s or low 70s and descended from the high 70s or low 80s.
I was one of the lucky few to have had the opportunity to fly it. Of the thousands of pilots and navigators the Air Force trained over the years, there were only 77 pilots and 78 RSOs (Reconnaissance Systems Officers) who were ever crewmembers. And two from Fillmore County. Maj. Gen. Pat Halloran, USAF (Ret) from Chatfield was one of the early pilots to be checked out, was the fifth squadron commander and later, wing commander. And me. From Peterson.
As we often tell each other, “Keep your Mach up.” Merry Christmas and God’s blessings to all!