This Blackbird was covered in a previous post. Click here to view.
SR-71A #17958 was the first Blackbird delivered to the Air Force, excluding test and trainer aircraft. Her first flight was on December 15, 1965. She logged 2288.9 hours total, before her final landing on February, 23, 1990 at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. She was then towed down the street to the nearby Museum of Aviation where she rests today.
When I was a young child, my parents took me to visit this museum. I remember at that point, the aircraft was resting on the hangar floor. On April 5 and 6, 2013, she was raised atop three pedestals by Warner Robins AFB maintenance squadrons, tilting her back to a takeoff configuration.
When I photographed the aircraft on April 5, 2014, a year to the day after they lifted it on it’s pedestals, I found something incredible. When the plane was tilted up, residual fuel resting in the tanks moved aft and started leaking from the aircraft (shown in final picture in the photo set). The leaks still continue today, a year after the plane was tilted, and 24 years after the plane was last fueled.
When the Blackbird family of aircraft flew at Mach 3+, the friction of the ram air pressure heated the skin of the aircraft to temperatures in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit. This heating caused the whole aircraft to lengthen five inches from tip to tail during high speed flight, and contract again as it descended and bled off speed. This constant expansion and contraction caused the sealant in the fuel tanks to fail, creating leaks. These leaks were monitored and measured in drips per minute (DPI). Each area of the aircraft had a built in tolerance for maximum DPI. Once a certain area surpassed it’s maximum DPI, maintenance would have to re-seal the inside of the fuel tank, which was described as a nightmarish process.
As I walked underneath the aircraft, my shoes stuck to the fuel residue on the hangar floor. This had happened to me a thousand times during my years working on the flight line. But this time was different. This time, the fuel came from an SR-71. This time, the fuel on the floor was JP-7 a proprietary fuel that no other aircraft used. For me, this was an emotional experience. I don’t believe many people have experienced this since the Blackbirds stopped flying in 1999, and even fewer folks will experience this in the future once these elegant crafts contain no more fuel to weep.
Major Brian Shul, SR-71 Pilot and author of the book Sled Driver wrote, “After flying a number of sorties in the airplane, most pilots couldn’t help thinking the airplane had a heart and spirit of its own.” So many people look at these museum pieces as dormant, dead shells of what they once were. That day, #17958 rewarded me by showing that she still had life left in her. This was a connection between man and machine that I do not take for granted.