An SR-71 Blackbird Crew Buzzed a California Air Traffic Control Tower

An SR-71 Blackbird Crew Buzzed a California Air Traffic Control Tower

Every weekday since 1946, Canada has held its International Air Show on the shores of Lake Ontario near Toronto. It’s an extraordinary display of Canadian, American and allied aircraft, bringing together the best of aviation and civil aerospace technology.

1982 was a special year for the show because the crowd got a special visit from a rare sight: an SR-71 Blackbird flying so close they could almost touch it. The real treat came for the Sacramento airport when the Blackbird made its return trip.

SR-71 pilot Maury Rosenberg spoke to a crowd at the Western Museum of Flight in 2018 about the features of the SR-71 and what it was like to fly the plane, along with some anecdotes about his time flying it around the Soviet Union. Cuba and North Korea, just to name a few.

The SR-71 was the first aircraft built from titanium. It was designed to fly at high speeds and high altitudes using its array of sensors, cameras and other equipment to gather intelligence in areas that other aircraft would not reach without substantial risks to pilot and aircraft.

By 1982, Rosenberg had flown 220 combat sorties in the Vietnam War. He was one of the first pilots selected for “Wild Weasel” training, where American aircraft would be deliberately targeted by enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites to reveal their locations. It would serve him well later over North Korea, when his SR-71 was targeted by a North Korean SAM.

At the Western Museum of Flight, Rosenberg recalled a story about a request for a “flight” from the air traffic control tower in Sacramento. After performing his SR-71 at the Canadian International Air Show, he flew the Blackbird back to Beale Air Force Base in California.

As he went to land, he realized he had a lot of fuel left. He asked the “back”, his reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), if he wanted to approach nearby Sacramento.

“Can we do this?” asked the RSO.

“Why not?” was Rosenberg’s reply.

After heading into Sacramento airport airspace, they switched tower communications to Sac Metro. As they approached, they requested a landing gear approach. After the tower cleared them for an approach, Rosenberg asked if they wanted to go on the runway or the ramp.

The tower’s response was an enthusiastic “down the ramp!”

Rosenberg raised the landing gear and then pushed the power. While flying towards the ramp and the tower, he rolled the aircraft away from the tower and ignited the afterburner.

The SR-71 was capable of cruising at 2,200 mph, even at 85,000 feet. Each of its two Pratt & Whitney engines could produce 32,500 pounds of thrust. He later revealed that passengers and staff in the terminal jumped to the ground when he passed the tower, bursting into flames after burning.

However, the tower wanted Blackbird to do it again. Rosenberg had to fall.

When he finally landed at Beale AFB, Rosenberg was met by his squadron commander in the hangar. His commander asked if there were any regulations against approaching the Sacramento airport. Rosenberg replied that he did not know of one.

“I want one on my desk tomorrow at 7 a.m.,” said the commander.

— Blake Stilwell can be reached at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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