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The story of the SR-71 Blackbird crew that ‘gave the birdie’ to a French Air Force Mirage III pilot, lit the afterburners and outran him

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‘I looked out the left window and saw a French Mirage III sitting ten feet off my left wing. He came up on our frequency and asked us for our Diplomatic Clearance Number. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I told him to stand by…,’ Lt. Colonel William Burk Jr., former SR-71 pilot.

The SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft was the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft and the most advanced member of the Blackbird family developed by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s clandestine “Skunk Works” division. Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour. The aircraft was designed to fly deep into hostile territory, avoiding interception with its tremendous speed and high altitude.

During its operational lifetime, the SR-71 provided intelligence about the Yom Kippur W4r in 1973, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the US raid on Libya in 1986 and the revelation of Iranian Silkworm missile batteries in 1987. The USAF ceased SR-71 operations in January 1990.

One of the most entertaining stories about flying the Blackbird comes from Lt. Colonel William Burk Jr., who shares about a particular mission he flew [according to SR-71 pilot Stormy Boudreaux, Tom Henichek was Burk’s RSO for that mission] over Lebanon back in 1982 in the book Skunk Works by Ben Rich.

‘In the fall of ’82, I flew from Mildenhall on a mission over Lebanon in response to the Marine barracks bombing. President Reagan ordered photo coverage of all the terrorist basis in the region. The French refused to allow us overfly, so our mission profile was to refuel off the south coast of

England, a Mach 3 cruise leg down the coast of Portugal and Spain, left turn through the Straits of Gibraltar, refuel in the Western Mediterranean, right turn into Lebanon and fly right down main street Beirut, exit along the southern Mediterranean with another refueling over Malta, supersonic back out the straits, and return to England.
‘Because Syria had a Soviet SA-5 missile system just west of Damascus that we would be penetrating (we were unsure of Syria’s intentions in this conflict), we programmed to fly above 80,000 feet and at Mach 3 plus to be on the safe side, knowing that this advanced missile had the range and speed to nail us.

‘As we entered Lebanon’s airspace my Recon Systems Officer in the rear cockpit informed me that our defensive systems display showed we were being tracked by that SA-5. About 15 seconds later we got a warning of active guidance signals from the SA-5 site. We couldn’t tell whether there was an actual launch or the missile was still on the rails, but they were actively tracking us. We didn’t waste any time wondering, but climbed and pushed that throttle, and said a couple of “Hail Kellys.”

‘We completed our pass over Beirut and turned toward Malta, when I got a warning low-oil-pressure light on my right engine. Even though the engine was running fine I slowed down and lowered our altitude and made a direct line for England. We decided to cross France without clearance instead of going the roundabout way.

‘We made it almost across, when I looked out the left window and saw a French Mirage III sitting ten feet off my left wing. He came up on our frequency and asked us for our Diplomatic Clearance Number.

I had no idea what he was talking about, so I told him to stand by. I ask my backseater, who said, “Don’t worry about it. I just gave it to him.” What he had given him was “the bird” with his middle finger: I lit the afterburners and left that Mirage standing still. Two minutes later, we were crossing the Channel.’