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The SR-71 Cockpit Redesign: A Crucial Adjustment for the Blackbird’s Maiden Flight and USAF Approval

Before the SR-71 was taken out for its first flight, the cockpit was rearranged. It was very expensive to rearrange the Blackbird’s cockpit but it simply wasn’t functional.

During its career, the SR-71 Blackbird gathered intelligence in some of the world’s most hostile environments.

Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour.

The SR-71 was conceived to operate at extreme velocities, altitudes and temperatures: actually it was the first aircraft constructed with titanium, as the friction caused by air molecules passing over its surface at Mach 2.6 would melt a conventional aluminum frame.

Its engineering was so cutting edge that even the tools to build the SR-71 needed to be designed from scratch.

The mission of the SR -71 was to take photographs, to use its sensors to pick up electronic surveillance. To safely navigate close to the enemy’s border. The Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) handled all of that and more.

The RSO was the Officer in the SR-71 that, ran the checklist for the Pilot. He had to know his job and the Pilot’s job. He did the Navigation in the SR-71 if the Pilot had to make an emergency landing, which happened more often than you would think he would ask his RSO’s “Where am I landing?” and get the exact coordination from him.

There is a saying: “You’ve never been lost until you’ve been lost going 2,100 mph!”

Before the SR-71 was taken out for its first flight, the cockpit was rearranged. It was very expensive to rearrange this cockpit but simply it wasn’t functional. So, the first three RSOs chosen for the program (Butch Sheffield, Tom Schmittou, and Coz Mallozzi) took a look at it and demanded that they had to redo the cockpit….and they did.

A quote from Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield’s unpublished book. ‘I asked one of the Lockheed Skunk Works engineers who design this, he said; “NO ONE”. He went on to say, “Kelly told us to put the instruments anywhere they would fit.” What a mess! Airspeed on one side, attitude on the other, altimeter in the middle, we couldn’t even tell what time it was, it was a nightmare.’

My Dad called the Pentagon and told them to finance rearranging the cockpit or the Air Force would not sign off on it. And they did.

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.