My first duty assignment after six months of Air Force Technical Training School was to the sprawling Kadena Air Force Base on the island of Okinawa in Japan. When I graduated I was not told much about my new duty station, about all I knew was that it was very far from home and I was being assigned to Detachment 1 of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance wing whose headquarters were based out of Beale Air Force Base in California. I was both very excited and very nervous at the same time to go there. Little did I know, I would soon be working with the fastest and one of the most famous aircraft ever developed in history.
Arriving at Kadena
When I first arrived at Kadena I was greeted by my sponsor and whisked away in a really small car driving on the opposite of the road to dinner. Ironically my first meal in Japan was of all things a taco; it was in talking with my sponsor over that meal that I first learned I would be disseminating intelligence platforms that were placed aboard an SR-71aircraft. Everything he told me sounded pretty cool and I could not wait to see the aircraft for the first time. A few days later I got my wish but in the most unexpected of ways.
I was riding the bus to my first duty shift and we were driving around the massive runway at Kadena. In my first few days there I was wide eyed as I watched all the F-15’s and other aircraft constantly taking off and landing. I felt like I was really in the Air Force for the first time since it was my first base that had aircraft permanently stationed there. All of the sudden there was a deafening roar and a large black aircraft came screaming down the runway and then jettisoned itself into the sky with bright pink flames coming out of its two massive engines. The engines continued to roar as it quickly arose into the twilight sky for about 30 seconds and then disappeared. It was an absolutely amazing sight and it was the first time I saw the SR-71“Blackbird” or the “Habu”(named after the islands highly deadly black snake) as it was affectionately called on the island, in flight.
Getting to Know the Aircraft
Over the next few months I would get to know the aircraft more intimately and learn to appreciate its complexity, yet it had a simple grace and mystery about it at the same time. It was an aircraft that was very seldom seen out of in the open; once it landed it quickly taxied straight into the hangar. The Blackbird’s two pilots were dressed more like astronauts as they boarded the aircraft to go on a mission. To help start its two massive engines, a napalm like substance needed to be injected into them as a team of firefighters stood by. I was surprised such a sophisticated aircraft leaked fuel like a sieve when it was parked on the ground and that was the very reason it had to be refueled in the air after every time after it was airborne. It took off like a roaring rocket and landed with the stealth of a glider. The “Habu” flew too high and too fast for anything to come close to shooting it down.
It was truly an amazing aircraft and it gave me a huge sense of pride every time I walked by it in the hangar. Sadly, in 1999, it was decided that the SR-71 was too expensive to fly and maintain and that better reconnaissance platforms were now available. It was hard to believe there was no role for the world’s fastest and highest flying aircraft to perform, but nonetheless it was retired from service. Those of us who worked with the Blackbird will never forget the experience and will smile widely whenever we hear its name mentioned or have a happy memory come back to us when we see a photo of it. Retired or not, it still remains one of the most amazing and most sophisticated aircraft ever built by mankind.
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