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Blackbird midair collision: the story of a KC-135’s survival

  • Published
  • By Tom Demerly
  • 127th Wing

As SR-71 Blackbird pilot Maj. Buddy Brown slid his aircraft off the first KC-135Q Stratotanker’s boom, he told his backseat Reconnaissance Systems Officer, Maj. Matt Jarvis, how smooth the air was at 26,000 feet that morning over Texas.

It was early Wednesday, June 17, 1970. Brown and Jarvis had just completed their first aerial refueling high over the vast area outside El Paso. The special “Q” variant of the KC-135 used segregated fuel tanks to accommodate the SR-71’s unique, low-volatility JP-7 fuel and its own conventional JP-5.

In clear skies and fair weather, Jarvis nudged Blackbird from beneath the first tanker to a second KC-135Q, for a final top-off before continuing on a classified mission to test high-powered jamming equipment over the Gulf of Mexico. Those tests would never take place that day.

“I moved to pre-contact position behind [KC-135Q] number two, reset my refueling system for contact and called that I was ready to refuel”, Maj. Buddy Brown told author Paul L. Crickmore in his book, Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Osprey, 2016). But almost immediately, subtle tremors foreshadowed calamity.

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and its variants pushed the limits of engineering. Still the fastest publicly known production atmospheric aircraft, the Blackbird was first flown in the smaller A-12 version over 60 years ago in 1962. It later flew as the well-known SR-71 strategic reconnaissance aircraft in December, 1964. As aviation fans know, the Blackbird was capable of Mach 3.3. Only experimental “X” planes and space shuttles have flown faster in the atmosphere.

But like many exotic aircraft flying on the bleeding edge of physics, the Blackbird wasn’t optimized for medium-speed, medium altitude flying. As she became bloated with special JP7 fuel behind a tanker, she became a handful. Add relatively poor visibility, a cramped, analog cockpit and a full, high-altitude pressure suit, and taking on fuel behind a tanker was in the least glamorous, and perhaps most dangerous, corner of the Blackbird’s flight envelope.

Like foreshadowing in a horror movie, Maj. Buddy Brown said his aircraft hit, “Sort of a bump, and shook as if it had just flown through turbulent air”. He briefly queried Maj. Matt Jarvis in the back seat of the Blackbird, “Did you feel that?”

For seemingly no reason, the nose of the SR-71 suddenly pitched downward, as if entering the vertical oscillations of a sine wave. Then, the nose pitched up farther and more violently.

Reflexively, Maj. Brown shoved the control stick forward, but aerodynamics had taken over. At low aerial refueling speeds the control surfaces on the big SR-71 designed for Mach 3 had less purchase. The Blackbird slammed into the bottom of KC-135Q.

In an instant the nose of the SR-71 sheared off in a grinding midair collision. Maj. Brown’s canopy and forward cockpit, including his instrument panel, disintegrated and caved inward from the impact with the KC-135Q. Both his legs were shattered. The tanker’s boom was heavily damaged and wrenched into the fully extended position.

With the canopy caved in, the nose of his SR-71 and all flight control gone, Brown and Jarvis instantly became passengers on their way to becoming victims.

Whatever the boom operator and the flight crew inside KC-135Q were experiencing, history fails to reveal. But it must have been horrifying, especially for the boom operator who had just taken a chest full of Blackbird, almost had their boom torn off and was no doubt tossed a few feet up from the prone refueling rest in the back of the KC-135Q. But Boeing had built an exceptionally durable aircraft in the KC-135, and it kept flying despite damage to the area of impact below the tail and a stuck refueling boom. Below the battered Stratotanker, the SR-71 was disintegrating on its last trip to earth. Both crewmembers managed to eject and survive, albeit with a pair of broken legs for Brown, who went on to recover from his injuries.

Battered but still flying, the KC-135Q and its crew limped back to Beale AFB in California, a nearly 1,000-mile flight. The crew were unsure if they could land, but performed an inflight controllability check along with a trial approach at landing speed. Boeing had built an exceptionally durable aircraft in the KC-135, and this special “Q” variant was no exception. She had taken a serious tail strike from the SR-71 that didn’t survive the collision and still performed a safe landing at Beale AFB near Marysville, California. While the crew of the KC-135Q was likely shaken by the midair collision over Texas, their aircraft returned them safely back home to Beale.

Decades later and after structural repair, inspection and certification, KC-135Q was updated to KC-135T Block 45 status and is now part of the tanker fleet here at Selfridge ANGB as part of the 171st Air Refueling Squadron.