From the cockpit: the inside story of an SR-71 record-breaking flight

Key.Aero’s Dino Carrara interviewed pilot Ed Yeilding to hear about his time assigned to the SR-71 Blackbird. In this video he describes setting the US coast-to-coast speed record and the problems in-flight that almost thwarted the attempt

"When Congress voted to retire the Blackbird in December 1989 we were all really sad that the aeroplane was being retired. Many museums around the country wanted a Blackbird for display, including the Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC.

The Smithsonian sent a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, Donald Rice, and requested that when the Blackbird was being flown to the Smithsonian, the pilot set an official coast-to-coast speed record across the United States. It would call the public's attention to what a great aeroplane the Blackbird was and the great service it had done for our country for 25 years. So, I was ordered to set a speed record, which was a great honour. Any of the crews could have flown that mission, so I was very fortunate to be asked to do it along with my RSO [Reconnaissance Systems Officer]. I want to tell you what a special RSO, JT Vida was who I flew that speed record flight with. He was an outstanding RSO and passed away with cancer two-and-a-half years after we flew our coast-to-coast speed record. He had 1,392.7hrs flying hours in the Blackbird, which is more than any other pilot or RSO – he was a great friend too and we miss him.

We were both at Palmdale at the time. I’d been flying test missions for two years on the SR-71 after four-and-a-half years at Beale and JT had been at Palmdale longer than me. My total flying hours on the Blackbird is 785.

We took off from Palmdale in our test aeroplane, which was tail number 972, and flew out over the Pacific and air refuelled about 200 miles off the coast and lit the afterburners and got a 200-mile running start. The plan was to fly the cruise at the top speed of the aeroplane, which was Mach 3.3. Ordinarily, we were not allowed to fly faster than Mach 3.2, but for that special mission I had permission to take it to the flight manual limit of Mach 3.3. It would have been nice to cross both coasts at top speed, but fuel was really tight.

The plan was to cross the West Coast, accelerating through Mach 2.5. Then a few minutes after that we would be at our top cruise speed of Mach 3.3. We had to start our descent just before we got to the East Coast and crossed it in a descending left-hand turn back toward Dulles.

It was a really special flight because we knew it was going to be our last fight in the Blackbird and so I was having special thoughts as we were crossing the country. We refuelled in the dark out over the Pacific – it was pitch black, no moon, no horizon that night. I lit the afterburner and eventually we were going faster than a speeding bullet.

As we crossed the coast in the twilight we could see the white ocean breakers all along the coast of California as we accelerated toward the brightening Eastern horizon.

Just a few minutes after that the sun came up as we passed Los Angeles and could see all the millions of lights of the city in the twilight. A few minutes after that we passed Las Vegas, we saw Lake Mead and after that the Grand Canyon.

The eastern part of the country was undercast so I didn't see many features, but JT and I just made sure we enjoyed our last few minutes of flying this marvellous aeroplane. One last view of God's Earth from 80,000ft, the slight curvature of the Earth, the darkness overhead but the bright band of blue on the horizon as we were flying above 97% of the air molecules.

I thought about how very fortunate we were to have served alongside hundreds of other highly dedicated men and women who served with the Blackbird, those who helped design, support, maintain and flew the aeroplane during its 25 years of service.

When we crossed the East Coast the aeroplane had just flown from coast-to-coast, sea to shining sea, as described in the song ‘America the Beautiful’ in 67 minutes and 54 seconds. That was March 6, 1990 and no aeroplane has ever flown coast-to-coast across America faster than the Blackbird did that day. That record still stands after 33 years.

We landed at Dulles and there was a plane-side ceremony as the air force passed the aeroplane to the Smithsonian. That aeroplane is on display at the Smithsonian's Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center which is at Dulles airport, west of Washington, DC. The background picture behind me is the very aeroplane that we flew that day. Behind the Blackbirdin the distance is the Space Shuttle Discovery. The museum has got many aeroplanes on display so it's an honour that the Blackbird is displayed right in the centre of the museum."