SR-71 Blackbird Pilot Reveals What It Was Like to Fly the Fastest Plane Ever

Kyle Mizokami
·2-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • A new interview with a retired SR-71 pilot describes what it’s like to fly the world’s fastest airplane.

  • The pilot, BC Thomas, details the meticulous detail that went into every mission, from the planning to flight stages.

  • Thomas also reveals how U.S. President Ronald Reagan nearly opened fire on a North Korean missile battery that fired on a passing Blackbird.

More than 30 years after its retirement from active service, the Lockheed SR-71’s hold on our imagination is still as powerful as ever.

A large, matte-black, arrowhead-shaped airplane, the SR-71 looked like it was moving even when standing perfectly still. U.S. Air Force pilot BC Thomas was lucky enough to fly the “Blackbird,” which soared through the skies from 1968 until its retirement in 1990.

In a new interview with the excellent aviation site Hush-Kit, Thomas lays out his experiences flying the world’s fastest aircraft. Thomas flew the SR-71 on missions over or near Asia and Europe, against Cold War adversaries including the Soviet Union and North Korea.

Photo credit: Photo 12 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Photo 12 - Getty Images

Against the Soviet Union, Thomas's SR-71 spied on Soviet naval activities in the Murmansk region, monitoring the Soviet Atlantic fleet and gathering data the U.S. Navy would need if war broke out.

Thomas also flew one particularly defiant mission over North Korea. That country had launched an SA-2 “Guideline” surface-to-air missile against a previous SR-71 overflight of its territory, reportedly enraging U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

The Air Force launched a similar mission over the same spot, and Thomas had been informed that if the North Koreans attempted to shoot down a Blackbird again, it would trigger immediate retaliation, as an Air Force fighter jet would launch an air-to-ground missile against the offending missile battery.

Photo credit: Sovfoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sovfoto - Getty Images

Thomas’s interview is full of interesting nuggets, like how the SR-71's Mach 3 speeds, and the resulting air friction, heated the plane's windshield less than 4 feet from his face to an impressive 621 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Crews were trained to avoid incoming surface-to-air missiles, and the SR-71 was so fast (2,493 miles per hour) that Thomas wasn't particularly concerned by any interceptor on the Soviet side, including the famous MiG-31 Foxhound.

Forewarning was basically the only way a manned interceptor could catch the SR-71, and Blackbird crews relied on solid planning that ensured the superfast jet never flew predictable mission profiles.

Read Thomas's full interview over at Hush-Kit.

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