In 2019, I posted a picture on my personal Twitter account showing the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) "office" in Skunk Works boss Kelly Johnson's legendary creation, the SR-71 Blackbird. The photo intrigued many to say the least, and who could blame them? The rear cockpit in the “Sled” looks like something out of a Cold War era science fiction thriller, and in reality, it was just as cool.
Readers know I have written extensively on the SR-71, including articles about the jet's most spectacular flyover and air show maneuvers, among many other topics, and have even had guest posts on the subject, including one particularly amazing story told by a decorated Blackbird pilot himself. After seeing the picture, multiple people asked me to explain the different dials, screens, and buttons in the jet's busy cockpits. Luckily, instead of posting some third party account, I found a something way better—a complete tour of the jet's crew stations given by a guy who sat in the front seat while traveling at Mach 3.2 and 80,000 feet while MiGs circled below him.
SR-71 pilot, former 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing commander, and successful author Richard Graham gave the following in-depth video tour of the Blackbird's front and rear cockpits to aviation videographer Erik Johnston, and it's simply outstanding.
At first glance the SR-71's front cockpit may look somewhat conventional, but what you'll notice is that the small details Graham describes—like the periscope, laser horizon system, fuel transfer panel, liquid chemical engine start injectors and so on—are anything but.
The RSO had a more roomy work area, which featured controls for the aircraft's astro tracker navigation system, canvas curtains, and a wall of instrumentation. Oh and that thing that looks like a flip-down tray, it's actually the moving map projection screen, and under it is the SR-71's radar sensor display. Then there are the lights that tell the RSO to begin his ejection checklist, and then to eject should the pilot lose communications with him during an emergency. Intense stuff!
The video series also includes a tour of the J58 turbojet engine that powered the A-12 and SR-71 to amazing speeds and altitudes, and most importantly, an interview with Richard Graham about his experiences flying the Blackbird, and boy is it worth watching in full.
In it, Graham gives a ton of unique details about Blackbird operations. Some highlights including how the aircraft will become unrecoverable and will snap in half and disintegrate if it goes over 17 units of angle of attack. Or how they learned to taxi, takeoff, tank, and fly all around a hemisphere without ever speaking one word on the radio. As for the SR-71's still debated top speed, Graham says it was really Mach 3.4 and pilots were allowed to do 3.3 if doing so could possibly save their lives and the aircraft.
I can't overstate enough that this is a must watch video for any Blackbird enthusiast.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com