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Mission Possible - Pilots, crew relive absolute speed record

  • Published
  • By Angela Woolen
  • 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

In 1976, it was a different time. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was in full swing and Americans were standing in line to buy gas. 

That year was also the country’s bicentennial birthday. To celebrate, officials decided to attempt to break some records with an aircraft known as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. 

On July 28, 1976, with a breakfast of steak and eggs, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Eldon “Al” Joersz, pilot, and retired Air Force Lt. Col. George “GT” Morgan, reconnaissance systems officer, set the world absolute speed record for jet-powered airplanes with a speed of 2,193 mph. The record still stands today. 

“We never dreamed, I guess we never gave it much thought, how long the record would last,” Joersz said. 

The very plane that holds the record, with tail No. 61-7958, sits in the Robins Air Force Base Museum of Aviation Century of Flight Hangar. For three days, the museum played host to not only Joersz and Morgan, but 12 other crew members and pilots who were part of the SR-71 program. 

“The way we look at it, we represent the crew force, we represent the airplane and we really represent America,” Joersz said. 

The two fastest men alive were able to get back in the cockpit of their famed aircraft for a while during their visit to the museum. 

There were only 85 pilots and RSOs who were trained to fly the SR-71 operationally. Another 40 or so were trained to fly test flights for the plane, said Buz Carpenter, former SR-71 pilot who is now a docent at the National Air and Space Museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Virginia. 

The SR-71 never had a fatality in its 30-plus years of operation. 

“There’s a mystique about this airplane,” Carpenter said. 

The words “mystique” and “magical” were used several times during the course of the three days among pilots and crew members to describe their time with the Blackbird. 

The magic of the SR-71 drew a crowd of about 300 to the museum July 30 for the public event commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the record-setting flight. People lined up to get signatures from the SR-71 attendees. The audience brought books, programs and airplane models. Some just wanted to meet those who made the mission possible. 

Local mayors also signed a proclamation naming July 30, 2016, as Blackbird Day in Houston County. 

Tom Joyce, an instrument and inlets technician on the SR-71, was able to sit in the cockpit as well for a few moments. One of his fondest memories was hearing the aircraft crank with its start cart containing two 450-cubic-inch engines. 

Joyce, who worked on the SR-71 from 1975 to 1988, remembered the first time he went out to see the Blackbird. 

“It was amazing. It doesn’t look like an airplane and then they put astronaut suits on the pilots,” he said with a smile. 

Most of the missions the spacecraft-looking Blackbird flew are still classified. 

“Those reconnaissance operations are what brought peace and what gave some teeth to the American front during that Cold War ... Thank you from a country that could not have won the Cold War without your efforts,” said Col. John Cooper, 461st Air Control Wing commander, during the July 30 event. 

The SR-71 came to Robins in 1990, with more than 2,885 hours of air time in its career. 

“It’s as impressive to me now as when I first saw it and flew it. Every time I flew it was my favorite memory,” Morgan said.