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Ok, let’s get this out of the way to start – I’m crap at the guitar. It’s often said that Jimmy Page’s renditions of “Stairway to Heaven” were known to bring people to tears. Well, mine did, too. But while playing the guitar I met some great players, and learnt one very important lesson – no matter what, occasionally you’ll be the best.

What’s that got to do with the SR-71? Well, I’m going to do a couple of articles on the Blackbird, and I’m sure that if you’ve spent any time breathing in the last forty years you’ll know it’s a legend. But before I delve into tedious details on air speed and altitude, I thought I’d share this article which I received as an email because it reminds me of my guitar lesson. I believe this was written by Brian Schul about an incident while he and Walter Watson, training in their SR-71, listened to their radio.

We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a read-out of his ground speed.

Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m showing you at ninety knots on the ground.”

Now the thing to understand about Center controllers, was that whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna, or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional tone that made one feel important. I referred to it as the “Houston Center voice.” I have always felt that after years of seeing documentaries on this country’s space program and listening to the calm and distinct voice of the Houston controllers, that all other controllers since then wanted to sound like that and that they basically did. And it didn’t matter what sector of the country we would be flying in, it always seemed like the same guy was talking. Over the years that tone of voice had become somewhat of a comforting sound to pilots everywhere. Conversely, over the years, pilots always wanted to ensure that, when transmitting, they sounded like Chuck Yeager, or at least like John Wayne. Better to die than sound bad on the radios.


Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. “I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots ground speed.” replied Center.

Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren.

 Then out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore came up on frequency. You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he sounded very cool on the radio. “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check.” Before Center could reply, I’m thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he asking Center for a read-out? Then I got it. Ol’ Dusty was making sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knew what true speed  was. He’s the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. The reply, always with that same, calm, voice, with more distinct alliteration than emotion was, “Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground.”

I thought to myself, is this a ripe situation, or what? As my hand instinctively reached for the mic button, I had to remind myself that Walt was in control of the radios. Still, I thought, it must be done—in mere seconds we’ll be out of the sector and the opportunity will be lost. That Hornet must die, and die now. I thought about all of our Sim training and how important it was that Walt and I developed well as a crew and knew that to jump in on the radios now would destroy the integrity of all that we had worked toward becoming. I was torn.

Somewhere, 13 miles above Arizona, there was a pilot screaming inside his space helmet. Then, I heard it—the click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew.

Very professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke:

“Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?”

There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request.

“Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground.”

I think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and you just knew he was smiling. But the precise point at which I knew that Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like voice: “Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to nineteen hundred on the money.”

For a moment Walter was a god. And we finally heard a little crack in the armor of the Houston Center voice, when L.A. came back with, “Roger that Aspen. Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have a good one.” It had lasted for just moments, but in that short, memorable sprint across the southwest, the Navy had been flamed, all mortal airplanes on that frequency were forced to bow before the King of Speed, and more importantly, Walter and I had crossed the threshold of being a crew. A fine day’s work. We never heard another transmission all the way to the coast. For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there

So there you have it, an awesome airplane and a sense of humor. Of course, unlike my guitar playing, the SR-71 was  always good.

Have you ever had one of those moments? A time when you were, if only for a minute, king of the hill?



(Images courtesy of Wikipedia)

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