A Magnificent Aircraft
The SR-71, is indeed a marvel of modern technology. Although in fact…. not that modern. Known as “The Blackbird”, the SR-71 was first brought into service fifty-seven years ago.
A high-tech, high-performance reconnaissance aircraft, the titanium sheathed Blackbird could obtain speeds of 2,200 mph and fly at 85,000 ft in altitude. Because of that speed, the Blackbird required extensive service after each flight. Often, missing rivets, metal delamination and other problems required several weeks to seek out and repair. A total of thirty-two Blackbirds were put into service, and performed their duties well, until inevitably displaced by military satellites.
I was a member of the U.S. Air Force from 1968 to 1972. My first permanent duty assignment was at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota, arriving in 1968, before departing for duty in Vietnam in late 1969. Grand Forks was primarily a SAC (Strategic Air Command) base with a full compliment of B-52 bombers. Grand Forks also had a small ADC (Air Defense Command) squadron on base. The ADC Command was designated as the 18th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
I belonged to the 18th FIS, providing service to F-101 Voodoo Fighter/Interceptor jets that were assigned to protect the northern hemisphere from Soviet aircraft and missiles, should they cross the North Pole into the Western Hemisphere.
I was a member of a supply detail, with half of my day spent in warehouses throwing boxes of supplies and equipment around, and the other half spent in an office ordering parts for the F-101’s that were serviced after each mission. I didn’t mind the warehouse duty, except for those days when the North Dakota temperature plummeted and you could see your breath inside the cavernous building. The warehouse supervisor told me I was designed for the work, “low to the ground, wide back, brow ridge”. (I took exception to brow ridge)
The half days in the office were much more interesting. We shared a small building on the flight line with other departments charged with keeping the 101’s flying. There were six or seven of us working in the supply office at any one time. We completed our duty competently, although we would have never been accused of being an exacting military operation. As a matter of fact, some others in the squadron referred to us as “F Troop”, referring to that hapless bunch of soldiers from the tv show bearing that name. (We offered no protest)
We had quite a cast of characters in that little office, including myself and another airmen who were right out of tech school. “Lt. Paul”, was our OIC (Officer in Charge) a 2nd lieutenant who was young but very sharp. Our NCOIC was a devout Christian, and happily, one who practiced his religious beliefs in life. A hard worker and a very nice person. William E, another member of our department was a real hoot. He has a blog story devoted just to him. (Ref blog “William E” from 8/8/2022)
Willy, a “buck sergeant”, (three striper, now referred to as Senior Airman) directed the activities of myself and Howard, the other “jeep” (new guy) in the department. Willy was a great guy, and from Wisconsin like me. Willy and I remained good friends until his passing a few years ago.
Now that brings us to “Johnny J”, a twenty-seven year buck sergeant who began his career in the Army Air Corps in WWII. Johnny lived on base with his wife and their little rat dog “Lady”. Johnny did not endear himself to many, particularly Howard and I. When we first got to Grand Forks, he tricked us into believing we had to shovel the snow and do yard work at his house on base. Willy laughed like hell when he found out about it, but he also chastised Johnny and put a stop to it. Johnny often arrived for duty half in the bag, and the Lt constantly had him in his office, trying to straighten him out. But aside from the problems caused by Johnny, we all got along well, did our duty and mostly had a good time along the way.
Big Trouble in River City
Two events of note occurred during my time at Grand Forks. The first one involved a group of college students who somehow managed to sneak on base and paint anti-war graffiti all over a B-52 Bomber out on the tarmac. That caused a hell of a rhubarb, becoming nationwide news, bringing in high powered (and angry) military brass from far and wide. Though branded as radical hippies, the question of how this small group of college brats were able to defeat the security of the heavily guarded SAC base, was the question of the day. As there was always a little friction between our SAC host and our little ADC squadron, we had a little fun by “poking the bear” regarding the incident. Naturally, this did not further endure us to the SAC folks on hand.
The other major incident that occurred that year, was when an SR-71 Blackbird made an emergency landing at our base. I don’t know what the emergency was, but one day the activity level of the whole base ramped up like a cat goosed in the backside. Emergency vehicles were all over the runways, security police were everywhere and the big brass who we rarely saw, were suddenly more abundant than the large snowshoe bunnies that inhabited the base.
Though intended to remain under wraps, nothing remains secret for long on a military base, and soon we all knew what was going on. Most of us were totally unfamiliar with the Blackbird, but now that it had entered the spotlight, we soon learned enough about it to be in awe. And of course, we wanted to see it.
The security people had other plans, however, and all non-essential personnel were ordered to keep away from the flight line under the threat of arrest or possibility of being shot. These threats did not discourage “F-Troop” and we soon hatched a plan to get within visual range of the flight line, so we could view the sacred bird whenever it did arrive.
Our little building had a back door leading into a field which was loaded with ground hogs. We often chased them out of boredom, during our lunch and free time. Everyone in our department took part in this activity, even the lieutenant, and no one had ever bothered us during our varmint chasing forays. This day would be different.
With Johnny J, half passed out, William E was left inside to hold down the fort, as the rest of us went out on a groundhog chasing mission. There was a section of fence separating the field from the flight line, and one section of it had some small trees and bushes clustered around. When we got close enough to the vegetation cluster, we all dropped to our hands and knees and worked our way into the shrubbery. We knew from the earlier activity the Blackbird landing was imminent.
As we lay in what we thought was a well-hidden lair, a sharp voice suddenly rang out.
“What the hell are you idiots doing?”
It was Seargeant Schultz, a Master Sergeant in security police whose duty covered our building. He was called Seargent Schultz as a result of his fondness for pastries, resulting in his excess girth. We had always had a good relation with Schultz, but today he was all business.
Lieutenant Paul, got up and gave Schultz some daffy explanation about a well-hidden groundhog, but Schultzy wasn’t buying it.
“Sir, you’re going to have to get your men back into your building and not return to the flightline for any reason. I have to make a written report on any incident, I will write this up as a pest control event.”
“Thanks Schultzy, we’ll head back in, and won’t forget your consideration on our behalf.” The Lt noted. (Donut coma to follow)
The Blackbird landed, was serviced and left Grand Forks in short order. None of us got to see it, and I myself never saw one until I visited the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio several years ago.
F Troop, out!