Birds of a Feather

Louise and I had the privilege of being invited to attend the biennial Blackbird Society Reunion dinner last Saturday night. Held in the huge new ballroom of the Nugget Casino in Reno, there were over 350 attendees – the many men and women that engineered, built, maintained, and flew the SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird, now long-retired, is still the fastest air-breathing aircraft on record – and these folks have fond memories of their years operating this significant contributor to our nation’s security.

We got to meet a number of crews – pilots and back-seaters – and even after all these years, the pairs tend to stick together, the same way they did when they were flying. The same pilot/back seater crew stayed together (as much as possible) throughout their training and operational years in the program, and they seem to still be glued together. Our dinner table featured one such crew, as well as one of the Lockheed Skunkworks engineers who was the chief engineer for thermal systems, and another that did environmental control.

Aside from the obvious fascination we all held for this complex flying machine, there was something subtler that drew us together – the fact that both the SR-71 group and those of us in the Shuttle program had our birds (and programs) retired well before they should have been. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with either machine, and they were doing their unique missions and jobs like nothing else could. But the leadership decided that there were other considerations that drove them into museums while they still had years of contributions to make. That common bond of loss was a topic of discussion with a number of pilots and maintainers that we met during the evening.

The SR-71 was an astounding achievement for its time – and so was the Space Shuttle. When you consider that the SR was designed back when the flight computers were analog, and the original Shuttle digital computers had a whopping 128k of RAM, you might wonder how they managed to fly at all. But fly they did, and while they were both modernized along the way, they were still originally conceived and designed by engineers who were more likely to have a slide rule on their desk than an electronic calculator. And forget about CAD and CNC machining…..

It was a marvelous evening, rubbing shoulders with teams that had made history (even though much of that history is still classified). It makes me hope that sometime in the future, we’ll start organizing our own Shuttle team reunions – places to renew friendships and tell tall tales of the days when we could launch the highest and fastest flying (manned) winged vehicle ever built.