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With the Libyan coast fast approaching now, Walt asks me for the
third time if I think the jet will get to the speed and altitude we
want in time. I tell him yes. I know he is concerned. He is dealing
with the data; that’s what engineers do, and I am glad he is. But I
have my hands on the stick and throttles and can feel the heart of a
thoroughbred, running now with the power and perfection she was
designed to possess. I also talk to her. Like the combat veteran she
is, the jet senses the target area and seems to prepare herself. For
the first time in two days, the inlet door closes flush and all
vibration is gone. We’ve become so used to the constant buzzing that
the jet sounds quiet now in comparison. The Mach correspondingly
increases slightly and the jet is flying in that confidently smooth
and steady style we have so often seen at these speeds. We reach our
target altitude and speed, with five miles to spare.
Entering the target area, in response to the jet’s new-found
vitality, Walt says, ‘That’s amazing’ and with my left hand pushing
two throttles farther forward, I think to myself that there is much
they don’t teach in engineering school.
Out my left window, Libya looks like one huge sandbox. A featureless
brown terrain stretches all the way to the horizon. There is no sign
of any activity. Then Walt tells me that he is getting lots of
electronic signals, and they are not the friendly kind.
The jet is performing perfectly now, flying better than she has in
weeks. She seems to know where she is. She likes the high Mach, as
we penetrate deeper into Libyan airspace. Leaving the footprint of
our sonic boom across Benghazi, I sit motionless, with stilled hands
on throttles and the pitch control, my eyes glued to the gages.
Only the Mach indicator is moving, steadily increasing in
hundredths, in a rhythmic consistency similar to the long distance
runner who has caught his second wind and picked up the pace. The
jet was made for this kind of performance and she wasn’t about to
let an errant inlet door make her miss the show. With the power of
forty locomotives, we puncture the quiet African sky and continue
farther south across a bleak landscape.
Walt continues to update me with numerous reactions he sees on the
DEF panel. He is receiving missile tracking signals. With each mile
we traverse, every two seconds, I become more uncomfortable driving
deeper into this barren and hostile land.
I am glad the DEF panel is not in the front seat. It would be a big
distraction now, seeing the lights flashing. In contrast, my cockpit
is ‘quiet’ as the jet purrs and relishes her new-found strength,
continuing to slowly accelerate. The spikes are full aft now, tucked
twenty-six inches deep into the nacelles. With all inlet doors
tightly shut, at 3.24 Mach, the J-58s are more like ramjets now,
gulping 100,000 cubic feet of air per second. We are a roaring
express now, and as we roll through the enemy’s backyard, I hope our
speed continues to defeat the missile radars below.
We are approaching a turn, and this is good. It will only make it
more difficult for any launched missile to solve the solution for
hitting our aircraft. I push the speed up at Walt’s request. The jet
does not skip a beat, nothing fluctuates, and the cameras have a
rock steady platform.
Walt received missile launch signals. Before he can say anything
else, my left hand instinctively moves the throttles yet farther
forward. My eyes are glued to temperature gages now, as I know the
jet will willingly go to speeds that can harm her. The temps are
relatively cool and from all the warm temps we’ve encountered thus
far, this surprises me but then, it really doesn’t surprise me.
Mach 3.31 and Walt are quiet for the moment.
I move my gloved finder across the small silver wheel on the
autopilot panel which controls the aircraft’s pitch. With the deft
feel known to Swiss watchmakers, surgeons, and ‘dinosaurs’ (old-time
pilots who not only fly an airplane but ‘feel it’) I rotate the
pitch wheel somewhere between one-sixteenth and one-eighth inch,
location a position which yields the 500-foot-per-minute climb I
desire. The jet raises her nose one-sixth of a degree and knows I’ll
push her higher as she goes faster. The Mach continues to rise, but
during this segment of our route, I am in no mood to pull throttles
Walt’s voice pierces the quiet of my cockpit with the news of more
missile launch signals. The gravity of Walter’s voice tells me that
he believes the signals to be a more valid threat than the others.
Within seconds he tells me to ‘push it up’ and I firmly press both
throttles against their stops. For the next few second I will let
the jet go as fa st as she wants.
A final turn is coming up and we both know that if we can hit that
turn at this speed, we most likely will defeat any missiles. We are
not there yet, though, and I’m wondering if Walt will call for a
defensive turn off our course. With no words spoken, I sense Walter
is thinking in concert with me about maintaining our programmed
To keep from worrying, I glance outside, wondering if I’ll be able
to visually pick up a missile aimed at us. Odd are the thoughts that
wander through one’s mind in times like these. I found myself
recalling the words of former SR-71 pilots who were fired upon while
flying missions over North Vietnam. They said the few errant missile
detonations they were able to observe from the cockpit looked like
implosions rather than explosions. This was due to the great speed
at which the jet was hurling away from the exploding missile. I see
nothing outside except the endless expanse of a steel blue sky and
the broad patch of tan earth far below.
I have only had my eyes out of the cockpit for seconds, but it seems
like many minutes since I have last checked the gages inside.
Returning my attention inward, I glance first at the miles counter
telling me how many more to go until we can start our turn. Then I
note the Mach, and passing beyond 3.45, I realize that Walter and I
have attained new personal records. The Mach continues to increase.
The ride is incredibly smooth.
There seems to be a confirmed trust now, between me and the jet; she
will not hesitate to deliver whatever speed we need, and I can count
on no problems with the inlets. Walt and I are ultimately depending
on the jet now – more so than normal – and she seems to know it. The
cooler outside temperatures have awakened the spirit born into her
years ago, when men dedicated to excellence took the time and care
to build her well. With spikes and doors as tight as they can get we
are racing against the time it could take a missile to reach our
altitude. It is a race this jet will not let us lose. The Mach eases
to 3.5 as we crest 80,000 feet. We are a bullet now – except faster.
We hit the turn, and I feel some relief as our nose swings away from
a country we have seen quite enough of. Screaming past Tripoli, our
phenomenal speed continues to rise, and the screaming Sled pummels
the enemy one more time, laying down a parting sonic boom.
In seconds, we can see nothing but the expansive blue of the
Mediterranean .I realize that I still have my left hand full-forward
and we’re continuing to rocket along in maximum afterburner. The TDI
now shows us Mach numbers not only new to our experience but flat
out scary. Walt says the DEF panel is now quiet and I know it is
time to reduce our incredible speed. I pull the throttles to the min
‘burner range and the jet still doesn’t want to slow down. Normally,
the Mach would be affected immediately when making such a
large throttle movement. But for just a few moments, old 960 just sat
out there at the high Mach she seemed to love and, like the proud
Sled she was, only began to slow when we were well out of danger.
I loved that jet.