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What Happened to the SR-71 Blackbird in 1987?

The Lockheed SR-71 or Blackbird is a long-range, high-altitude Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft that was manufactured by the Lockheed Corporation and is operated by both the United States Airforce and NASA. But did you know what happened to the aircraft in 1987?

Despite the emergency, the SR-71 was able to land at Nordholz in former West Germany. Four Swedish Air Force pilots were awarded U.S. Air Medals in Stockholm on November 28, 2018, honoring their actions over 31 years ago.

An Interesting Cold War Episode Worth Four Medals

During the 1980s, the US flew a regular Baltic Express reconnaissance missions over international waters over the Barents Sea and the Baltic Sea, using SR-71 Blackbird aircraft. During one of those missions, on June 29, 1987, a Blackbird launched from RAF Mildenhall, UK, piloted by retired Lieutenant Colonel Duane Noll and Tom Veltri encountered a serious in-flight emergency.

The right engine of the aircraft exploded while flying a northern course at 75,000 feet and Mach 3.0. To deal with the emergency, the crew immediately turned towards Sweden and descended rapidly. The Blackbird violated Swedish airspace as it approached Gotland Island at 25,000 feet, prompting a response from the Swedish Air Force.

The Air Defense radar that was tracking the aircraft requested that two Saab JA 37 Viggen jets from the F 13 Norrköping, which were already in flight for another mission, intercept the intruder and perform a VID (Visual Identification).

We were conducting a routine peacetime operation exercise. Our fighter controller then asked if I was capable of intercepting and identifying a specific target. He would have stated it if it wasn’t an SR-71, so I assumed it was. But I didn’t realize it was the Blackbird at the time.

Major Roger Moller, Viggen Pilot Swedish Air Force

How Was the Swedish Air Force Able to Help?

The two Swedish Viggens intercepted the SR-71 about 70 kilometers east of land’s southern oceans.

Moller and his wingman Major Krister Sjöberg followed the Blackbird at a distance of about 30 meters for about five minutes. From that vantage point, they could see that Blackbird was powered by a single engine that bore the registration number 117964.

Meanwhile, F10 had scrambled a second pair of Viggens in Ängelholm, where F 6 was temporarily deployed, to relieve the first pair, which would soon run out of fuel. They had visual contact with the Blackbird and the other Viggens about 70 kilometers east of Bornholm, in international airspace, and were piloted by Colonel Lars-Erik Blad and Lt. Bo Ignell. With the arrival of the second pair of AJ 37s, the first one was able to return home.

We noticed that the plane was flying at a low altitude and constantly decelerating. My wingman stayed on their right side.

Colonel Lars-Erik Blad, Swedish Air Force

With the transponder code set to 7700 (the ICAO code for an emergency), the SR-71 continued to lose height to the point where the Swedish pilots were unsure whether the plane would crash or they would have to eject. They continued to escort the American spy plane, which was extremely vulnerable at low speed and altitude.

We had no idea who would come across us first. The sight of the Swedish plane escorting us was euphoric. I’m certain that the Swedish presence meant that other interceptors were at a safe distance and couldn’t come to intercept us.

Tom Veltri, Pilot of the SR-71

The SR-71 was escorted by the Swedish until it entered Danish airspace. Despite the emergency, the SR-71 was able to land at Nordholz in former West Germany. (Source: The Aviationist)

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