SR-71 pilot tells the story of a tense mission over the Barents Sea where he spotted a scrambled Soviet MiG-31 to intercept his Blackbird
“I assumed the MiG-31 pilot would love nothing better than an opportunity to fire his missiles at an SR-71 Blackbird,” Ed Yeilding, SR-71 Blackbird pilot.
âFlying straight towards each other in our supersonic jets, I remembered two gallant medieval knights galloping towards each other at full speed, but I had no weapon,â Ed recalls. Yeilding, former SR-71 Blackbird pilot.
On October 6, 1986, an SR-71 was located just outside the territorial waters of the coast of the Murmansk region in Russia. It wasn’t the first time that an SR-71 had flown over the coast of the Soviet Union, and it wouldn’t be the last. It was the Blackbird’s job to take pictures from the side. The reason the United States looked to the Soviet Union was because it was looking for nuclear submarine activity. However, this time a Soviet interceptor got a little too close for comfort. Ed Yeilding explained to Paul Crickmore, in his book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition).
He recalls :
âIn the distance, maybe 100 miles away, I could see a long, bright white Russian streak flying directly towards us, but at a much lower altitude.
âI knew it must have been a Soviet fighter, probably a MiG-31, then the last Soviet interceptor.
âI raised my periscope and also saw that we were leaving a long trail. âI knew the fighter could see our trail as easily as I could see his.
“I also assumed that he had been ordered to fire his missiles if I was late in my turn and slipped over Soviet territorial waters within 12 nm of Soviet land, and I assumed the pilot would love nothing better than an opportunity to fire his missiles at an SR -71 Merle.
âI thought the Soviet fighter would not fire his missiles as long as we stayed on our usual course, but I also knew that he or his ground controllers could mistake our position for a position closer than we actually were.
âWe didn’t have defenses like flares against homing missiles, but again, we thought the ‘probability of destruction’ of missiles was very low due to our high speed and altitude.
âI was determined to ride the track as planned and take the pictures.
‘For survival, Curt [RSO Lt Col Curt Osterheld] and I was relying on precise navigation to keep us just outside Soviet territorial waters to prevent a launch, and we were dependent on our top speed and altitude in case any missiles were launched.
âIn my experience with the F-4 with interceptions and visual acuity, my best guess is that eight miles was its closest approach.
âHe seemed to lack speed at the top of his trail, maybe 65,000 feet or 10,000 feet below us.
âI saw his nose below the horizon and fall. Curt and I stayed on track and took the photos.
âDuring my three years of reconnaissance overseas, I have often seen contrails well below potentially hostile fighters, but on this day above the Arctic Circle above the Barents Sea was the only time I saw a Soviet fighter get close enough that I could really see metal, although not much bigger than a dot and only because our track of routine was predictable. Back in Mildenhall, during our debriefing, our intelligence officer told us, with near certainty, that the interceptor was a MiG-31, the first Soviet supersonic interceptor at the time.
The mission was a success. There was no international incident.
But if the MiG was able to take down the SR-71 … it could have started World War III.
The SR-71 crew members were handpicked, specially trained, and they knew how to handle a crisis. They haven’t overreacted, they haven’t overreacted. I personally knew many of the men who flew the Blackbird. He was the kind of man who knew how to rise to the occasion but who were humble at the same time.
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Colonel Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Colonel Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Habubrats Facebook page for the great photos and stories of Blackbird.
Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition) is published by Osprey Publishing and is available for order here.
Photo credit: US Air Force and Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons