Blackbird by James Hamilton-Paterson

Being an aviation geek, you can find yourself in the odd awkward situation when someone says “I saw a Spitfire yesterday” and your unthinking response is, “Which mark?  What do you mean “what’s a mark?””.  Seriously though, in this plane geek’s mind, flight is up there with fire and distillation of alcohol as man’s greatest achievements.  Get into a pub argument with fellow enthusiasts of flight and things usually degenerate into divisions based upon national support, period and looks.  The designers also come into the debate.  Britain in the middle of the last century had an amazing string of men who created some of the finest aircraft ever flown.  R.J. Mitchell, and his successor Joseph Smith (not that one), were responsible for the Supermarine Spitfire.  Over at Hawker’s there was Sydney Camm who designed, to name but a few, (deep breath) the Hart, Fury, Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest, Sea Fury, Hunter and Harrier.  Camm went from biplanes to perfecting VTOL (Vertical TakeOff and Landing) jet aircraft.  Something no one has been able to match, especially the muppet given a box of crayons over at Lockheed-Martin and tasked designing the F-35 Lightning II.  Lockheed...  A great American company that built its reputation on it’s most famous son, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.  James Hamilton-Paterson’s Blackbird, is as much love letter to this amazing, controversial, designer, as it is to his greatest creation, the Blackbird series of aircraft.

Hamilton-Paterson has written a number of very good aviation books.  Empire of the Clouds documents how terrible government oversight allowed Britain to throw away the world lead in aviation.  Marked for Death is a heartbreaking read about the waste of young airmen in the First World War.  In both books, Hamilton-Paterson’s tone is rightly angry at the waste of so much.  In Blackbird, his tone is more reverential to both the aircraft and it’s designer.  The tale he tells is set against the paranoia of the early Cold War years, when assumption, rather than fact, lead policy in the West.  The need to see what was going on behind the Iron Curtain was hindered by the development of Surface-to-Air missile (SAM) systems and a lack of performance aircraft to get above them.  In this atmosphere, the US Government and Air Force approached Lockheed and Kelly Johnson to develop a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft to enable overflight of the USSR.  Johnson set up the now legendary Lockheed “Skunk Works”, a totally off the books organisation, to develop the design he named the CL-282, better known as the U-2.

 Kelly Johnson's U-2 Spyplane.  Variants still fly today.

Kelly Johnson's U-2 Spyplane.  Variants still fly today.

The tale of the development of the U-2 is crucial to Hamilton-Paterson’s tale. The politics and inter-service rivalries that hampered the aircraft's deployment and usefulness is echoed later when Johnson and his team start work on the Archangel series of high-altitude, Mach 3 aircraft.  These would later be designated the A-12 (the single seat CIA version), the YF-12 (the initial USAF two seat fighter version) and the SR-71 (the two seat USAF reconnaissance version).  We would know them best as the Blackbird.  Hamilton-Paterson delves deep into the chain of events that lead Johnson from the F-104 Starfighter (an aircraft designed more for performance than the longevity of it’s pilot), through the U-2 (which reused the F-104’s fuselage) to the science fiction levels of performance needed for the Blackbird.  The details of the environment pilots of the U-2 and Blackbird are incredible.  Operating at heights where the blood would boil if exposed to the atmosphere, the crews wore pressure suits designed for space travel.  U-2 and early Blackbird crews were unable to pee, let alone eat, when strapped in initially.  A tricky system of filling “piddle bags” was later developed, if not the storage for them.  Hamilton-Paterson brilliantly tells the tale of the longest SR-71 mission in 1973 where the pilot ended his mission with his cockpit festooned with “piddle bags” and even hanging from the canopy ejection handle.  All this and travelling at over three times the speed of sound and countless air-to-air refuelings.

 A Habu badge awarded to a Blackbird crew after an operational sortie.

A Habu badge awarded to a Blackbird crew after an operational sortie.

As wonderful as tales of bodily fluids are (no aviation tale is complete with toilet stories, see Hamilton-Paterson’s Marked for Death on the effects of using castor oil as an engine lubricant in First World War aircraft), the tale of Johnson and his team developing this aircraft is incredible.  From working out the incredible mathematics for sustained Mach 3 flight (no supercomputers, just mechanical calculators and slide rules) to the knowledge that the aircraft was limited to a maximum of Mach 3.3 only due to the temperature of the aircraft’s titanium skin, Hamilton-Paterson peppers the story with colour.  The titanium had to be bought through intermediaries and came from Ukraine, then part of the USSR.  Blackbird crews, on the their first deployment to Japan, took the name Habu (after the local poisonous snake) as the badge awarded to a crew who flew an operational mission.  The Habus were elite and remain so, to the point they were disparaged by their slower brethren.  As amazing as the tale of the Blackbird is, the politics of the Cold War that held back the use of both it and it’s sister U-2, is remarkable.  That Eisenhower and LBJ both banned overflight of the USSR, allowing hawks in the Air Force and other branches to perpetuate the ridiculous Bomber and Missile Gap theories, is astounding.  A fascinating vignette Hamilton-Paterson uncovers is that RAF crews were trained to fly U-2 missions over the USSR, so that the US government could maintain that there were no US overflights of the USSR.  The Blackbirds themselves were brutally underused and the high cost of their operation is what finally killed off the program.  It’s demise is tragic and Hamilton-Paterson does not hold back his venom in a way that the Habus would be proud of.

The Blackbirds are all now in museums.  As are the Concordes.  Our brief foray past the demon that lives at Mach 1 on the meter shows what we’ve lost.  Only modern military aircraft are capable of punching through that barrier and, even then, only to about where British Airways and Air France were used to serving champagne at Mach 2.2.  That magical place past Mach 3 is lost to us now.  Walk around Blackbird 926 in the American Museum at IWM Duxford and you can feel it’s power.  Sitting there, she looks like she is straining to leap into the sky and disappear to the edge of space, faster than a bullet.  James Hamilton-Paterson has crafted a honest and loving tribute to the Blackbird, the Habus who flew her and Kelly Johnson and his team that crafted those incredible lines in titanium.

Blackbird by James Hamilton-Paterson is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.

 My photo of SR-71 Blackbird 962 at sunset in the American Muesum at IWM Duxford

My photo of SR-71 Blackbird 962 at sunset in the American Muesum at IWM Duxford