On July 27th and 28th, 1976, The United States Air Force celebrated out bicentennial by performing Operation Glowing Speed, which was orchestrated to simply regain absolute speed and altitude records held by the Soviet Mig-25 Foxbat aircraft. SR-71A #17958, on display at the Museum of Aviation near Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, was responsible for record setting flights during Operation Glowing Speed.
Operation Glowing Speed was originally scheduled for July 4th, but was not approved in time for an independence day performance. Later that month, flying out of Beale AFB, #17958 would obtain records which still stand today, officially recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
FAI’s first speed record was performed on 14 September 1906 by Brazilian native, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who took his single engine kit plane up to the blistering speed of 25.6 mph. 70 years later, our Blackbird bested his record at 2,193.167 mph. All pilots involved were awarded the De La Vaulx medal by the FAI, which is given exclusively to those who set absolute speed or altitude records.
#17958 flew two of the three Operation Glowing Heat flights. One flight, called “Desert Trek”, was flown by pilot Major Adolphus H. Bledsoe Jr, and RSO Major John T. Fuller on July 27, 1976. Speed Over a Closed 1000km Course was clocked at 2,092 mph. This flight bested the previous record of 1815 mph, set by a Soviet Mig-25 in October, 1967.
“Fast Flight”, flown by pilot Captain Eldon W. Joersz, and RSO Major George T. Morgan Jr. on July 28, 1976, set world absolute and world class speed record, speed over a straight 15-25km course at 2,193.167 mph. According to the record books, this is the fastest official speed that any human has traveled in an aircraft. During the record setting run, #17958 suffered an inlet unstart, recovering without flying outside of the boundaries set by officials. This record surpassed one previously set in 1965 by another member of the Blackbird family of aircraft, the YF-12A.
Absolute altitude records were set during, “High Flight”, flown by a different Blackbird. During these record setting flights, the Blackbirds didn’t exceed or even approach their design limits. They flew a standard cruise flight configuration. In fact, nearly every typical operational mission would exceed the heights and speeds associated with these records.
When I visited on April 4, 2014, the hangar in which the Blackbird resides was used as a venue to an Air Force retirement ceremony, shown in the final picture of the photo set. The retiree spent 29 years in the USAF as a Sikorsky MH-53 helicopter pilot. The opening ceremony included a posting of the colors, and a singing of the National Anthem. Hearing The Star-Spangled Banner reverberating in the hangar while standing at attention next to the Blackbird was quite a moving experience. While listening, I reflected on what it must have been like to be a part of the record setting bicentennial.