The ‘Senior Crown’ programme was living on borrowed time without an electro-optical backplate for the camera system and a data-link system which would permit camera imagery and radar data from ASARS-1 to be down-linked in near real time. Eventually, funds were appropriated for the development of Senior King, a secure data link via satellite, but its development would prove too late to save the SR-71.
By the late eighties the list of those articulating an anti SR-71 posture was as long and varied as it was powerful. By 1988 it looked as though the efforts of the antagonists would be successful. But all was not quite lost: Admiral Lee Baggott, Commander in Chief, Atlantic (CINCLANT) required SR-71 coverage of the Kola peninsula as there were no other means of obtaining the quality of coverage required. He took the battle to retain the SR-71 in Europe right to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and obtained funding for Det 4 for a further year. Meanwhile, the SR-71 PEM and his action officer were able to secure a commitment from a staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee for S46 million to keep Kadena and Palmdale open for another year. By now however, it was only a question of time before these valiant rearguard actions faced the inevitable. What was to be the final flight of an SR-71 took place on 6 March 1990, when Ed Yeilding and JT Vida flew ‘972 on a Wcst-to-East coast record-breaking flight across the United States, before landing at the Smithsonian National Aerospace Museum, Washington DC, where the aircraft was handed over for permanent display. Thereafter, SR – 71As (‘962, ‘967 and ‘968), were placed in storage at Site 2 Palmdale. Two SR-71As (‘971 and ‘980), together with the sole surviving SR-71 В (‘956) were loaned to NASA, the remaining 13 aircraft (including the hybrid trainer designated SR-71C which consisted of the forward fuselage from a static specimen mated to the wing and rear. section of YF-12A, 60-6934), were donated to museums throughout the US. Despite more than forty members of Congress, and many other well placed officials and senior officers voicing their concern over the decision.
During the course of the Gulf War, two requests were made to reactivate the Senior Crown programme, both however were turned down by the same SECDEF who had presided over the aircraft’s shutdown – Dick Cheney. That Desert Storm was an overwhelming success for coalition forces is beyond despute; however there were lessons to be learned from the 41-day campaign, not least of which was the lack of timely reconnaissance material available to General Schwarzkopfs field commanders.
It wasn’t until March/April 1994 that events in the international arena once more took a turn. Relations
Right, top, middle and bottom SR-71A 17968 is caught on another sortie. The aircraft first flew on 3 August 1966, with Bill Weaver in the front and George Andre in the back; it was retired on 12 February 1990. having accumulated 2,279 flight hours. (Eric Schulzinger)
between North Korea and the United States, at best always strained, reached a new low over the north’s refusal to allow inspection of their nuclear sites. At this point Senator Robert Byrd took centre stage. Together with several members of the Armed Services, and various members of Congress, he contended that back in 1990 the Pentagon had consistently lied about the supposed readiness of a replacement for the SR-71. The motivation behind such commitments was not the usual politicking, but one of genuine concern for the maintenance of a platform capable of broad area synoptic coverage.
The campaigning and lobbying paid off as noted in the ‘Department of Defence Appropriations Bill 1995’, report 103-321, dated July 20, wherein provision was made for a modest, ‘three plane SR-71 aircraft contingency reconnaissance capability’, at a cost of SI00 million, for fiscal year 1995 (FY95). Of the three SR-71As placed in deep storage at Site 2, Palmdale, only ‘967 was called to arms. The other A model to be recommissioned was ‘971 which had been loaned to NASA, re-numbered 832 and regularly ground tested but never flown by its civilian caretakers. Pilot trainer SR-71B, together with the brand new flight simulator, would be shared between the Air Force and NASA, and in a further move to keep operating costs to a minimum the new detachment, designated det 2, would,
like NASA, operate its aircraft from Edwards AFB, California.
Aircraft reactivation began on 5 January 1995 and seven days later, at 11:26 hrs, NASA crew Steve Ishmael and Marta Bohn-Meyer got airborne from Edwards in ‘971 on a 26 minute ferry flight which terminated at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, Plant 10 Building 602, Palmdale. Over the next three months ASARS and other sensors previously in storage at Luke AFB, Arizona were installed. At 10:18 hrs on 26 April, NASA crew Ed Schneider and Marta completed a 34 minutes FCF on ‘971. A month later Ed and Marta’s husband Bob Meyer conducted 971’s second and final FCF which lasted 2.5 hours. It took seven further FCFs to wring out all the glitches in ‘967, the final one successfully completed on 12 January 1996.
Three Air Force crews were selected to flv the aircraft, pilots Gil Luloff, Tom McQeary and Don Watkins together with RSOs Blair Bozek, Mike Finan and Jim Greenwood, the plan being that two crew’s would always be Mission Ready qualified and the third crew. Mission Capable. Whilst crew proficiency training got underway in the simulator and the ‘B’ model, R&D funds were used to develop and install the long overdue data-link, the antenna for which is housed in a small radome, just
Left On program shut down, Eric, with the help of friends in the 9th SRW, captured this memorable image of eleven SR-71 s.
Below Of the two SR-71 As loaned to NASA after USAF operations were initially terminated on 22 November 1989, 17971, renumbered NASA 832, was called back to arms and 17967 was pulled from Air Force Site 2, deep storage, Palmdale. (Paul
forward of the front undercarriage wheel well. A digital cassette recorder system (DCRsi) provided recording and playback of both FLINT and ASARS data. Near-real – . time data could be provided if the aircraft was within 300n ml line-of-sight range of a receiving station; if not, the entire recorded collection could be downloaded in ten minutes once within station range.
As qualified Air Force crews began to acquaint themselves with their operational aircraft, the long-running battle between the various factions supporting or opposing the resurrected programme came to a head. Exploiting a complex technical loophole in the legislation concerning the deployment of funds which had been assigned by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the FY1996 Defence Appropriations Bill, but not authorised in two other pieces of supporting legislation, it was decided that technically it was illegal to operate the SR-71. Consequently at 23:00 (Z) on 16 April 1996 a signal was despatched from the Pentagon, suspending SR-71 operations with immediate effect. The war between various Senate Committees then escalated, when supporters of the SR-71 program serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee threatened to eliminate section 8080 of the Appropriations Act and defeat the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY97. This would effectively ensure that all intelligence
activities for FY97 would grind to a halt – one can imagine the sheer panic this action would have produced in AF, DIA CIA and NSA circles!
Perhaps not surprisingly the tactic worked. Of the S253 billion Defence Budget for 1997, S30 million was allocated for SR-71 Operations & Maintenance and a further S9 million for procurement. This spend was ratified and signed off by President Clinton and the three flight crews once again worked their way up to full proficiency and the ASARS-1 data link worked extremely well. The next major sensor enhancement update involved the development of an electro-optical backplate for the TEOCs by Recon Optical, located in Barrington, Illinois. This would have replaced film and instead enabled high quality, close-look imagery, to be transmitted, also via the data link, in real time, directly to theatre commanders. Unfortunately, political prevarication continued and in October 1997, President Clinton line vetoed the release of further SR-71 funds. On 30 September 1999, the end of the military fiscal year, remaining monies ran out and Senior Crown succumbed. Kelly’s prophesy that the SR – 71 would prove invulnerable to shoot-downs until at least 2001, failed to take cognisance of the weaponry mustered against the program by various politicians and (self) interest groups within the ranks of his fellow countrymen.