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SR-71 — the whole 9 yards

5 July 2013

SR-71 — the whole 9 yards

SR-71: the complete illustrated history of The Blackbird the World’s highest, fastest plane, Col. Richard H. Graham USAF (ret.), 2013, ISBN 978-0-7603-4327-2, 192 pp.

SR-71: the complete illustrated history of The Blackbird the World's highest, fastest plane by Col. Richard H. Graham with cover design by Simon Larkin and photo credit to Lockheed Martin

SR-71: the complete illustrated history of The Blackbird the World’s highest, fastest plane by Col. Richard H. Graham with cover design by Simon Larkin and photo credit to Lockheed Martin and Shutterstock — image courtesy of Zenith Press

There are many other books on ultra-advanced-even-after-retirement Lockheed SR-71, including by the author, and each serves a use. The niche of this book, by former SR-71 pilot Col. Richard Graham, is:

  • How the SR-71 came to be beginning with the Lockheed U-2 and A-12 aircraft
  • How to service a fleet of SR-71s across three bases
  • SR-71 mission planning and logistics from short to long range
  • How to fly the SR-71 and what is was like to work in the cockpits (including use of periscope and interior mirrors)

The desire to know how to maintain and fly a “Blackbird” is explained by Graham. He writes about the SR-71 as if he just stepped out of its cockpit less than five minutes previously — with intimacy and deep understanding. Learning why SR-71s were refueled after taking off (not due to the leaky nature of the fuel compartments when at rest) was intriguing as was the how little of the total thrust was provided by the massive engines (just 20% of the thrust at Mach 3+ cruise speeds with the other 80% due to clever design, as explained in Chapter 16). Graham also describes how Blackbirds (also nicknamed “Habus”) were maintained and tasked, how they were flown and what it was like to fly them in 22 concise chapters — which shows his organized and conversationally clear way of imparting his knowledge to the reader.

Although the book is only 192 pages — much of them taken up with images, drawings and illustrations — it is filled to the brim with information and revelation. The preface begins with an attempt to shoot down an SR-71 traveling high and fast in international air space with the pace hardly slacking off from there — much like Col. Graham’s piloting of an SR-71 to Mach 3+ cruise and remaining there until it was time to land.

Description of maintenance addresses not only the aircraft but the crew’s suits as well. The reader learns that they are tough indeed in an incident description by the pilot who survived the experience. How crews were rotated and how missions were tasked is also part of the reader’s education.

The astral navigation system is explained in detail including how stars were found by the electronics as well as how many were used, including adjustments for banking angles. The accuracy and precision of the system is amazing to realize and was vital to the efficacy of the SR-71. One of the many significant but often unaddressed (by other authors) is how the sighting glass of the astral navigation system was maintained at a specific temperature as well as how readings were corrected for aberrations created by the supersonic slipstream.

Col. Graham also writes the best opinion we have read regarding the premature retirement (demise?) of the SR-71 — a bitter brew of unfortunate program placement (or was it purposeful?) in combination with being a victim of its own secrecy success (those outside of the USAF knew the Blackbird’s value better than the Air Force?). Graham’s assignment after his participation in the SR-71 program placed him in a position to know.

The book is as enjoyable to read as it is to see since the illustrations and background textures of the pages make for a rich experience. Once read, the reader will have not only an acute awareness of flying an SR-71 but an overview of the organization as well as logistics which were required to keep the SR-71 flying. What is not assessed in the book — though not promised the subject is broached by Graham — is how the intelligence gathered by SR-71 aircraft kept the Cold War from becoming hot since less guesswork was involved in analyzing the intentions of the adversary powers — but that may be the subject for another of Col. Graham’s books?


As is the publishing business custom, Zenith Press has provided a copy of this book to read for the writing of an objective review — no compensation has been offered, expected or requested.

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