Spy Plane Pilot Shares Stories At Stennis

Imagine a plane that can fly from Los Angeles to New York in less than an hour.

A special visitor to Stennis Space Center doesn't have to imagine. For seven years he flew such a plane.

It's called the SR-71, a top secret spy plane the United States used during the Cold War.

Long before the world knew of its existence, it was already legend: The SR 71 Blackbird.

Rich Graham was among the chosen few who piloted the spy plane. It was built for high altitude speed.

"The SR 71 cruised always at mach three plus, which is about twenty one hundred or twenty two hundred miles per hour. And we did it between eighty and eighty five thousand feet," said retired pilot, Rich Graham.

The SR 71 was created by tragedy. After a U2 spy plane was shot down over Russia in May of 1960, engineer Kelly Johnson got the go ahead to design and build the blackbird.

"Realize he built this airplane with slide rule technology. No computers to help him. Everything on the airplane, the fuel, the hydraulics, the oil, everything had to be specifically designed from scratch," Graham explained to his audience of Stennis engineers.

The blackbirds can literally out race a bullet or cross a football field in the blink of an eye.

It was an engineering marvel that was decades ahead of its time Special intakes allowed the aircraft to harness the wind.

"This capture area becomes bigger and bigger because the spike becomes smaller and smaller," Graham explained while pointing to a slide.

"The engines were only producing twenty percent of the thrust. The actual inlets themselves were producing eighty percent of the thrust, using that mach three air and utilizing it," said Graham.

The military retired the blackbird in 1990. Today it's found only in museums. Graham would like it renewed.

"We could fly the SR today over any third world country day in, day out, rain or shine and gather intelligence. Unannounced," said Graham.

For now, memories propel the retired pilot. He's written two books and shares stories about the blackbird around the country.

Graham says the increasing reliance on satellite technology helped support the decision to retire the plane.  Cost was also a consideration. The SR 71 cost thirty eight thousand dollars an hour to fly.