Road Notes – SR 71

SR 71- Blackbird January 29 2013

We meet all manner of people on the road and seldom find anyone that doesn’t have some curious background, hobby or interest. We see thousands of RV’s with detailed graphics painted on their vehicles lions, hawks, eagles, Harley Davidson logos and all manner of symbols of flags & patriotism.

I confess that I think it’s a bit dubious when it comes to putting American flags on everything as an expression of patriotism. I think patriotism is not that easy or simple and often times requires a much higher degree of dedication & sacrifice.

As I slow to a stop, I see that the RV in front of me has an atypical image on the back of his RV, it is rather detailed painting of an SR 71 – The Blackbird. If you have an interest in aviation and history you would know this is the worlds fastest aircraft. It was a product of every discipline of science and technology American ingenuity had to offer. This was a top secret project that was backed by the full resource of our government and also the infamous group called Skunkworks!

The owner of the RV is Bret Medbury and I had to enquire if there was any significance to the painting on the back of his vehicle. He humbly offered an explanation, “I’m an engine guy, I used to work for Pratt and Whitney….it’s the engine that I helped design.” I was aware that this type of jet engine was a radical design and that it required thinking that was far advanced from modern day understanding at that time. The air flow into the engine was extreme. The plane could fly at 80,000+ feet & at three times the speed of sound. They had to find a way to allow even and consistent airflow into an engine that was consuming gallons per second of super hybred aviation fuel.


Bret went on to tell me that he worked on this program in the early days and knew the pilot of this particular plane Bill Parks – a Lockheed Test pilot. He also knew the pilot (Ray Torrick) of the drone that was mounted atop the SR71. Pretty heady endeavors of aerospace technology in the mid 1960’s. The aim of this drone was ultimaltely the stratosphere. Its mission was understanding more about space and technology.


Rays voice lowered and he told me that he bought the RV from the pilots widow. He also told me that her husband might not have known who he was in those early days. Ray said “I’ve redone the RV and I didn’t want to erase this image”. He went on to tell me that the drone was one of the first experimental launches of its kind and that it did not go well. The drone got caught in the draft of this triple-supersonic airplane in such a way that it flipped and severed the tail off of the mothership..the SR 71 Blackbird. They were flying at 85,000 ft. and conditions at mach three make everything more tenuous. Today was a beautiful sunny day in New Mexico and he was enjoying some well deserved retirement time. I could tell in his voice that he was reliving the catastrophe and it was a heartfelt event in his life.

Those experiments tested the mettle of a nation and the people that were willing to fund such projects. They also tested the skill and daring of the men that were willing to take those risks.


As I was leaving he asked me to read the fine print below the image of the Blackbird.



5 Responses

  1. Dale Moerke

    When I was in the U.S. Air Force I had the opportunity to see one of these magnificent aircraft while stationed at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho. For some unknown reason (fuel? repairs?) it had landed at our base and was quickly moved to a hanger, away from prying eyes. Everyone was talking about it and when word got out that it was on the runway preparing for takeoff, enlisted and officers alike started to slowly gather on the edge of the tarmac. We were not disappointed as the pilot saw an opportunity to show off. The SR-71 roared down the runway and lifted off slowly circling the base before making a final pass over the runway. It was then we witnessed its amazing capabilities as the pilot pointed the nose of the legendary Blackbird almost vertical and it shot up to the heavens in a matter of seconds. No longer in sight we all walked back to our jobs with probably a bit more pride in our hearts that day. Indeed, these were brave daring men.

  2. Bill Sjoblom

    In 1969, I was stationed with the USAF in Kun San, Korea operating a MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) Station running phone patches back to the U.S. for the troops. A Colonel was waiting for me to get a clear frequency when his radio went off and a voice claiming that a WW 2 bomber was making an emergency landing. He told me that there was no way that “antique” bomber was coming in and that it must be something special.

    We jumped into his jeep and arrived at the runway just in time to see a SR-71 land. What a sight that was! I had no idea we had that advanced technology. The craft was immediately covered in tarps and towed to a hanger.

    A couple of days later, no South Koreans allowed on the base, this magnificent plane took off. It did not do a fly-by but, at the proper speed, was vertical and disappeared in seconds. As a 19 year old from Northern Minnesota, I was totally amazed. What stands out in my mind was that the aircraft was totally black, It did not make sense to me as I thought planes had to be silver to fly. Great memory!

  3. bill keitel

    Your comments make this plane and the people that dedicate their lives to advance democratic ideals….real. bk enroute

  4. Bret Medbury

    I am the owner of the RV pictured with the Blackbird and the drone on it and would like to clarify a few points that kinda “got lost” in the translation.

    I became associated to the Blackbird and related programs in it’s later years and have had the honor of meeting Bill Parks, who was one of Lockheed’s premier test plots, however this accident occurred well before my time, I therefore never had a chance to meet Ray Torick. I certainly knew the story of the accident though as all associated with the program did. Yes I was an engine guy, but had nothing to do with the design of the amazing J-58 engines in the SR-71. A number of successful launches of the drone had been completed prior to this one.

    Sadly I have never met Ray’s widow who had this mural painted in his honor in 1993 almost 28 years after his loss, I found the RV totally by chance and purchased it from the third owner.

    The loss of Ray is made even more sad by the fact that both men survived what should have been an un-survivable situation into the Pacific only to have Ray drown after his pressure suit filled with water due to an open face mask.

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