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Speaker recounts Blackbird legacy

Col. Carpenter with SR-71

Col. Adelbert "Buz" Carpenter stands at the nose of the SR-71 he flew during his active duty career. Now retired, Carpenter gave a presentation on the venerable aircraft and its mission during the Cold War. (courtesy photo)

Col. Carpenter in cockpit.

Col. Adelbert "Buz" Carpenter prepares for flight in the SR-71. Early in the program, Blackbird pilots wore the same space suit as the Gemini astronauts. (courtesy photo)

Col. Carpenter presented certificate.

Second Lt. Joseph Montero, AFLCMC Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate, presents a certificate of appreciation to Col. Adelbert "Buz" Carpenter after his presentation on the SR-71. (courtesy photo)

Col. Carpenter speaks to crowd in Kenney Hall.

Col. Adelbert "Buz" Carpenter speaks about the venerable SR-71 and its unique mission in the Cold War. Carpenter spoke about this unique aircraft to a packed Kenney Hall as part of a quarterly Military Awareness Event for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate. (courtesy photo)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, OHIO (AFLCMC) – “I think he’s out spying,” whispered Col. Adelbert "Buz" Carpenter’s 7-year-old daughter to a frantic Director of Operations looking for her “daddy.”

While she might not have grasped the full impact and certainly was not privy to his exact location, Carpenter’s daughter had a thumbnail knowledge of the impact the SR-71 Blackbird played in keeping the Cold War a “cold” war. 

Invited by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate, Carpenter spoke about this unique aircraft to a packed Kenney Hall as part of their quarterly Military Awareness Event. These events were instituted several years ago to promote Air Force heritage, highlight unique accomplishments of Airmen, and to learn more about Operations in today’s Air Force.    

The “greatest accomplishment” of legendary aircraft and systems engineer Kelly Johnson in the storied Lockheed Skunk Works was created at the behest of President Eisenhower.  After learning that new Soviet surface to air missiles could potentially jeopardize the U-2 Dragonlady, Ike asked for a reconnaissance aircraft that couldn’t be tracked or shot down.  

Johnson and his team created the SR-71 – the last aircraft designed with a slide rule – going from paper to first flight in only 32 months.  Still the fastest aircraft to fly, just one of its many records was flying from Los Angeles to Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. in 64 minutes at 2,193 mph. 

While it is commonly called the Blackbird, Carpenter preferred the name “HABU” which is the Japanese word for a particular type of cobra found on Okinawa.   

“I was one of 85 pilots to ever fly the SR-71,” Carpenter said.  “You had to be a volunteer and go through an astronaut physical” during the year-long initial training.  Pilots initially wore a space suit from the Gemini program.  Later updated SR-71 suits were borrowed for the first mission of the Space Shuttle Colombia. 

The aircraft was made from titanium purchased from the Soviet Union through a “front company” and used silicone seals due to the 600 degree Fahrenheit average surface temperature. 

“The silicone leaked so much the crew chiefs often wore raincoats to guard against the fuel,” Carpenter said. 

While most of the missions were in the 4-6 hour range, some went considerably longer and all needed aerial refueling about every 2 hours. 

“If you flew a tanker, you are my hero.  I don’t think we ever missed a rendezvous with a tanker,” he said. 

Although there was and is still nothing like it in the air, the SR-71 was expensive - $85,000 per hour – to operate.  It was the lack of a datalink that Carpenter cites as a chief reason for its early retirement.  On one mission over the Middle East, it took between 36-48 hours for the film to be removed from the aircraft, flown to Washington, processed and delivered to President Carter. 

Still, the contribution to the security of the United States and the free world during the long Cold War is unquestionable. 

Carpenter, who today serves as a docent at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, ensures future generations appreciate that contribution.

“Nothing about the aircraft is classified anymore which is neat for me because I can talk about it.”