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Holiday snaps

Okay, because some of you asked for them, here's one of my holiday snaps:

charlie goes flying




hehe, you look like wallace after finding the cheese. What great picture, you should use it on the back of your next published work :) (not that you get any say in that, of course)


So who can tell me what plane that is from the photo?
And what does Charlies t-shirt say?


I'll give you the t-shirt: "I keep pressing the escape key, but I'm still here".

The plane is rather distinctive and quite rare ...


I was wondering about the plane too. Not easy to tell is it? I'm guessing an SR71 / A12 or possibly an F-117. Go on, put us out of our misery.


I'm fairly positive it's an SR-71.


Okay: It is indeed an SR-71 (the twin-seat recce model). This particular cockpit is, alas, not connected to a fuselage; the airframe was written off in a runway incident in 1971 and the nose section now resides in the Evergreen museum near Portland, home of the Spruce Goose.


You should really take more care with filenames. CS-SR71.jpg is a bit of a giveaway; I could imagine it on Facebook, but among your reader community it didn't stand a chance.


Charlie@6: that particular picture was taken at the Seattle Museum of Flight, not Evergreen.


Perhaps a better challenge for this crowd is: what's the piece of kit _behind_ our esteemed host? I'm going to go with a MiG-21.

(And on preview, I see that the answer's on the wheel chocks... can anyone guess the mark?)


The wheel chocks say it is a MiG 23


I would also be grinning idiotically in those same circumstances. The SR-71 is one of the coolest planes ever built. There's a complete one on display outside the science museum here in LA, but you can't get in the cockpit...


have you ever seen a full SR-71 in person? They have one at the air and space museum at Dulles airport in the US, and it's really hard to imagine just how huge the engines are until you stand behind them and look inside. you could fit a small office in one of them.


There's an SR-71 in the museum at March Field, south of Riverside, CA. (It shows up nicely in aerial photos. So does their B-52.)


Whatever you do, don't push the red button!


I'm curious as to how tall the pilots for the SR-71 must have been - Charlie's head seems to be a whole foot beneath the headrest!


It's the one in Seattle - I've sat in the same cockpit myself. Very cool. They've got a complete example there too, as well as that nose section.


Pete @15: Bulky pressure suits would make up part of the difference, and the cushion on the seat doensn't look original, so I suspect that's the difference, rather than midget authors or gigantic pilots...


Paul W: not only is there a complete example in Seattle, but it's the only surviving one of two prototype M-21s designed to carry the D-21 drone. And the M-21/D-21 stack is on display in the museum.

As far as my height in the seat goes -- they removed the ejector seat from the cockpit; what I'm sitting on is a dummy. And I wasn't wearing a bulky pressure suit, for that matter. The SR-71 cockpit is actually pretty cramped even without a space suit!


Sheesh! At first glance I thought "That's the kinda car a Science Fiction Writer should have!"


There is also an SR-71 at the aviation museum near the Richmond, Virginia international airport.


Any idea what the lens focal length was?

[insert evil CGI grin]


Evil CGI grin: just download the image and look at the metadata. It's there.


Awesome. I actually went to see the SR-71 recently, but they wouldn't let me sit in the cockpit. You can't do that many places anymore, not when the plane is still intact. They used to let kids sit in the F-14 cockpit at my local air and space museum, but the someone pushed a button that spilled a couple hundred gallons of oil in the hangar and that was the end of that. :(


Ben @12: Charlie, Feorag, and I toured the Udvar Hazy museum a while back and the engines are really huge! You can't sit in that one, though.


Pete @15 & Jakob @17: I bet the pilot also sat on his parachute (I don't imagine that a mach 3 bailout would be survivable, but I suspect most accidents would be at low altitudes and relatively slow speeds).


More data on the image than I thought, but the only CGI model I have with a detailed cockpit needs a pilot with narrower shoulders.

And I'm not sure that I want to do the compositing without a green-screen Charlie.


Readers in the UK might find the SR71 in the American Air Museum at Duxford near Cambridge more accessible. It's forward and to the right of what I think is the only B52 displayed indoors.


Although nowadays, these kind of airplanes are not in tactical (or strategic) use obsoleted by there unmanned counterparts and advanced satellite image analysis software something about them triggers a sense of awe to the airplane enthusiast unlike any other common plane. These Cold War "relics" and the pioneers that had flew with them have a story to say and it's pretty darn interesting...

...on the other hand seeing a new generation of autonomous planes like the European "nEUROn" the British "Corax" or the American "Pegasus" (what's up with the Greek names anyway???) I keep thinking that the men that are behind these projects maybe will not have the recognition there peers had half a century ago... but i wonder if that makes them any less important or "interesting" for us.


Tom @27: The Air Museum near Darwin also has a B-52 inside (one of the last ones stationed in Oz, IIRC). I have a feeling they sized the shed to fit the gigantic monster of a thing. You want awe, stand underneath that and try to imagine it picking itself off a runway.


Charlie, did you make it to Evergreen last month? Oddly enough, I think the BD-5 way in the back is the most interesting plane there, both because I wanted one as a kid and because it's not much bigger than a wetsuit.


The pilot wore a pressure suit just like the astronauts, as they flew on the edge of the atmosphere. The jet leaked liked a sieve on the ground and heated up in the air so the joints sealed. I am not sure how fast it really went, that is still classified I think, but it was really, really fast.

The sister squadron at Beale AFB, was our sponsor squadron when I was a cadet at the USAF Academy, and we got to see it up close (not in the cockpit then) and watch a pilot suit up. A lot of my friends ended up refueling them, but I didn't know anyone personally that flew one.

Cool Pic Charlie!


Thanks Charlie.

A nice collection of Blackbird images (mainly Google Earth shots of those displayed outside) at:


At Classic Flyers at Tauranga Airport (NZ), you can sit in a Hunter and watch neat videos on a screen fitted in it.


I'm jealous. Even though it's 'just' a cockpit. The SR71 was always my favourite plane when I was a warplane junkie kid. I think it was the >mach 3 speeds, and ridiculous service ceiling.

It would have one day allowed my to combine my urge to go really fast and see the stars all at once. Wonder if you can pick them up in surplus...

Of course talking about remote drones, I wonder how long before they start recruiting really good twitch gamers as combat pilots? You know - after vetting them to make sure they don't get bad rep as team killers.


Very cool man.


Everyone got the SR-71, but any plane geek worth his or her salt should get that. Fairly unique cockpit area.

I was fortunate enough to see an SR-71 in flight, at the EAA fly-in in Oshkosh, WI many years ago - early 90s I think, back that far the years get all jumbled, might've been late 80s.

It was *amazing*. They did a 'slow' pass down the flight line and it was still going over 200 knots. Nose high, with giant afterburner plumes full of shock diamonds. LOUD. I've been to many airshows, and I've heard just about every modern, and not so modern, jet in afterburner. The Blackbird would drown them all out - probably combined. ;-)


Alan @ 25: There is an example of an SR-71 pilot surviving the breakup of his plane at over Mach 3. His pressurised flight suit provided him with some degree of protection from the airflow. The pilot wrote an account of this, but I can't find an online version that isn't a rip-off. If you google Bill Weaver and SR-71 you can find it.


Aha! It seems that your published writings and livejournal blogings are all just a cleverly constructed shroud to obscure the now obvious truth: You're a dyed-in-the-wool hard-core closeted war monger whose vacations consist of hopping into any mil-spec airframe you can find and laying waste to a third world country! During my visit to Afghanistan (a fictional occurrence), I said to myself, "My goodness, that strafing looks positively Strossian." Now I know, It was!


I imagine that in an operational SR-71 pressing the escape key (or pulling the lever, whatever) _will_ get you out of there...


The last time I saw a grin that wide it was on a guy marrying twin sisters. Bonny for you Charlie! I never did understand why you shoehorned the U2 and even the F117 into 'A colder war' when obviously the Oxcart was the uncrowned king of the cold war (all right all right it's a different bird, but still). I expect rectification in the next Laundry book- *they* did, after all, covertly ship the production line out to Alaska and have been tear-assing around god knows were with their new pulse detonation engines...


The best part of the shot is *not* the plane. It is that *huge* grin on your face.


David.S @ 38

No no, pulling the level ejects the plane.


There's an anpocryphal story that one of the first times a blackbird was flown over Britain, the US pilot was making superior remarks to an RAF pilot, until he asked ... "btw - where are you?"
To which the reply was: "look UP old boy!"
Because the RAF-guy was in a Lightning - which had afterburned straight up, and then dived on the SR-71.


"Dear Editor,

I have your proposed advance in front of me. I also have your office coordinates punched into the Inertial Nav/Attack System, and a JDAM under each wing. I'll be listening out on 243 MHz for better offers, but at the speed this thing goes time over target will be about fifteen minutes, so make it snappy."


L2GX: the third Laundry novel plonks a gun on the mantlepiece for later in the series (google "Chekhov's gun" if you don't get the reference) in the shape of the RAF's home-grown occult recon capability ...


Charlie could show us the *other* photos, the one's where he's sitting in the cockpit of the Aurora. . . .

But then he would have to kill us. :-(


The SR-71 always provided some great aviation anecdotes, i.e. this bit from (http://www.tom-phillips.info/images.a/sr71.blackbird.htm):

"One day, high above Arizona, we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. 'Ninety knots,' ATC replied. A Bonanza soon made the same request. 'One-twenty on the ground,' was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was. 'Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,' ATC responded.

The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walt's mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walt startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ' Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.' We did not hear another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast."


@42: A friend's father was involved in the planning of the RAF intercept of the Blue Riband Blackbird. A Lightning was used, going ballistic up behind the SR-71 as it crossed into British airspace and then, engines out it dived past the American interloper taking pictures all the way. The attitude of the RAF was that if the Lighning pilot couldn't get his engines to relight then tough, but they wanted those pictures.

@ 46: The anecdote I heard was ATC getting an anonymous request for FL 800. Much scratching of heads, then "Ah yes, flight cleared for FL 800". The reply comes back "Thank you tower, descending to FL 800".


The civilian version of this was the BA Concorde captain who asked ATC for clearance to divert around a patch of dodgy weather, was turned down, started climbing and declared VFR on top - i.e. leaving the control area through the upper limit - at FL620.


The (ghost-written) book by one of the chief engineers at the Skunkworks, Ben Rich, is a rich source of engineering anecdotes about the SR-71. Off the top of my head:-

a) The only source of the high purity titanium at the time was the USSR, which led to much jiggery pokery with front companies.

b) The fuel tanks only sealed up once in flight, which meant an important piece of hangar equipment were large drip trays to catch the leaking fuel.

c) The USAF insisted on the USAF roundel appearing on the plane, which required an inordinate amount of time to be spent developing red, white and blue paints capable of resisting several thousand degree Fahrenheit heat for hours at a time.


49: second the recommendation - it's a cracking read. Also for anecdotes about the U-2; as they tried desperately to bring weight down, the head engineer offers a $100 bounty for anyone who finds a way to shave ten pounds. Rich suggests filling the tyres with helium, rather than air, but it leaks out too quickly. Then he suggests a pre-flight enema for the pilots - "OK, but you have to tell them your idea yourself."
And the terrifying habit of the U-2, at high altitude, of having about a ten-knot window between stall buffet and Mach buffet. And you couldn't always tell which was which.
When turning, it was common to have the end of the outer wing going into Mach buffet and the end of the inner wing going into stall buffet, at the same time.


Book: Body of secrets: how America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ eavesdrop on the world. author James Bamford, isbn 978071262318 has some interesting political issues stuff on spy planes, including Gary Powers in Russia and u2 issue.


the RAF's home-grown occult recon capability

Images that come to mind:

1) A modified Avro Vulcan loaded with counter-occult gear, with a terrified Bob Howard in a Sidcot suit crouched in the bomb bay - "you'll be fine, don't worry, just mind you don't tangle your oxygen hose, and it's probably best to try to avoid using the chemical toilet if you can"
2) or, possibly, this is what the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight does the rest of the time...
3) all due, of course, to be replaced by HECATE, the Pan-European Occult Surveillance and Reconnaissance Capability, just as soon as it reaches the flight line in 2009. Oops, 2011. Well, maybe 2014. There are some problems with the wiring harness. And some budget constraints.


@49: To me, that leaky fuel-tank thing just epitomises what was wrong with US military engineering at the time. Especially the bit where they came up with a low-volatility fuel as a "solution". I love the Russian solution on their equivalent high-speed plane (MiG 29?) -- the fuel tank was a bunch of cells, welded together. Cue bad Russian accent "you try and leak now, comrade fuel tank".


Mig-25 - I think - this was the one that terrified NATO until one of them defected to, IIRC, Japan, only for them to realise that it wasn't far in engineering terms from a lump of steel that had holes in for a pilot and a huge engine...

It's the Tiger tank problem - you can build a wunder-weapon in a short period of time, at the cost of having to make certain design compromises in doing so that mean it can never be scaled up to true mass production.


I can verify that the fuel tanks on the Blackbird leak while on the ground. I was at an airshow at Edwards where one was a static display (the other side of the hangar had a U2). The hangar floor was definitely wet underneath it (I have photos).
Gorgeous bird, though: think of a top-fuel drag car, but airborne.


@53 Chris, that's a bad conclusion. The Soviet aircraft you're thinking of is the MiG-25 Foxbat, and it doesn't come close to comparing to the SR-71 Blackbird. The -25 was capable of Mach 3.2 *dashes*, but doing so pretty much ruined the turbines. You could do it *once*, then you swapped the engines out. The SR-71 could cruise at Mach 3.2 (and above) for hours at a time, and do it without damaging itself in the process.

The reason the SR-71 leaked is because the airframe grows several inches in flight due to sustained heating. If you try to make that solid it will buckle as components expand. It is like a long bridge - they have expansion joints to allow the bridge to expand and contract. The Blackbird is the same - the gaps were *deliberate*, they gave the airframe the play it needed to cope with the expansion in flight. It is actually an elegant solution - it doesn't matter that it leaks a bit on the ground, it just needs to get up and airborne and once in flight friction begins heating the airframe and it seals itself. They have to top off in flight anyway, since lifting off with full tanks is risky, if not impossible - the Blackbird isn't designed for low-speed flight regimes at all.

The JP-7 fuel wasn't developed because of the leaks, the fact that it doesn't ignite readily and is therefore fairly safe even with the leaks is a bonus. It was developed because other fuels cannot handle the sustained thermal loads. The fuel acts as a heat sink in many modern aircraft, absorbing the heat from the airframe, electronics, etc. The Blackbird was one of the pioneers in this, and used the fuel to cool critical systems as well as buffer the heat stress from aerodynamic friction. This required a fuel with a high flashpoint, and a high thermal stability so the extreme heat would not cause it to break down. JP-7 is fairly remarkable and is still used in high-speed research because of its special properties.

The JP-7 fuel also served as he hydraulic fluid in the engines, simultaneously cooling them and then conducting the heat away in combustion.

It is very cool stuff.


Then, in an earlier age, there was the EE Canberra bomber ...
EE were royally screwed by various guvmint mis-decisions, but their various divisions built magnificent Aircraft and railway Locomotives.
The Canberra, IIRC could get (for the time) to ridiculously high altitudes, where nothing else could go (for quite a long time)
They were so good that the USA bought some ( !!! )


Ah, the Canberra - it was used to overfly Eastern Europe a few times before the U-2 came along.

(One of the lesser known bits of the Cold War is how many planes were shot down in the 40s and 50s on spying missions of varying legitimacy.)


Richard J: "before the U-2 came along" -- you mean like the Canberra PR9 aircraft that they only retired in 2006, after using them during the Iraq invasion?


Nah - in the early 50s, the RAF flew Canberras on photo-reconaissance missions over Eastern Europe a few times. The U2 was developed principally because Eastern Bloc air defences were rapidly improving. (And the fatal flaw of the U2 was the assumption that the USSR hadn't improved the Lendlease early warning radars that the US had given them in WW2...)



And don't forget the RB-45s flown by British crews with RAF roundels painted on the USAF-owned aircraft in a similar role.

Anyway, the Navigation-Bombing System in the V-bombers actually included photographic film and bicycle chain in its workings, so a suddenly eviscerated kitten wouldn't be that much of a stretch. "Nav Radar, go to bomb with attack 2H. What's the demand Captain? Take it out. AEO, Kitten in one...two...three...YIAOWAARRRGH!"


The USSR used the MiG-25's recce version during the Yom Kippur war, doing Mach plenty over-target dashes along the Suez Canal taking photos and side-looking radar images. Alexei Kosygin actually took a sheaf of them along to see Sadat and try to persuade him to call a ceasefire before losing. I was so pleased to get a MiG-25 into my dissertation...


Given that you can construct a fairly plausible chain of causation that a false Soviet intel report[1] was the spark in a dry forest that a few months down the line caused the Six Days War, it's good to see that they redeemed themselves six years later.

[1] From memory, the USSR told Egypt, falsely, that Israeli forces were beginning to mass on the border - the natural Egyptian response freaked out the Israelis, and their natural responses freaked out the Egyptians, etc. etc.


Megazone: that is cool stuff. But I don't buy the "fuel tanks must have leaks" line. There are ways other than expansion gaps to let stuff move around safely.


Chris L@64

There are probably ways of countering the thermal expansion of the tanks in a more elegant way - perhaps by use of concertina-like joints, or having one half of the tank nested (snugly) in the other half, or even using spherical tanks.

The problem is that any clever way of countering the expansion is much more liable to:

Fail catastrophically.

Be a maintenance nightmare.

Be expensive to manufacture.

Impact the overall performance of the aircraft.

Remember the old adage The best is the enemy of good enough


The Skylon space plane, currently under development in the UK:

Seems a little blase about the tanks:

"Skylon's fuselage and wing load bearing structure is made from carbon fibre reinforced plastic and consists of stringers, frames, ribs and spars built as warren girder structures. The aluminium propellant tankage is suspended within this, free to move under thermal and pressurisation displacements.

The external shell (the aeroshell) is made from a fibre reinforced ceramic and carries only aerodynamic pressure loads which are transmitted to the fuselage structure through flexible suspension points. This shell is thin (0.5mm) and corrugated for stiffness. It is free to move under thermal expansion especially during the latter stages of the aerodynamic ascent and re-entry."


The scarily Slavic-sounding Kapustin Yar translates into English as "Valley of Cabbage". Just thought you might like to know that.


Eamon: having to keep what could politely be called a "misfeature" in order to make a plane operate safely suggests to me that you've designed yourself into a corner. Hence my admiration for the MiG-25 fuel tanks that didn't leak at any temperature, crude or not.


Chris L:

I first must say that I understand your bull-headedness - no one wants to be seen to back down.

However, your tenacious sticking to your original point in the face of reasoned debate and evidence is disappointing.

There's a whole lot of people with good insights on many issues on this blog. I look upon them as a way to learn something new, or get a new insight on a subject familiar to me - you could too.

On the subject of your last reply:

If the SR-71 was a plane "designed into a corner" - how come it performed it's designed role admirably for over 30 years?

As for the MIG-25 - can you provide any evidence on its unique fuel tankage? I have been unable to locate any information on them.

Hence my admiration for the MiG-25 fuel tanks that didn't leak at any temperature

Nice, would be good with a reference, and would be good to if you replaced 'any temperature' with 'from zero to Mach 2.8'.

I wonder how their tanks would have handled Mach 3.2+ for a few hours?



The one thing space vehicles have in their favour re: thermal expansion is that that their Fuel Tanks are usually either spherical (negligable expansion problems) or pill-shaped (minor problems).

Tanks in aircraft wings are invariably boxy - to fit in the limited space therin. This means you can have one whole face of the tank (say the forward face, a rectangle) expanding due to heat, whilst the rear face expands less, being away from the hot leading edge. This means the sides experience more displacement near the leading edge than rear edge and...leaks occur - unless you design for a perfect fit at crusing temperature, a la SR-71.


Eamon @30: Re the 30 years good service: because it was subject to a ferocious maintenance schedule at the hands of some very dedicated people? Just because it can be made to work, doesn't mean it couldn't be better. I read about the MiG fuel tanks in a library book years ago, I'm afraid can't remember what it was called.

When push comes to shove, I'm prepared to argue that the Russians were better engineers than the US, especially considering the resource they had at times. Two words: titanium submarines.


@72 Chris - The Soviets/Russians certainly did some great engineering, but a lot of it is a lot more crude than the western equivalents. They were never big on efficiency. They used titanium a lot more - subs, more aircraft structures, etc - because they have some of the largest deposits in the world. To this day they're a major global supplier of raw titanium and titanium products. Engineering titanium subs really isn't an impressive feat - it is more impressive to me how the west used high-yield steel to product similar results, it is more engineering and less brute force. The west could've easily done it - but the costs would be astronomical without the 'cheap' titanium the Russians had. Note that even the Russians were limited in the number of subs they used it on, it was still more expensive than steel.

One area where they have produced some seriously impressive tech that is often more advanced than the western equivalents is rocketry. Which is why you see things like Lockheed using the RD-180 on the Atlas V, the Zenit-3SL being used by Sea Launch, and Ariane Space co-marketing the Soyuz 2. The Soviets, and to a lesser degree the Russians, poured a lot of resources into developing space tech because it was something they could brag about on the world stage. Some western designs, like the SSMEs (Space Shuttle Main Engine), are more efficient, more powerful, etc, but at the expense of being monsterously complex and expensive.

As for the SR-71 leaking - it was the most elegant solution. Could it have been designed not to leak - I bet it could, but it was a deliberate choice. Why spend time and effort trying to solve the problem when a couple of small leaks (and they really were drips, not streaming fuel) can be lived with? The Blackbird was a rush project, under a lot of pressure. You solve problems as readily as you can and move on. There were a lot more serious problems to solve, so the resources were better spent there.

And there really isn't a comparison with the MiG-25. The F-15 is a closer comparison than the Blackbird - under normal operation the speeds the -25 flew at were closer to the -15 than the -71. The -25 had a very, very limited dash capability over Mach 3 and didn't experience anything close to the sustained heating of the Blackbird, so it doesn't have the same growth problems. And isolating the fuel tankage as someone else posted wasn't a solution, the fuel is deliberately in contact with the skin to act as a heat sink. Plus creating separate tanks inside the airframe would add a lot of weight, that's two major strikes.

The SR-71 and MiG-25 are not really comparable aircraft, they have very different capabilities. The SR-71 is a much more capable, much more advanced design. The MiG-25 can't match it in top speed, in range, in cruising altitude, and definitely not in cruising speed. If you're willing to melt down your engines you can certainly wring a more performance out of an airframe, but that's hardly the same as being able to cruise at those speeds for hours on end.

The MiG-25 Foxbat, and it's successor the MiG-31 Foxhound, are impressive in their own right. But the design was meant for short-range interceptor work - specifically to stop the B-70 Valkyrie. As with other designs it was evolved to perform other roles later - especially as the B-70 threat never materialized.


Be as snarky as you like, but the Iraqi air force got an F/A18 manoeuvre kill with a Foxbat...

The wikipedia article also mentions the 1973 Sinai recce missions, pointing out that one of them was tracked (in the sense of "wow! look at that!") at Mach 3.2 but that the engines were indeed a consumable part at those speeds.


A colleague of mine back in Birmingham had this on his office wall:

''Fast, Cheap, Good' - you can have any two of these three'.


I remember almost the same thing said about eBusiness Projects:

"On time, to budget, to spec - choose any two"

BTW - you wouldn't happen to have been a member of QUB Science Fiction Soc. in the late 90's-2000's?