By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
On Wednesday, June 5 I had the privilege of being in the same room with a true Alabama Aviation Hall of Famer, Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding. He was the keynote speaker at the Learjetjohn Aviation Camp held at Pryor Field and Calhoun Community College. Ed is most famous for being an SR-71 Blackbird pilot, a dream that was born in his heart in 1964, when LBJ announced the plane’s existence. At the time, Ed was 15, and he told himself he would one day fly that plane, and he did. It was the Cold War, and the Blackbird’s purpose was to spy on the Soviet Union and other potential “hot spots.” It had a remarkable ability to take pictures, and literally kept us safe without firing a shot.
Ed first flew while a student at Auburn, and he was hooked. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and became an officer in the United States Air Force. The Blackbird, which is still quite futuristic in its appearance, was designed by a man named Kelly Johnson, who also designed the U-2 plane of Bridge of Spies fame, a film that Ed says he greatly enjoyed. Lockheed built the SR-71, which, as Ed describes, flew to “the edge of space at three times the speed of sound.” Literally, the Blackbird was “faster than a speeding bullet.”
Lockheed encountered many design challenges, which are to be expected with a plane like this. In spite of the fact that at 80,000 feet in the air the temperature is a cool -70 degrees F., they had to make the skin out of titanium because of how hot the plane became from the friction of flying so fast. Interestingly, the USSR was the greatest source of titanium in the world, and we procured it through third-party sources who never indicated that they were going to sell it to the Americans. All Blackbirds took off with only a half tank of gas, and within two minutes had to be refueled in the air. This was a safety measure to make sure the plane could take off quickly with as little weight as possible before they flew “to the edge of space.” They also had to wash the Blackbird with distilled water because, as tough as titanium is, regular chlorinated tap water is corrosive and harms it.
The Japanese referred to the Blackbird as the Habu, which is a black poisonous snake. Apparently, from the top view, it looks like the snake which can move and strike quickly. The Blackbird flew from 1964 to 1998, and Ed was the last one to fly it. When it was retired and slated to become a part of the Smithsonian, Ed and Joseph Vida flew it from coast to coast in 57 minutes, 54 seconds — a record which still stands.
Ed Yeilding is a genuine patriot. He was careful to thank everyone from Kelly Johnson, the Blackbird’s designer; his parents; his family; America; and God for the chance to live out his dream. I would have expected no less from a man that Learjetjohn’s founder John Besherse described as a “true Southern gentleman.”
Ed told us all about his pressure suit, the pure oxygen he breathed, his helmet, and all the rest of the team effort that went into facilitating his career and the last flight. He said, rather tongue-in-cheek in response to a question about the earth being flat, “It sure looked pretty round to me.” As the daughter of a Naval Air Corps pilot and Boeing engineer, I ate up everything he taught us about the Bird and the boys who built it and flew it. But you know what really got to me, what made me have to swallow hard? It was when Lt. Col. Yeilding talked about the fact that when they were fed through a food tube that passed through his pressure suit, his favorite was the apple pie. Then, he found out that every time he ate a “piece” of all-American apple pie, something so fitting from my perspective for a legend in aviation, it cost the taxpayers $25.00. That expense was unacceptable to Lt. Col. Yeilding, so he nixed the pie from then on out; in fact, he just made sure he had a big meal before the subsequent flights so that we, the ones he was protecting, didn’t have to pay any more than was absolutely necessary in order to stay safe. So, the coast-to-coast flight record may stand unchallenged for years to come, but to me the thing I’ll always remember is the humble tale of Blackbird Ed and the apple pie.