In history, no reconnaissance aircraft has operated globally in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71, the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft.
The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” is a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft that the United States Air Force operated.
Each aircraft is 107.4 feet long, has a wingspan of 55.6 feet, and is 18.5 feet high (from the ground to the top of the rudders, when parked). Gross takeoff weight is about 140,000 pounds, including a possible fuel weight of 80,280.
In this article, we will share with you an epic story of the SR-71 Blackbird crew that flew a North Pole mission the Night Before Christmas to spy on the USSR setting up acoustic sensors to track US submarines.
In 1969, on the Night Before Christmas, my father Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO), flew a North Pole night mission. To honor him I’m going to share this story. This is the Night Before Christmas as told by a Habu.
Late In 1969, shortly after I was crewed with Bob Spencer, we were tasked to fly a night mission to the North Pole. Night missions were very rare in those days because of St. Martins crash (summer of 1967) at night when the navigation system failed. We were one of the most experienced SR crews and we were told that the Russians were doing something with our submarines at night at a station they had built on the ice near the North Pole.
It was believed that our Side Looking, High-Resolution Radar System could gain valuable intelligence by spying on the unsuspecting Russians in the middle of the night. I found out a few years ago what the Russians were doing, setting up acoustic sensors so they could track our submarines under the ice cape.
We launched from Beale at night, flew north to Alaska, and refueled over the central part on a Northern heading. Once we were full of fuel, we lit the afterburners and climbed to about seventy-five-thousand feet heading north to the ice station. The tanker was briefed to continue to fly north in case we lost an engine. There was no place to land and our emergency procedure was to turn around 180 degrees and do a head-on rendezvous with the tanker on one engine.
As we departed Alaska heading North with the afterburners blazing, I looked out the window at the barren land and ice. I could see well because of the starlight. We had no moon that night. The thought came to my mind, “this is really risky business,” and if anything goes wrong they will never find us. Nothing went wrong, I turned on the Side Looking Radar (SLR), looked at the location, and took the images. Returned to Alaska and refueled from the tanker and returned to Beale.
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The SLR had a great resolution plus the speed of the SR traveling three thousand feet per second caused the antenna to believe it was much longer. The SLR could image out to eighty miles to the side of the SR so if the site was manned they would not hear our sonic boom. The CIA found out that the station was not manned during the worst part of winter. When not manned, the CIA landed a few people by parachute to find out what was going on at the station. They found everything to include code books. The men were recovered by being snatched up into a low-flying aircraft.
This event has been documented by book and a movie.
The night of the mission, the family had gone to bed at the regular time. I got out of bed, went to the flight line, flew the mission, and returned home to bed. The next morning as the family sat around the table having breakfast before school, I thought to myself, no one would believe where I was last night, the North Pole right before Christmas?