Though she has been out of service for decades, the SR-71 still holds the record for the world’s fastest aircraft. During one of her final flights, she even set a record.
Writing about the SR-71 Blackbird in my debut article was a pleasure.
Perhaps the pinnacle of aeronautical engineering genius Clarence “Kelly” Johnson’s famed Skunk Works program at Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin). As the world’s fastest air-breathing human aircraft, despite its 1990 retirement and subsequent brief unretirement in the late 1990s, the plane has its detractors.
The final flight of the great old lady may have been a record-breaker, but at least she went out with a bang.
The date is March 6, 1990.61-7972 was the plane’s serial number. Pilot Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. (“Ed”) Yeilding, Auburn AFROTC Class of 1972, and Reconnaissance Systems Operator Lieutenant Colonel Joseph T. (“J.T.”) Vida, Citadel Class of 1963, were the members of the aircrew tasked with transporting 61-7972 from Air Force Plant 42 (PMD) in Palmdale, California, to Washington Dulles International Airport for eventual donation to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. As a result of their efforts, “Ed” and “J.T.” set four NAA records and three FAI records for the fastest speed.
Can you tell me what kinds of records they were? In the first place, the transcontinental flight clocked in at an average speed of 2,124.51 mph for 1 hour, 7 minutes, and 53.69 seconds, covering a distance of 2,404.05 statute miles (3,868.94 kilometers) (3,419.07 kph). Additionally, three closed-course intermediate records were set: from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. (2,299.67 miles; 3,700.96 kilometers), in 1:04:19.89 (averaging 2,144.83 mph; 3,451.77 kph); from Kansas City to Washington, D.C. (942.08 miles; 1,516.13 kilometers); in 25:58.53 (averaging 2,176.08 mph; 3,502.06 km/h); and from St. Louis to (3,524.37 kph); and from St. Louis to (3,524.37 kph); and from Kansas City to Washington, D.
SR-71 61-7972, on the other hand, was picked to destroy these records during the Blackbird’s final performance (bad pun intended). After all, she had already set a record flying from New York to London, covering the 5,446.87 miles (8765.89 km) in 1 hour, 54 minutes, and 56 seconds at an average speed of 1,806.957 mph (2,908.015 kph); and then, from London to Los Angeles, covering the same distance in 3 hours, 47 minutes, and 39 seconds at an average speed of 1,435.49 mph (2,310.19 kph). In addition, the plane reached a new record altitude of 85,069 feet (25,929 meters).
It’s one thing to discuss the final flight of the Blackbird in the third person and cite all the statistics; it’s quite another to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Here is how Lt. Col. (Ret.) Ed Yeilding puts it:
That day, March 6, 1990, will always be etched in my mind. At about 3:45 a.m., after getting up at 1:00 a.m., I was already dressed and ready to travel to the flight line for my briefing. In anticipation of the final trip, a small group met in Palmdale at 4:30 (7:30 in Washington, DC). Our first order of business was to refuel with air. Launching with only half a tank of fuel was standard procedure if one of the engines failed shortly after takeoff. We achieved that with a pair of KC-135Q tankers 27,000 feet above the Pacific. Then we swung around to the east, fired up the afterburners, and sped off with a 200-mile head start.
As we flew across the Pacific in the predawn darkness, I could make out the white foam of the ocean’s breaking down the California coast and the millions of lights of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego below me. Mexico was a black void to my right, beyond San Diego. We were traveling at Mach 3.3 as dawn broke, and I looked down from 78,000 feet to see Las Vegas, Lake Mead, and the Grand Canyon. I saw a sight of Pike’s Peak as we flew through the Colorado mountains, and then Vida and I flew over the grassland.
It dawned on me once more that we had covered the distance our forebears had traveled in months in just a matter of minutes. The journey gave me a lot of time to think about the magnificent country we come from and the bravery, faith, and sacrifices of our ancestors who built it.
Everything was undercast (ed. note: cloudy from the ground) as we went over the country’s eastern portion, but as we crossed the East Coast, I got one more glimpse of God’s world from 83,000 feet in the air. I considered that and how much I enjoyed piloting the jet and gazing out the window at the black canopy above and the bright blue ring of atmosphere 400 miles beyond, where the sun never sets.
We were still supersonic when we passed over Wilmington, Pennsylvania, located below Philadelphia, and turned left to drop towards the nation’s capital. At subsonic speeds, we ran into another KC-135Q and refueled at 25,000 feet. We used the afterburner to make two low passes over the crowds at Dulles International Airport. Before touching down, we bounced the wings in a salute so they could see the shock diamonds in the afterburner plumes.
Once again, I used my trusty orange drag chute. My joy at piloting the world’s tallest and fastest aircraft on its farewell flight was tinged with regret.
So far as I know, Ed Yeilding is still with us; he has a Walk of Honor plaque in his native Florence, Alabama. If you have any information to the contrary, please share it with us in the comments below.J. T. Vida died of cancer in July 2021, according to reports.
The SR-71 aircraft, serial 61-7972, is now on public display at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, in the Boeing Hanger.