The year was 1972.
I was a copilot in a Q-model KC-135 USAF tanker aircraft. I joined the USAF because I was draft-eligible, and because I would much rather be flying airplanes than carrying a rifle.
The Q-model tanker was a special derivative of the A-model tanker. Where as the A-model tanker had ten fuel tanks, each designed to carry JP-4 jet fuel, the Q-model tanker had a special modification that isolated the four body tanks from the six wing tanks. The wing tanks would carry the standard JP-4 jet fuel, while the body tanks would carry special JP-7, used to refuel the SR-71 blackbird, also known as the habu, after a venomous asian blacksnake.
The SR-71 had a published altitude ceiling of over 80,000 feet, and a published top speed of over Mach 3, but rumors still abound today that these published figures are barely half what this aircraft could truly do.
Victor Balenko, in his book “MiG Pilot,” reported that it was impossible for Americans to understand how disheartening it was for him to be in his country’s top of the line, most advanced aircraft, and to get an alert that an American spy plane had flown across the Pacific Ocean and was approaching their coast; he would launch his own aircraft, go screaming up to his top altitude, and discover that at this altitude plus the range of the missiles he carried, he still could not quite reach the altitude of American plane to shoot it down. About this time, he was almost out of gas, so he had to turn around and fly back to base, while the American plane lazily turned around and flew all the way back across the Pacific Ocean.
The SR-71 is amazing technology, even for today, but given the fact that it was designed in the 1950s, it is nothing short of astounding.
In 1972, I was flying the Q-model tankers out of Okinawa, frequently on missions to refuel SR-71s that had been taking pictures of the war situation in Viet Nam.
One thing to keep in mind is that pilots are eternally looking out for other aircraft, as the last thing you want is to unexpectedly meet another one in the sky. An aircraft the size of a 4-engine passenger jet at 5 miles away appears smaller than a fly on the windscreen, at ten miles, it is smaller than a grain of pepper. (This will be relevant later in this essay.) Whenever someone, such as an air traffic controller, notifies you of a nearby aircraft, you scan intently for it, and when you see it, you acknowledge by answering “Tally Ho!”
The SR-71 flies so high, it must perform an emergency descent to get down to refueling altitude. On the other hand, our tanker had to climb up to as high as we could, carrying the fuel load we had, to meet the habu.
The SR-71 flies so fast, the friction of the air causes the leading edges of its black-anodized titanium wings to glow a cherry red. This was particularly apparent when we would refuel them at dusk.
Whever we would refuel the SR-71s in Southeast Asia, we would meet them in a refueling track over Thailand, a friendly country who did not fire anti-aircraft missiles at U.S. aircraft.
As we entered the refueling area, the KC-135’s navigator would establish minimal radio contact with the receiver, and both aircraft would tune in their air-to-air TACAN (tactical air navigation radios). The TACANs, when tuned to channels 83 channels apart, would show each aircraft the distance to the other aircraft.
As we would fly towards each other, tracks offset by the diameter of our turn, the Nav would call out the DME (distance measuring equipment, but used to mean just “distance”), and when it got to 5 miles, we would begin our left turn, which would roll us out directly in front of the receiver, so he would be ready to approach and begin refueling.
On this particular mission, we were entering the refueling area over Thailand, and the Nav was looking for contact with the receiver. He established got a good radio lock, and announced over the interphone, “Contact with the receiver. 125 miles.”
I looked out the front windscreen and said, “Tally Ho.”
Both the pilot and the nav immediately came back with “WHAT?”
I pointed forward, and up at an angle of about 30°.
There, high in the sky, was a vivid white contrail against the blue. It was our receiver aircraft, making his emergency descent, leaving the brilliant white streak behind him. As we watched, we could see the contrail being drawn, and the tiniest black speck at the head of it.
That was quite a thrill, to be able to see another aircraft at a distance of 125 miles, and know just who it was and where he was headed.
We completed the rendezvous and refueling without incident, and went on to land at the SAC base at U-Tapao, Thailand, where other adventures awaited.
But that’s a story for another day.