Home » The story behind the Blackbird’s moniker, the “Lead Sled”

The story behind the Blackbird’s moniker, the “Lead Sled”

by Till Daisd
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A few people nicknamed the SR-71 the “Lead Sled” after pilot Jerry O’Malley and RSO Ed Payne, on their second Blackbird combat sortie over Vietnam in 1968, dropped 60,000 feet

The SR-71 Mach 3 + spy plane, which was developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A, made its first flight on December 22, 1964. It was first delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California, in January 1966.

For almost 24 years, the SR-71 held the record for being the fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft in the world. It could cover 100,000 square miles of the Earth’s surface per hour from 80,000 feet. The SR-71 was also referred to as the “Sled” and was unofficially called the “Blackbird.”

Aloysius G. Casey and Patrick A. Casey’s book Velocity Speed With Direction – The Professional Career of Gen. Jerome F. O’Malley claims that the Lead Sled was an unaffectionate name.

A few people dubbed the SR-71 the Sled* when Ed Payne and Jerry O’Malley dropped 60,000 feet over Vietnam in 1968.

That time an SR-71 deployed Ladies Underwear (along with the drag chute) upon landing to adjust the attitude of a new Blackbird pilot

Payne and O’Malley hold the distinction of having flown their Blackbird on its second combat sortie. (They also hold the distinction of being the first to complete a combat sortie successfully.) They refueled and then coasted close to Saigon before continuing north to cross the DMZ and into North Vietnam. Near the end of their run, a message was received to abort the remainder of the mission based on confusion in the command chain on exactly what President Johnson meant in a speech he made that day about restricting “strike” aircraft flights north of the 19th Parallel over Vietnam.

As O’Malley eased back on the throttles, both engines rumbled in a compression stall and immediately flamed out! Jerry pushed the nose down to get to the denser air needed for an air start of the big engines. They decided that if they could not achieve an air start at 23,000 feet, they would call it “MAYDAY” and bail out at 14,000 feet. Attempts at 40,000 and 30,000 feet failed, and Ed Payne noted 26,000 feet. As he made ready for the call, he called out, “MAY. . .” the aircraft shook, and O’Malley said one engine had started. By the time they made 20,000 feet, Jerry had both engines “turning and burning.”

Jerry made his way south and got ready to descend. As they returned to home base in the normal profile, Jerry talked extensively about the information he wanted Ed to record. The engines spooled down normally when it was time to ease back on the throttles, and they made a safe landing back at Kadena.

The double-engine flameout was the precursor to several similar incidents that followed over Laos and served to reinforce the undesired nickname of Lead Sled… back at the SAC Reconnaissance Center.

Later, as time went on, the term sled was used affectionately.

*According to The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird by Richard H. Graham, the Blackbird was dubbed ‘Sled’ because the U-2 pilots didn’t like calling the SR-71 by its proper nickname, so they came up with a derogatory name of their own, calling it the ‘Sled.’

Check out the Habubrats SR-71 and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder Facebook pages for further Blackbird photos and stories.

Photo by U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin

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