That Old Black Magic

When Abe Kardong ran over a black cat on a Friday the 13th in 1968, he knew it meant trouble. Less than a month later, his brand-new Air Force SR-71 Blackbird shattered a wheel rim on takeoff at California's Beale Air Force Base. Kardong stayed with the aircraft as it veered off the runway and crashed, but his reconnaissance systems officer, Major Jim Kogler, ejected. What Kardong remembers most after climbing out of the burning airplane to help Kogler as he parachuted down is the reaction of his six-foot, five-inch backseater: "I always wondered if my knees would clear the instrument panel."

Last June, 40 years after the first flight of the U-2 and more than 30 years after the A-12 and SR-71 appeared, Kardong and other Lockheed reconnaissance aircraft pilots and crewmen met in Sparks, Nevada, for their biennial reunion. There was much rejoicing that after a five-year retirement, the SR-71 is being brought back into limited service. The Air Force, under Congressional pressure, is reactivating two Blackbirds, and just the day before, reported Lockheed Martin SR-71 project manager Jay Murphy, one of them had reached Mach 3.3. The smaller, slower U-2 and its TR-1 offspring have continued to monitor world trouble spots as well as U.S. earthquake and flood damage.

Ken Collins was one of the first Blackbird pilots -- and survivors. On May 24, 1963, his supersecret A-12 went into an inverted flat spin near Wendover, Utah. Ejecting upside down, he landed safely in the desolate countryside and was discovered by three men in a pickup. "I told them I'd crashed an F-105 with a nuclear device on board," he says. Their reaction was 'We're gettin' outta here. You wanna go with us?'"

Some of the Blackbird alums' memories were less exotic or fraught with danger but equally rich. As he once aimed his SR-71 east over the Atlantic, recalls Rich Graham, "the sun came up directly over the nose. Then I popped the periscope and saw a full moon perfectly centered between the afterburners behind me. It was a Kodak moment you couldn't have captured on film."

Former U-2 SR-71 pilot Pat Halloran summed up the group's elation that the SR-71 -- "the Sled" -- was back in the air. "At Beale," he told the closing night banquet crowd of 600, "someone had written on the nose section of an SR-71, 'Elvis is dead and so is the Sled.' Someone recently scratched it out and wrote, 'Elvis lives.'"

Written by Bob McCafferty, and published in the Smithsonian Air&Space magazine, issue September 1995, pages 14-15. Reprinted without permission!