During Cold War, the SR-71 Blackbird gathered intelligence in some of the world’s most hostile environments.
In the aftermath of Gary Powers being shot down over the Soviet Union in a U2 spy plane, Lockheed’s Skunk Works division was charged with designing a plane that could fly in the 90,000 feet altitude range, and be fast enough to be essentially untouchable by Soviet surface-to-air missiles.
Although no SR-71 was ever shot down, Blackbird’s pilots and RSOs had a survival kit fitted with several non-traditional items.
According to Last Stand On Zombie Island, one long-standing joke/urban legend was that the SR-71’s survival kit contained: “One low power 38 revolver; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings.”
The gun included in the SR-71 survival kit was a very rare aluminum gun: the gun was made in aluminum to keep it lightweight.
However, as former Blackbird’s pilot Richard Graham explains in his book SR-71 Revealed the Inside History, “the survival kit contained standard Air Force survival items: a one-man life raft, day/night flares, desalinization kit, emergency UHF radio with spare batteries, first aid kit, thermal blanket, fishing gear, survival manual and maps. Tethered between you and the survival kit was the inflated one-man life raft, ready for a water landing.”
Another item that was carried in the pressure suite (not in the survival kit that was in the ejection seat) was a sealed envelope that the SR-71 crews were supposed to give to anyone who was causing them trouble.
My father Butch Sheffield gave the sealed envelope to the base commander in South Korea when they were upset about having an SR-71 land on their tiny base. We are not sure what was in that envelope or what it said but the base commander smiled and then was compatible and willing to do anything to make the crew comfortable.
Life Hacker also did a decent write-up on what one of these kits contains. According to them, the kid included the following items:
An emergency water supply (canned), and a resealable drinking water storage bladder: You can use sealed, distilled water from the grocery store. You can also use emergency water containers and fill from your own supply, as long as you treat it. The benefit of water in cans or packs is that it’s been sanitized and won’t need to be treated or replaced frequently. Store plenty of water and a bottle to reuse. You may also want water purification tablets or a portable filter to purify questionable water sources if you can’t boil or distill on the go.
A full first-aid kit, complete with bandages, gauze, shears, etc: The Red Cross has guidelines on what makes a good first aid kit, whether you build one yourself or go out and buy one off the shelf. Make sure you include multiple sizes of adhesive and roll bandages, absorbent compresses, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic ointment, a cold compress, non-latex gloves, scissors, thread, and a few other things. If you have any prescription medications, include those too. Make sure to check the kit regularly and replace items that may have expired.
Day and night flares: A good automobile emergency kit will include flares, but there’s good reason to have them in your bug out bag as well. These signal flares are $38 at Amazon and double as fire starters, you’ll likely find more options at your local camping or surplus store.
An emergency radio with spare batteries: An emergency radio is critical in a disaster situation, and often overlooked. Emergency broadcasts and NOAA weather alerts all fall back to radio when the power is out, so your best bet is to get a radio that’s battery operated (with extra batteries) and hand-crank powered, just in case. This $30 model has a flashlight and can charge your phone if it has to, while this $60 model has all of those things and a two-way radio.
A thermal blanket: Simple mylar thermal blankets will do the trick here ($7 for a pack of 10.) I like to keep several in my car, and they fold up small enough to fit into a pocket. If you’re packing a vehicle kit, consider a heavier blanket in the trunk as well.
Fishing gear: You don’t necessarily have to pack a fishing kit in your bug out bag (although they are small and cheap) the way SR-71 pilots did, but you should keep non-perishable food items inside. Canned fruits and vegetables, pickles, nut butters and spreads, things like that. About three days of food per person is a good starting point. If that’s too much math, consider meals-ready-to-eat (MREs.) They work for the armed forces, they’ll work for you too. They’re good for at least five years, and you can get them at Amazon.
A hunting knife: A good knife is an essential tool in just about every situation, not just emergencies. It’s a prying tool, a cutting tool, and a weapon in one. This guide from our friends at The Art of Manliness will help you pick the perfect survival knife for you (as will this guide from Indefinitely Wild. Thanks to MannyBones for pointing it out!)
Protective goggles: You may or may not need protective goggles depending on your climate, but the reason Blackbird pilots carried them was to protect their eyes and face from exposure. This one’s up to you, but you can find decent goggles at your local camping or surplus store.
A survival manual: All of the survival tools in the world won’t help you if you don’t know what to do in an emergency. Some swear by the US Army Survival Field Manual 21-76, and it’s a good read. You can buy it at Amazon, or head over to The Survivalist’s list of free downloadable survival resources and download it (along with other great survival books) for free.
Local maps: Getting around is harder with no GPS, and it can be even worse if you need to travel significant distances on foot. Keep some local paper maps in your emergency kit in case you have to go analog and still find your way around.