How slow could a Blackbird fly?...

Steve Pace

Aviation History Writer
Jan 6, 2013
Reaction score
"What was the slowest you ever flew the Blackbird?"
Brian Shul, Retired SR-71 Pilot, via Plane and Pilot Magazine

As a former SR-71 pilot, and a professional keynote speaker, the
question I'm most often asked is "How fast would that SR-71 fly?" I can
be assured of hearing that question several times at any event I attend.
It's an interesting question, given the aircraft's proclivity for speed,
but there really isn't one number to give, as the jet would always give
you a little more speed if you wanted it to. It was common to see 35
miles a minute. Because we flew a programmed Mach number on most
missions, and never wanted to harm the plane in any way, we never let it
run out to any limits of temperature or speed. Thus, each SR-71 pilot
had his own individual high speed that he saw at some point on some
mission. I saw mine over Libya when Khadafy fired two missiles my way,
and max power was in order. Let's just say that the plane truly loved
speed, and effortlessly took us to Mach numbers we hadn't previously

So it was with great surprise, when, at the end of one of my
presentations, someone asked: What was the slowest you ever flew the
Blackbird? This was a first. After giving it some thought, I was
reminded of a story I had never shared before, and relayed the

I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England, with my
back-seater, Walt Watson; we were returning from a mission over Europe
and the Iron Curtain, when we received a radio transmission from home
base. As we scooted across Denmark in three minutes, we learned that a
small RAF base in the English countryside had requested an SR-71
fly-past. The air cadet commander there was a former Blackbird pilot,
and thought it would be a motivating moment for the young lads to see
the mighty SR-71 perform a low approach. No problem; we were happy to do
it. After a quick aerial refueling over the North Sea, we proceeded to
find the small airfield.

Walter had a myriad of sophisticated navigation equipment in the back
seat, and began to vector me toward the field. Descending to subsonic
speeds, we found ourselves over a densely wooded area in a slight haze.
Like most former WWII British airfields, the one we were looking for had
a small tower and little surrounding infrastructure. Walter told me we
were close, and that I should be able to see the field, but I saw
nothing. Nothing but trees as far as I could see in the haze. We got a
little lower, and I pulled the throttles back from the 325 knots we were at.
With the gear up, anything under 275 was just uncomfortable. Walt said
we were practically over the field, yet there was nothing in my
windscreen. I banked the jet and started a gentle circling maneuver in
hopes of picking up anything that looked like a field. Meanwhile,
below, the cadet commander had taken the cadets up on the catwalk of the
tower, in order to get a prime view of the fly-past. It was a quiet,
still day, with no wind and partial gray overcast. Walter continued to
give me indications that the field should be below us, but, in the
overcast and haze, I couldn't see it. The longer we continued to peer
out the window and circle, the slower we got. With our power back, the
awaiting cadets heard nothing. I must have had good instructors in my
flying career, as something told me I better cross-check the gauges. As
I noticed the airspeed indicator slide below 160 knots, my heart
stopped, and my adrenalin-filled left hand pushed two throttles full
forward. At this point, we weren't really flying, but were falling in a
slight bank. Just at the moment, both afterburners lit with a
thunderous roar of flame (and what a joyous feeling that was), and the
aircraft fell into full view of the shocked observers on the tower.
Shattering the still quiet of that morning, they now had 107 feet of
fire-breathing titanium in their face, as the plane leveled and
accelerated, in full burner, on the tower side of the infield, closer
than expected, maintaining what could only be described as some sort of
ultimate knife-edge pass.

Quickly reaching the field boundary, we proceeded back to Mildenhall
without incident. We didn't say a word for those next 14 minutes.
After landing, our commander greeted us, and we were both certain he was
reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said
the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 fly-past he had
ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise
maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. He said that
some of the cadets' hats were blown off, and the sight of the plan form
of the plane in full afterburner, dropping right in front of them, was
unbelievable. Walt and I both understood the concept of breathtaking
very well, that morning, and sheepishly replied that they were just
excited to see our low approach.

As we retired to the equipment room to change from space suits to flight
suits, we just sat there: We hadn't spoken a word since the pass.
Finally, Walter looked at me and said, "One hundred fifty-six knots.
What did you see?" Trying to find my voice, I stammered, "One hundred
fifty-two." We sat in silence for a moment. Then Walt said, "Don't
ever do that to me again!" And I never did.

A year later, Walter and I were having lunch in the Mildenhall Officers'
club, and overheard an officer talking to some cadets about an SR-71
fly-past that he had seen, one day. Of course, by now the story
included kids falling off the tower, and screaming as the heat of the jet
singed their eyebrows. Noticing our Habu patches, as we stood there with
lunch trays in our hands, he asked us to verify to the cadets that such
a thing had occurred. Walt just shook his head and said, "It was
probably just a routine low approach; they're pretty impressive in that
plane". Impressive indeed.

Little did I realize, after relaying this experience to my audience that
day, that it would become one of the most popular and most requested
stories. It's ironic that people are interested in how slow the world's
fastest jet can fly. Regardless of your speed, however, it's always a
good idea to keep that cross-check up -- and keep your Mach up, too.

via Ray Puffer


ACCESS: Top Secret
Mar 20, 2008
Reaction score
Not really Sr-71, and not about being slow, but still... :)

So. Does anybody have doubts this is amazing aircraft?


ACCESS: Top Secret
Jun 22, 2008
Reaction score
flanker said:
So. Does anybody have doubts this is amazing aircraft?

...Never did. Never will. Just more proof that the Habus should still be flying, and that all those responsible for their grounding will one day wind up in the same pit of eternal torment.

Similar threads