Cowboy Blob's Saloon and Shootin Gallery

I'm not a real Cowboy, but I play one in the movies.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Cowboy to the Rescue: 2 Miracles 2 Much 2 Ask

From the Propwash Gang

For those of us in the Intel Business from the 60s to the 90s, the SR-71 had a
special place in our hearts--not just for the the intel she collected, but for the
intel she generated by her presence near the airspace of our enemies. Where did she
fly? I don't think I'll be revealing any national secrets by revealing the orbit
named "AOTFP." Here's a story from one of the brave pilots of the Blackbird.

Bill Weaver : SR-71 BREAKUP

Among professional aviators, there's a well-worn saying: Flying is
simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. And yet, I
don't recall too many periods of boredom during my 30-year career with Lockheed,
most of which was spent as a test pilot. By far, the most memorable
flight occurred on Jan. 25, 1966. Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight test reconnaissance
and navigation systems specialist, and I were evaluating those systems
on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards AFB, Calif. We also were investigating
procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high-Mach cruise
performance. The latter involved flying with the center-of-gravity (CG) located
further aft than normal, which reduced the Blackbird's longitudinal stability.
We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a.m. and completed the mission's first leg without
incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to
a Mach 3.2-cruise speed and climbed to 78,000 ft., our initial cruise-climb altitude.
Several minutes into cruise, the right engine inlet's automatic control system
malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71's inlet configuration
was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate air flow in the
duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine's face. This was
accomplished by the inlet's center-body spike translating aft, and by modulating the
inlet's forward bypass doors. Normally, these actions were scheduled
automatically as a function of Mach number, positioning the normal shock wave
(where air flow becomes subsonic) inside the inlet to ensure optimum engine

Without proper scheduling, disturbances inside the inlet could result
in the shock wave being expelled forward--a phenomenon known as an "inlet
unstart." That causes an instantaneous loss of engine thrust, explosive banging
noises and violent yawing of the aircraft--like being in a train wreck.
Unstarts were not uncommon at that time in the SR-71's development, but a
properly functioning system would recapture the shock wave and restore normal

On the planned test profile, we entered a programmed 35-deg. bank turn
to the right. An immediate unstart occurred on the right engine, forcing the
aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. I jammed the
control stick as far left and forward as it would go. No response. I instantly
knew we were in for a wild ride. I attempted to tell Jim what was happening
and to stay with the airplane until we reached a lower speed and altitude. I
didn't think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 ft.
were very good. However, g-forces built up so rapidly that my words came out
garbled and unintelligible, as confirmed later by the cockpit voice recorder.
The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal
stability, increased angle-of-attack in the turn, supersonic speed,
high altitude and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded
flight control authority and the Stability Augmentation System's
ability to restore control. Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned
later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled
flight was only 2-3 sec. Still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out,
succumbing to extremely high g-forces. The SR-71 then literally disintegrated
around us. From that point, I was just along for the ride. My next
recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream. Maybe
I'll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining
consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was
disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened.
Therefore, I must be dead. Since I didn't feel bad--just a detached
sense of euphoria--I decided being dead wasn't so bad after all. AS FULL
AWARENESS took hold, I realized I was not dead, but had somehow separated from
the airplane. I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn't
initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps
flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn't see anything. My
pressure suit's face plate had frozen over and I was staring at a layer of ice.
The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in
the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only
supplied breathing oxygen, but also pressurized the suit, preventing my
blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn't appreciate it at the
time, but the suit's pressurization had also provided physical protection
from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own
escape capsule. My next concern was about stability and tumbling. Air density
at high altitude is insufficient to resist a body's tumbling motions, and
centrifugal forces high enough to cause physical injury could develop quickly.
For that reason, the SR-71's parachute system was designed to
automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing chute shortly after ejection and
seat separation. Since I had not intentionally activated
the ejection system--and assuming all automatic functions depended on a
proper ejection sequence--it occurred to me the stabilizing chute may not have
deployed. However, I quickly determined I was falling vertically and
not tumbling. The little chute must have deployed and was doing its job.
Next concern: the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically
at 15,000 ft. Again I had no assurance the automatic-opening function
would work. I couldn't ascertain my altitude because I still couldn't see
through the iced-up face plate. There was no way to know how long I had been
blacked-out or how far I had fallen. I felt for the manual-activation
D-ring on my chute harness, but with the suit inflated and my hands numbed by
cold, I couldn't locate it. I decided I'd better open the face plate, try to
estimate my height above the ground, then locate that "D" ring. Just as
I reached for the face plate, I felt the reassuring sudden deceleration
of main-chute deployment. I raised the frozen face plate and discovered its
uplatch was broken. Using one hand to hold that plate up, I saw I was
descending through a clear, winter sky with unlimited visibility. I was
greatly relieved to see Jim's parachute coming down about a quarter of
a mile away. I didn't think either of us could have survived the aircraft's
breakup, so seeing Jim had also escaped lifted my spirits incredibly. I could
also see burning wreckage on the ground a few miles from where we would land.
The terrain didn't look at all inviting--a desolate, high plateau dotted
with patches of snow and no signs of habitation. I tried to rotate the
parachute and look in other directions. But with one hand devoted to keeping the
face plate up and both hands numb from high -altitude, subfreezing
temperatures, I couldn't manipulate the risers enough to turn. Before the breakup, we'd
started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region.
The SR-71 had a turning radius of about 100 mi. at that speed and altitude,
so I wasn't even sure what state we were going to land in. But, because it
was about 3:00 p.m., I was certain we would be spending the night out here.
At about 300 ft. above the ground, I yanked the seat kit's release handle
and made sure it was still tied to me by a long lanyard. Releasing the
heavy kit ensured I wouldn't land with it attached to my derriere, which could
break a leg or cause other injuries. I then tried to recall what survival items
were in that kit, as well as techniques I had been taught in survival
training. Looking down, I was startled to see a fairly large animal--perhaps an
antelope--directly under me. Evidently, it was just as startled as I
was because it literally took off in a cloud of dust. My first-ever
parachute landing was pretty smooth. I landed on fairly soft ground, managing to
avoid rocks, cacti and antelopes. My chute was still billowing in the wind,
though. I struggled to collapse it with one hand, holding the still-frozen face
plate up with the other.

"Can I help you?" a voice said. Was I hearing things? I must be hallucinating.
Then I looked up and saw a guy walking toward me, wearing a cowboy hat. A helicopter
was idling a short distance behind him.
If I had been at Edwards and told the search-and-rescue unit that I was
going to bail out over the Rogers Dry Lake at a particular time of day, a crew
couldn't have gotten to me as fast as that cowboy-pilot had. The gentleman
was Albert Mitchell, Jr., owner of a huge cattle ranch in northeastern New
Mexico. I had landed about 1.5 mi. from his ranch house--and from a hangar
for his two-place Hughes helicopter. Amazed to see him, I replied I was
having a little trouble with my chute. He walked over and collapsed the
canopy, anchoring it with several rocks. He had seen Jim and me floating
down and had radioed the New Mexico Highway Patrol, the Air Force and the
nearest hospital.

Extracting myself from the parachute harness, I discovered the source of those
flapping-strap noises heard on the way down. My seat belt and shoulder
harness were still draped around me, attached and latched. The lap belt had
been shredded on each side of my hips, where the straps had fed through
knurled adjustment rollers. The shoulder harness had shredded in a
similar manner across my back. The ejection seat had never left the airplane; I
had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, seat belt and shoulder
harness still fastened. I also noted that one of the two lines that supplied
oxygen to my pressure suit had come loose, and the other was barely hanging
on. If that second line had become detached at high altitude, the deflated
pressure suit wouldn't have provided any protection. I knew an oxygen supply was
critical for breathing and suit-pressurization, but didn't appreciate
how much physical protection an inflated pressure suit could provide. That
the suit could withstand forces sufficient to disintegrate an airplane and
shred heavy nylon seat belts, yet leave me with only a few bruises and minor
whiplash was impressive. I truly appreciated having my own little escape
capsule. After helping me with the chute, Mitchell said he'd check on Jim.
He climbed into his helicopter, flew a short distance away and returned
about 10 min. later with devastating news: Jim was dead. Apparently, he had
suffered a broken neck during the aircraft's disintegration and was killed
Mitchell said his ranch foreman would soon arrive to watch over Jim's
body until the authorities arrived. I asked to see Jim and, after verifying
there was nothing more that could be done, agreed to let Mitchell fly me to
the Tucumcari hospital, about 60 mi. to the south I have vivid memories of
that helicopter flight, as well. I didn't know much about rotorcraft, but I
knew a lot about "red lines," and Mitchell kept the airspeed at or above red
line all the way. The little helicopter vibrated and shook a lot more than I
thought it should have. I tried to reassure the cowboy-pilot I was feeling
OK; there was no need to rush. But since he'd notified the hospital staff
that we were inbound, he insisted we get there as soon as possible. I couldn't
help but think how ironic it would be to have survived one disaster
only to be done in by the helicopter that had come to my rescue.
However, we made it to the hospital safely--and quickly. Soon, I was able to
contact Lockheed's flight test office at Edwards. The test team there had been
notified initially about the loss of radio and radar contact, then told
the aircraft had been lost. They also knew what our flight conditions had
been at the time, and assumed no one could have survived. I briefly explained
what had happened, describing in fairly accurate detail the flight
conditions prior to breakup. The next day, our flight profile was duplicated on
the SR-71 flight simulator at Beale AFB, Calif. The outcome was identical.
Steps were immediately taken to prevent a recurrence of our accident. Testing
at a CG aft of normal limits was discontinued, and trim-drag issues were
subsequently resolved via aerodynamic means. The inlet control system was
continuously improved and, with subsequent development of the Digital
Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System, inlet unstarts became rare.
Investigation of our accident revealed that the nose section of the aircraft
had broken off aft of the rear cockpit and crashed about 10 mi. from the main
wreckage. Parts were scattered over an area approximately 15 mi. long
and 10 mi. wide. Extremely high air loads and g-forces, both positive and
negative, had literally ripped Jim and me from the airplane. Unbelievably good
luck is the only explanation for my escaping relatively unscathed from that
disintegrating aircraft. Two weeks after the accident, I was back in an
SR-71, flying the first sortie on a brand-new bird at Lockheed's Palmdale,
Calif., assembly and test facility. It was my first flight since the
accident, so a flight test engineer in the back seat was probably a little
apprehensive about my state of mind and confidence. As we roared down the
runway and lifted off, I heard an anxious voice over the intercom.
Bill! Are you there?"

"Yeah, George. What's the matter?" "Thank God! I thought you might have
The rear cockpit of the SR-71 has no forward visibility--only a small
window on each side--and George couldn't see me. A big red light on the
master-warning panel in the rear cockpit had illuminated just as we
rotated, stating, "Pilot Ejected." Fortunately, the cause was a misadjusted
microswitch, not my departure.

Bill Weaver flight tested all models of the Mach-2 F-104 Starfighter
and the entire family of Mach 3+ Blackbirds--the A-12, YF-12 and SR-71. He
subsequently was assigned to Lockheed's L-1011 project as an engineering
test pilot, became the company's chief pilot and retired as Division Manager
of Commercial Flying Operations. He still flies Orbital Sciences Corp.'s
L-1011, which has been modified to carry a Pegasus satellite-launch vehicle
(AW&ST Aug. 25, 2003, p. 56). An FAA Designated Engineering Representative
Flight Test Pilot, he's also involved in various aircraft-modification
projects, conducting certification flight tests.

"For those who fly....or long to." Contrails is an Aviation Week &
Space Technology initiative to capture the untold stories that collectively
make up the rich lore of aviation and space Copyright © 2005, Aviation Week, a
division of The McGraw-Hill Companies All rights reserved.

Oops! Copyrighted! Quick, buy a copy of the magazine for more good stuff like this!


  • At 8:53 AM, Blogger H2SO4 said…

    Great Story.. Thanks for posting it.

  • At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Excellent story!

  • At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    My Uncle flew Supersabers, Voodoos and Phantoms in Nam, he tried to get in the Blackbird program but he was a little too old......Bummer

  • At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    DAMN! He's lucky he didn't get the faceplate open earlier....

  • At 9:58 PM, Anonymous Echo-1 said…

    A hero among heroes.


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