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The SR-71 and the Yom Kippur War

By Col (ret) Jim Wilson, Contributing Editor

On Oct 6, 1973 the armies of Egypt and Syria opened an offensive against Israel on two fronts, launching a coordinated series of air, armored and artillery attacks across the Suez Canal into the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. The preemptive strike came as a result of the failure to resolve territorial disputes arising from the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967.

These disputes involved the return of the Sinai to Egypt and return of the Golan Heights to Syria. UN Resolution 242 and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace initiative failed to resolve the issue peacefully.  Sadat wanted to sign an agreement with Israel, provided the Israelis returned all the occupied territories, but Israel refused to withdraw to the pre-1967 armistice lines.  Since no diplomatic progress was being made toward peace, Sadat was convinced that to change things and gain legitimacy at home, he must initiate a war with limited objectives.

Along the Suez canal, eighty thousand well equipped and trained members of the Egyptian army crossed the Suez canal into the Sinai on rapidly constructed pontoon bridges, and attacked fewer than five hundred Israeli defenders. Simultaneously, in the Golan Heights, approximately 180 Israeli tanks faced an onslaught of nearly 1400 Syrian tanks. With a surprise attack on two fronts, Israeli military losses were significant and assistance was requested from the United States.

At the time, National reconnaissance satellites did not have the capability that was needed to sufficiently assess the situation. The 9th Strategic Reconnaissance wing at Beale AFB Ca, under the command of Col Pat Halloran was alerted to prepare to fly SR-71 missions from Beale AFB over the area of conflict and to recover at a contingency base, RAF Mildenhall in England, prepared to fly follow on missions.  The proposed mission was within the design capability of the aircraft, although such a  long, multiple refueling and logistically difficult mission of this type had never before been accomplished in an operational environment.

Within the first few days of the conflict, the supporting Arab nations initiated an oil embargo, making oil a weapon of war and contributing to a decision by the British government to deny approval to use Mildenhall as a recovery base. Plan B was rapidly drawn up to fly the SR-71 out of Griffiss AFB New York, through the area of conflict, and recover back at Griffiss. These never before accomplished twelve thousand- mile missions would require five air-to-air refuelings, the deployment of sixteen KC-135Q supporting tankers with special JP-7 fuel to Spain, and a specialized maintenance, intelligence and operational support planning staff to Griffiss. The 9SRW was well prepared, and in utmost secrecy, the necessary forces were mobilized and deployed. The first mission was successfully flown on October 13th

I was a Capt and fairly young pilot in the squadron at the time, with only one overseas operational tour and about 120 hours of SR-71 time under my belt. On Oct 20th I was assigned to fly a backup SR-71 from Beale to Griffiss and to stay at Griffiss in an alert posture, prepared to fly follow-on missions. We flew successful missions on October 25th and November 2nd, where I served as backup pilot.  My turn as primary came up on Nov 11th.  The excitement level was high, as I certainly wanted to be part of the Air Force and the wing’s success in completing the mission as tasked.

Takeoff was at 2am on a brisk and clear autumn night with about 15 inches of snow already on the ground. It was peacefully calm – until I lit both of the two thirty-four thousand pound thrust afterburners. The first 450 miles had to be flown subsonic at .9 Mach, since we had to clear the commercial aircraft flight tracks, both inbound and outbound, between Boston, New York and various European cities, before we could safely conduct air refueling operations.  Once clear, radio-silent electronic rendezvous with three tankers flying in stacked echelon formation, 250 miles out over the North Atlantic, was accomplished successfully, as was the planned seventy- thousand pound (10,600 gallon) fuel offload.

You don’t know the true meaning of dark until you’ve refueled on a moonless night at 3 am hundreds of miles out over a black ocean. We likened it to refueling in an inkwell. After completing a few post-refueling checks, I lit the afterburners and started my acceleration to a leisurely Mach 3 cruise across the Atlantic.  The airplane performed flawlessly, thanks to the extra-special effort put forth by the maintenance guys.  About two thousand miles across the Atlantic, on an easterly heading,  I watched with excitement as the sun peeked  over the horizon and came up right in my face,  in about a minute and a half---a nice vantage point for viewing this daily event.

The second refueling was conducted in daylight, a couple hundred miles north of the Azores.  This was another seventy-thousand-pound offload, thirty five thousand pounds from each of two tankers, while the airborne spare tanker was not needed. I started my second acceleration and headed for the Strait of Gibraltar.  Cruising through the center of the narrow straight at eighty thousand feet with clear weather on both sides provided quite a spectacular view.

As we proceeded down the Mediterranean toward the Middle East, the weather grew gradually worse as forecast. The third refueling south of Crete, although in poor weather, went as planned. After packing in a full load of eighty-thousand pounds of JP-7 fuel, I lit the afterburners and started the acceleration toward the target area in the Sinai.

At .98 Mach and 31,000 feet, just prior to going supersonic, maximum fuel flow in full afterburner, a red engine oil-quantity-low light illuminated steady on my emergency warning annunciator panel. I stared at it in almost disbelief, while scanning engine instruments. oil pressure, rpm, exhaust gas temperature and nozzle position for other indications of trouble.  Although there were no immediately available confirming indications of problems, I couldn’t just ignore the situation and continue on into the target area with the possibility of an engine failure at supersonic speed over the Sinai. We had no viable emergency airfields, and I certainly did not want to be a no-notice, no-flight plan, single engine emergency arrival at David Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, especially since the Israeli government had not been informed in advance of the mission, and they were in a battle for their own survival. I took the engines out of afterburner to further access the situation and think about the best course of action.

To my pleasant surprise, a few seconds after coming out of afterburner, the red emergency warning light went out. I was by now fairly well convinced that it was a false momentary indication, but analyzing the situation had cost me 2500 lbs of critically needed fuel. My tankers, having completed their mission, were now eighty miles behind me and heading further away.  Although I knew they had extra fuel, getting rejoined to top off would present a whole new set of problems.  I decided to re-light the afterburners and press on with the acceleration to supersonic flight. Except for a five-second steady flash at about Mach 1.4 during the climb, I never saw the warning light illuminated again.

My preplanned flight track over the target area  went down the Suez canal past Cairo before making a left turn at Mach 3.15 to the north across the battle lines in the Sinai. I continued on a northerly course across the Dead Sea and over the Golan Heights with the panoramic and pointing cameras providing imagery of hundreds of targets on both sides of the aircraft. .  Approaching the border of Lebanon, I made a big sweeping right turn out over Syria and then back toward the Sinai on a parallel flight path for maximum coverage. The airplane was running well, and I pushed it up a bit to Mach 3.2 before exciting the area near Port Said.

Once out over the Mediterranean, I started a descent to twenty-five thousand feet for my fourth refueling.  As fate would have it, not only was I low on fuel because of my previous emergency oil low warning problem, but also a thunderstorm had moved in over the scheduled air refueling contact point.  My reconnaissance system officer (RSO), using electronic azimuth and distance measuring equipment, directed me within less than a mile behind my tanker, but because the visibility was so poor in solid weather I couldn’t see the tanker.  We continued about 20 miles down track in lousy weather with only one-half mile distance and one thousand feet vertical separation before a small break in the clouds permitted a visual hookup with the tanker. When we made contact and started transferring fuel, I had less than fifteen minutes of fuel remaining and was seventy five miles from the closest straight-in emergency landing runway on the island of  Crete. Needless to say, I was very thankful to my tanker buddies, RSO and good equipment for that rendezvous. It gives special meaning to finding a “gas station” when you really need  
one.  Once full of fuel, we accelerated back to Mach 3, headed west toward the straits,
completed a fifth seventy-thousand pound air refueling near the Azores and finally enjoyed a relaxing straight line Mach 3 course across the Atlantic to a planned and uneventful landing at Seymour Johnson AFB North Carolina.

We were met by 9SRW download crews who had the intelligence collection equipment downloaded within twenty minutes and on a dedicated AF courier flight to Washington D.C. for delivery to the National Photographic Interpretation Center. The flight covered 12,181 miles in 10 hours 49 minutes, and included six hours, forty-one minutes of supersonic flight.  After landing, while taxing in, I remember wondering what Charles Lindbergh, who was still living at the time, would have thought about the advancement of aviation technology in the 46 years since his flight from New York to Paris.

The 9SRW was tasked to fly nine missions from the United States to the Mid East and back in the Yom Kippur War  of 1973-1974 and completed all of them successfully. The missions were flown by nine different Air Force crews and I was lucky enough to be one of them. The airplane I flew, SR-71 tail number 17964, is now a center piece display at the Strategic Air and Space museum in Ashland, Nebraska, about half way between Omaha and Lincoln.     

SR-71 Mission:
Landing Weight:
Maximum Gross Take-off Weight:
Maximum Speed:
Maximum Altitude:
Maximum Unrefueled Range:

High Speed, High Altitude Reconnaissance
2 (Pilot and Reconnaissance System Officer)
Titanium monocoque / carbon
107 feet, 5 inches
55 feet, 7 inches
16 feet, 6 inches
68,000 pounds
140,000 pounds
3.2+ Mach
Over 85,000 feet
3,200 nautical miles
2 Pratt & Whitney J-58 / 34,000 # thrust

By 1990 the Total SR-71 Flight Hours were 53,490
Total Mach 3+ was Time 11,675
Total Sorties were 17,300
Operational Sorties were 3,551
Operational Hours were 11,008
Total Air Refuelings were 25,862
Total Crew Members were 284
( high time pilot by then had 1,392.7 hours)
More information on the role of Griffiss Air Force Base supporting these long flights and honoring the dedication of the many personnel involved is available at

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