Exhilarating Accounts From an SR-71 Blackbird Crew Chief Who Pushed the Limits

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By Car Brand Experts


The SR-71 Blackbird stealth aircraft, shrouded in secrecy during its development at Lockheed’s Skunkworks, eventually emerged as a standard workhorse. Operated by the Air Force, it required meticulous maintenance, overseen by crew chiefs like Greg Edmonson. In our engagement on swapping start carts between Buick Wildcat, we delved into the world of the SR-71 through the eyes of Greg Edmonson.

Having served as a Blackbird crew chief from 1982 to 1987, alongside being an ardent Buick enthusiast, Greg Edmonson comes forward to share insights not included in our initial narrative. Here’s a glimpse into his experience dealing with the fastest air-breathing jet known to man.

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Peter Holderith: You commenced your stint as an SR-71 crew chief in October 1982 upon joining the Air Force at Beale Air Force Base. Can you elaborate on that?

Greg Edmonson: My assignment at Beale AFB began in August 1982, coinciding with my Air Force enlistment. It marked my introduction to the Air Force’s operational environment.

PH: How deafening was the cart’s roar, with its unmuffled 16 exhaust pipes? Were ear protections necessary amidst the cacophony?

GE: The cart’s sonic presence was formidable, emanating from its distinctive exhaust configuration. The raucous symphony of 16 straight pipes engulfed the surroundings, overshadowing even the J58 engines. Double hearing protection, comprising earplugs and over-ear guards, was the norm for us.

PH: Regarding the start procedure’s intricacies and the risks associated, especially with the volatile TEB chemical ignition system, can you elaborate on that tense scenario?

GE: The J58’s ignition mechanism relied on triethyl borane (TEB), a highly reactive substance employed for starting and igniting the afterburner. A misfire during the startup sequence, compounded by aged Buicks, was a hazardous predicament we strove to avoid. Often, we maneuvered through starts with just one operational 425, occasionally stressing it beyond limits in the process.

PH: Reflecting on the transition from 425 Buicks to enhanced 454 models, known for their delicacy in handling. Could you delve further into the adaptations made to these carts, and the intriguing take from AGE on their fragility?

GE: AGE personnel specialized in Aerospace Ground Equipment maintenance, overseeing flight line tools and equipment. Their alterations to the 454s remained undisclosed to me, but the magnitude of enhancements was significant, as shared by the AGE team.

The delicate reputation of the 454s stemmed from contrasting handling approaches. Buicks arrived cold and were hastily primed, whereas Chevys underwent a meticulous warming routine by AGE. Despite the Buicks’ rough treatment, the endurance of the 425s remains commendable.

PH: Narrate the anecdote involving a catastrophic 425 start failure. Any vivid recollections of that incident?

Do you possess any additional recollections of akin episodes?

GE: I was part of several incidents involving 425s but one incident in particular remains vivid. During a late-night/early-morning launch as part of an Operational Readiness Inspection, we were commencing the No. 2/right-hand engine of the SR. I was operating the controls of the cart. Right on schedule, the left 425 engine began to misfire severely just as we administered the TEB shot, requiring us to proceed with the start. With one engine ailing, I had to rev the Buicks vigorously, causing the injured left engine to shed some of its internal components onto the shelter floor. Following the launch, we found parts of 2 connecting rods and fragments of pistons waiting for us.

PH: In cases of malfunctions, who handled the engine repairs (my assumption would be the ground crews), and where were replacement engines sourced from? You mentioned visiting scrapyards to search for new engines, but did any engines actually come from there?

GE: Maintenance and repair of the carts were the responsibility of AGE. Myself and a couple of my Buick buddies frequently explored local wrecking yards and would inform the AGE personnel of any 401/425s we encountered. I was uncertain if parts were indeed salvaged from the local yards, but I was under the impression that they were.

PH: I recall that the carts operated on Avgas. Can you recollect the amount of fuel needed to crank both engines on an SR?

GE: I have no information regarding the fuel consumption during a start.

PH: Were you an enthusiast of Buicks before you became involved with the start carts?

GE: I had my initial car/Buick before I enlisted in the Air Force, a 1970 GS Stage 1.

PH: Do you own any Buicks or other impressive automobiles presently?

GE: I still retain my initial car to this day, in addition to several counterparts. A ’70 Wildcat, two ’70 Estate Wagons, three ’70 GS coupes, a ’70 GS convertible, a ’70 GSX, and my daily driver, an ’86 LeSabre Grand National.

PH: Someone I’m conversing with intends to install one of these start cart engines into a 1963 Buick Wildcat convertible. What are your thoughts on that?

GE: I would be delighted to witness that. I believe it’s a fantastic undertaking. Best of luck to him!

PH: I’m unsure if you have served as a crew chief for other aircraft, but was the SR-71 notably challenging to uphold? Was it more intricate or perhaps simpler than commonly perceived?

GE: The primary aircraft I dealt with included the SR-71, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, and the F-4 Phantom II. I also had interactions with nearly every aircraft in the inventory at some point. The SR posed maintenance challenges. Minimal consideration was given to the ease of maintenance for the aircraft. While not everything was a nightmare, nothing was straightforward. Conversely, the A-10 was designed keeping the maintainers in mind. Every aspect of the A-10 was arranged to simplify major and minor tasks as much as possible. The F-4 fell in between, with some tasks being straightforward and others prompting us to question the chief designer’s decisions! The SR was built to soar high and fast without much concern for the maintenance crews.

PH: It seems like everyone has an intriguing SR-71 anecdote—perhaps it’s naive of me to inquire, but if you have any captivating tales, I’d be eager to hear them. It doesn’t matter if it’s related to a start cart or not; I’d be enthusiastic to hear any anecdotes you’re willing to share.

GE: During air shows when the SR was on display, a couple of pilots were typically present to address any queries from the audience. Occasionally, they would also have the crew chief out there. Most inquiries were regarding the speed or altitude capabilities. Every so often, we encountered a self-assured individual with an “I know better” attitude. Initially, we aimed to maintain professionalism, but we often succumbed to embellishing the aircraft’s capabilities slightly.

One tall tale was about the intake spikes not only regulating the shock wave’s position in the intake (true) but also being capable of sealing off the intake for underwater flight. The reasoning given was that if the engine got wet, the flame would extinguish! Another story mentioned a special SR reserved for urgent presidential transportation! Naturally, that one remained in Area 51!

 Got any tips or more queries about the SR-71 for Greg? Feel free to drop a comment or shoot me an email here: peter@thedrive.com

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