A chase plane is an aircraft that “chases” a “subject” aircraft, spacecraft or rocket, for the purposes of making real-time observations and taking air-to-air photographs and video of the “subject aircraft”, during flight.
When SR-71 Blackbird was in service Northrop T-38 Talon was its chase plane or T-38 to fly “pace chase” formation with the SR-71.
Whenever the SR-71 was in trouble and needed to be looked over externally, the T-38 was an ideal aircraft to do the job. Every time an SR-71 was flying at Beale, a T-38 had to be airborne or “cocked” on the ground, ready for immediate response with a qualified “pace chase” crew member onboard.
The first order of business before starting SR-71 training was to get checked out in the T-38 Talon aircraft, used as a companion trainer for SR-71 crew members.
Here is one incident when T-38 chase aircraft helped an SR-71 Blackbird whose nose section came off during flight
Col. Richard H. Graham, a former Blackbird pilot, tells the story on Incident in his book SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane.
“On one occasion I needed the ‘pace chase’ aircraft to look me over,”
“It was right after takeoff, when my RSO, Don Emmons, and I heard a loud “bang” coming from somewhere in front of the rudder pedals.
I was approaching our climb out the speed of 400 knots and thought I might have hit a bird. Looking out over the nose, I noticed a large piece of the nose section beneath the aircraft had blown open, still attached, but flapping in the air stream.
I couldn’t tell the full extent of the damage because the piece was underneath the nose and all I could see was one end of it flapping about. Joe Kinego, another SR-71 crew member, remembered the ‘funny (then scary)’ radio call Don made back to Beale informing everyone of our problem:
‘The nose is coming off!’ That radio call got everyone’s attention!”
“The T-38 chase aircraft joined up information and told us the extent of our damage as we returned to Beale. It was comforting to know everything else was intact.
A one-by-two foot metal section of the nose had ripped open while still attached underneath. I always felt fortunate that it happened during daylight.
Had it been at night, I’m positive I wouldn’t have been able to see the loose panel and might have discounted the possibility of anything being wrong and continued the mission… you just never know.
“Talking to Lockheed engineers later, they determined there was a good possibility if we had gone supersonic, the entire nose section (which is removable) might have imploded from the supersonic shock wave.
That scenario would have probably necessitated an ejection for both of us!”
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force