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Flying the world's fastest plane: Behind the stick of the SR-71


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Ever wondered what it's like to fly the world's fastest plane? Of course you did!

I did! They get to wear space suits!

SH: How long did that take to put on?

Brian Shul space suit cockpit SR-71

RM: We'd go in about four hours before flight. Each day they'd give you a mini-physical, since you couldn't fly in a space suit with a head cold or anything like that. We had a backup crew ready for each mission ready to substitute. You'd then go have a breakfast, what was termed a "high-protein, low-residue meal" of steak and eggs. You're gonna be trapped in that suit for six or eight hours, the low-residue part is pretty important.

SH: This is the other really practical question here: it's a space suit, so you're diapered up, yes?

RM: That was an option. You did have a tube on, what looked like a big condom. It had a nipple on the end of it, hooked up to a tube that led down to a bag with sponges in it. Those little hard sponges you see somewhere that when you put water on it, it expands to its real size? That's what was in these things. That's what you used for urination. The plan was to never use anything else. If you did, you just did.

They did have a diaper for extremely long flights, but I don't remember anyone ever using it. For one thing, if you were not well you did not fly. Everyone trained hard, everyone was in great shape, you watched what you ate. You used that little bag, and that was quite a challenge. You had to get the differential pressure right or you'd be sitting in wet pants for the whole flight.

Also, half the crew that suited you and de-suited you were female. You had a great working relationship with them. You just hated to come back it with poop in your pants. There's a lot of stuff in the job that isn't in the shiny brochure.

So there's this long awesome article filled with technical info... but you can't WAIT to go straight to the poop, huh? Stay classy, Panda!

I was really wondering about the space suits and fortunately he was willing to tell all.

I mean, he's in that suit for a long time!

Actually my favorite part is when he says out brain is not equipped to handle it.

And his job is to deal with it anyway.

SH: How fast were you burning through fuel?

RM: You'd burn 80,000 pounds of fuel in about an hour and twenty minutes. That's a lot of gas. You're on the boom a lot, and that was why in-flight refueling experience was such a critical part of the screening process. You didn't have a lot of time to do it, and you had to get it right the first time. Three refuelings was common, but on longer missions you'd refuel six or eight times. Those were long days.

You'd light up the afterburner right after that first refueling, and take it to full power for the next hour. That's pretty amazing, because no other plane can fly in full afterburner continuously. All other planes have either a three minute limit, or five minute limit on that, but you'd be going at full afterburner for an hour, hour and a half.

SH: Oh my god.

RM: It is an amazing machine. You start to climb up through Mach 1, and it's a big punch with a lot of air resistance. What we'd typically do is climb up, put the nose down just before Mach 1, and then lift back up and punch through it all the way to Mach 3.

SH: And this whole time, the pilot just wasn't on the gas and stick: you were actually changing the shape of the engine itself in order to get more thrust out of the engine.

THERE'S A LOT OF STUFF IN THE JOB THAT ISN'T IN THE SHINY BROCHURE.

RM: That's right. Because the faster you went, the more ram thrust you got, which burns less fuel. So you did have to go faster to burn less fuel. Like I said, you had to unlearn everything you knew about other aircraft.

SH: At that speed, things had to look so small, and pass by like stop signs, right?

RM: It looked like a relief map you had in school. That's what earth looks like to you from up there, that's the perspective you had. It's gorgeous.

SH: What was the most spectacular thing you passed?

RM: There were a couple of times. One of the most amazing sights was flying out of England to the north of Russia to have a look at things up there. If you did that, it was a pretty long run. We'd refuel twice just to get up there. You would get a couple of sunsets and sunrises, because at those northern latitudes often you would see day to night, and then a terminator line, almost like a black velvet curtain where you can see how it's light on this side, and dark on the other side. It's the most amazing thing you can imagine to see that.

View from sr-71 blackbird

Another one was at night. It's astonishing--you're above the haze, and in the atmosphere--how deep into space you can see from up there. There's all this meteor activity you never see on the ground. A lot of stuff's going on.

We flew across a huge thunderstorm that covered half of Montana. Looking down into it from 75,000 feet and seeing lightning going for hundreds of miles across the top of this giant storm was just awe-inspiring. Sometimes it was hard to pull your attention back into the cockpit because it was just mesmerizing to see that stuff.

Once we were coming down off the coast of California and letting down across San Francisco and hit this huge thunderstorm. We had to go down into it because we didn't have enough gas to go anywhere else. There was incredible turbulence as you penetrated the thunderstorm, and the aircraft is just bouncing viciously around. St. Elmo's Fire is just rolling across the canopy. It was kind of like the first scene in the original Alien. To get down, pop out the other side, and see our tanker waiting with gas was an incredible sight.

Every flight had something like that to remember.

IT'S ASTONISHING--YOU'RE ABOVE THE HAZE, AND IN THE ATMOSPHERE--HOW DEEP INTO SPACE YOU CAN SEE FROM UP THERE. THERE'S ALL THIS METEOR ACTIVITY YOU NEVER SEE ON THE GROUND.

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