My love for military aircraft goes back to my days serving in the United States Air Force. My first assignment, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, was the main training facility for the F-16 Fighting Falcon. I worked in Satellite Communications and our compound was just a half-mile off the end of the main runway at MacDill. I would spend hours just sitting outside as the Falcons would thunder over my head.
Being the headquarters of the Central Command, which oversaw multi-service units in the Middle East, we had military aircraft of all types come through. From the gargantuan C-5 transport that at times seemed to stand still in the air, to Vietnam-era workhorse the F-4 Phantom. I loved them all.
Recently we decided to take a family hiking trip through Red Rocks Canyon State Park just north of Edwards Air Force Base in California. We always look for other points of interest in these trips and my wife discovered that Blackbird Park, a military air museum was right on the way to Red Rocks so we decided to make a quick stop.
I have been to a few of the air museums and while they all have a few interesting aircraft, I thought this would be a quick stop for a few photos and then we would be back on our way. I wasn’t expecting the number and variety of aircraft at the park including the only display in the world of an SR-71 Blackbird and its predecessor, the A-12.
While stationed at MacDill, we heard through the grapevine that a Blackbird had landed on base. Now you have to understand, the Blackbird was almost mythical to us. This was the most closely-guarded aircraft in the world and none of us and ever seen one in person. As it turns out, the SR-71 was being housed in the hangar that also contained the administration group for my squadron. So of course, I and a couple of buddies immediately had a pressing need to head down to admin to check our leave balances.
As we entered the hanger, there it was. Surrounded by a rope cordon and patrolled by several Security Policeman (SP), was the most awesome machine I have ever seen. Keep in mind this is the fastest thing ever created by man. Its record speed of 2,193.13 mph has stood for 41 years! To give you some perspective, on its final flight, the Blackbird flew across the United States in 67 minutes and 54 seconds, less than half the previous record. After giving us a few minutes to ogle the Blackbird, the SP’s raised their rifles and let us know it was time to move along.
Several evenings later, we again heard through the grapevine that the Blackbird was taking off that night. They only took off cloudy nights to prevent Soviet satellites from tracking their movements. So we headed out to the runway and what a show. I have never been up close for a missile launch, but I imagine the sound and feeling of power are similar. As it rolled down the runway, the pilot kicked in the afterburners and as it rose into the sky, it left an afterburner flame that hit the runway and trailed back almost 100 feet. Truly one of the most awe-inspiring sites I have ever seen.
Walking into the Blackbird Air Park and seeing the Blackbird stirred my emotions. Nostalgic for my friends and the camaraderie we shared, pride and having served this great country and alongside the best America has to offer and little sadness and the young man I was with my entire life still ahead of me.
Take a look through the photos of the SR-71 Blackbird and other amazing military aircraft below, and if you find yourself just a little north of Los Angeles, the Blackbird Air Park is well worth a stop.