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Colonel (Ret) Richard Graham flew the world’s fastest and highest flying aircraft SR-71 Blackbird

Colonel (Ret) Richard Graham flew the world’s fastest and highest flying aircraft SR-71 Blackbird

Dec 6, 2014

Colonel (Ret) Richard “Rich” Graham, SR-71 Pilot and prior Commander of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, recently spoke at the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA) San Gabriel Valley Section (SGV-AIAA) dinner event at the Beckham Grill in Pasadena, Ca. Col. Graham has flown the world’s fastest and highest flying aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, for 7 years during his 25 year Air Force career. He is author of four highly revealing and informative books on the SR-71: (1) Flying the SR-71 Blackbird: In the Cockpit on a Secret Operational Mission; (2) SR-71; (3) SR-71 Blackbird: Stories, Tales, and Legends; (4) SR-71 Revealed. Before and after Colonel Graham’s presentation everyone had a chance to network and talk with him some more or purchase a signed copy of one of his books. QGITS also had the opportunity to talk with Col. Graham at the AIAA event after his presentation. rich graham

QGITS: Lockheed Skunkworks has developed innovative breakthrough technologies and continues to redefine flight today, what was it like to fly the revolutionary aircraft Blackbird SR-71 designed by renowned aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson?

Colonel Graham: A dream come true to be able to fly it and Kelly used to come to some of our crew meetings and come up to Beale Air Force Base, which is where we were based. You could ask him any question that you had in mind and he was very good about answering them. I never had to work for him but those who did said that basically he was a task master he gave you all the authority the latitude and all the where with all to get results but he expected results. He was a great boss, Kelly never had his engineers in a building up in some office, many yards or miles away from the SR. He had everyone of his engineers on the ground floor with the mechanics and engineers where they were building the SR plane so if they had any problems they could see the exact problems while they were describing it on the floor. His engineers were not in some ivory tower somewhere, they were on the floor the entire time watching the airplane being built. That was one of the biggest success stories from an engineering standpoint having his engineers directly involved working with the building of the airplane.


During Colonel Graham’s presentation he played an inspirational video by Lockheed Martin, a tribute to the legendary Clarence “Kelly” Johnson of Lockheed Skunkworks one of the preeminent aircraft engineers of the twentieth century, and his Skunk Works team.

QGITS: In your presentation you talked about eating food from a tube during your long flight hours and the suit you wore on the Blackbird looked comparable to an Astronaut suit. Did you feel like you were both Pilot and Astronaut?

Colonel Graham: When you reflect back on it yes, when we did it, we didn’t feel like we were part pilot or part astronaut, we just felt like we were just flying a plane. When you reflect back…that is exactly what it was. The suit we wore was a full pressure suit, it is the same one used for testing for the space shuttle. NASA did five test flights with our pressure suits before they started taking up people in the shuttle. NASA came to our base Beale to borrow our suits because they needed to test ejection seats in the first five launches of the space shuttle and needed a pressure suit that could make it to an ejection seat. Then after that, once the testing of the first five flights was complete, there were no more ejection seats and they didn’t need our pressure suits anymore.

QGITS: Did you also want to be an Astronaut in the Apollo program?

Colonel Graham: I applied two times in my life back in 1967, I had been in the Air Force for 3 years and I decided to apply to NASA . I got shot down because they wanted a pure engineering scientific background in college and I didn’t have that.  I thought I give it a shot anyhow.


QGITS: Can you describe again what it was like to fly at the speed of sound at Mach 3+ flying 85K feet in the air?

Colonel Graham: From 85K feet it’s a good view, you get a tremendous view of the earth, great curvature of the earth, it’s very bright and we had what were called ‘bat wings’ on the cockpit window sill to block out the sun so we could read the instruments. It’s a good view; you don’t have any sensation of speed at 80K feet because you are so high. But to watch your mileage your little distance click off at 35 miles every minute, you knew you were moving pretty good, so that’s the biggest sensation of speed you have over the ground was just watching your mileage click off real fast.

QGITS: Where can we find your books on the SR-71?

Colonel Graham: They are all on online and I sell autograph copies on ebay and they are also on Amazon. The four books I have written on the SR, we donate the royalties to various museums. The first two books I donate to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. the third book the royalties go to the Frontiers of Flight here in Dallas and the fourth book the royalties my wife and I decided to sort of use it as necessary, we send the rolyaties to places like EAA for the young eagles program or different charities. Click here for a signed copy of Col. Graham’s books on the SR-71 Blackbird.

To learn more about Colonel Richard Graham:

About Lockheed Martin Skunk Works: The Skunk Works of today is focused on the critical aircraft for tomorrow. Advanced technology solutions for manned and unmanned systems draw on our world-class capabilities in conceptual design, systems engineering and integration, complex project management, software development and rapid prototyping.


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