Russ Maheras

Russ Maheras
Chicago area,
Chicago native; long-time public affairs specialist; former electronic countermeasures technician on A-10, SR-71, U-2, RC-135 and C-5 aircraft; professional cartoonist; comics historian; and 20-year Air Force veteran. Lived all over – including 10 years overseas. Hobbies include history, science, technology, cartooning, film and sports. Grew up on the west side of Chicago, and unlike most baseball fans in the city, roots for both the White Sox AND the Cubs.

JANUARY 22, 2011 2:26AM

When the SR-71 Blackbird ruled the skies

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On Jan. 21, 1990, at 0500 hours, an important chapter in America's Cold War effort closed forever when SR-71 Blackbird #17962 took off into the pre-dawn darkness at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. This was the last flight ever from Detachment 1, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (Strategic Air Command), an Air Force detachment that had served its country exceptionally well since 1968.

Within three months the detachment and its personnel were gone, and in an ironic twist of fate, the iconic T-Hangar that once echoed the unique roar of the SR-71's Mach 3+ engines soon became the home to the slowest aircraft in the Air Force inventory: The HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter.

Nicknamed “Habu” by the locals because the SR-71’s unique fuselage “chine” reminded them of the poisonous, cobra-like, indigenous snake of the same name, the SR-71 ruled the skies over the Pacific with an impunity that earned it the grudging respect of all the bad guys/potential bad guys in the region. It was, quite simply, an amazing aircraft.

When the fateful orders finally came down to cease all Det. 1, 9 SRW operations, it was a sad day for everyone who had ever been a part of that storied detachment. But it was especially sad for those of us "Final Few" who were there when the last SR-71 left, and who, during the course of a month or so, had to pack up the SR-71 support equipment, shred the classified material, find a home for the office equipment, turn out the lights, and then get farmed out to other units across the Air Force.

Yet even now, decades later, on a quiet night when my thoughts wander back to those exciting days in the T-Hangar, I can still literally “hear” the low growl of the twin-Buick "start-cart" engines increase louder and louder as the cart's clutch strains mightily to bring an SR-71’s engine to its proper rotational starting speed. Then, as the JP-7 fuel in the SR-71 engine is finally ignited in a bright green flash, I can “hear” that scream reach a brain-numbing crescendo as the Habu engine roars to life. 

What a machine. What a detachment.


Notes regarding the three photos below, all taken circa January 1990:

Top -- Group photo of Det 1 members, aka "The Final Few"

Center -- Photo of me in front of the sign I created for the group photo shoot

Bottom -- Chalk "tail art" I drew on both tails of aircraft 17962 shortly before it took off from Kadena Air Base on Jan. 21, 1990.

 Det 1 group photo 1990-adjusted  

SR-71 tail art-962-1990  

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