Suddenly Chatty Air Force Sending A Message


It was one of those absolutely clear days in central Montana where the sky seems to go on forever and the blue has a uniform deepness from horizon to horizon. I think it was in 1968 and my father finished knotting his tie and adjusted his hat and headed for the car with the briefcase that never seemed to leave his sight. He was headed for the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE) facility at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, a nine-story underground building that housed key facilities and personnel to respond to a nuclear attack from Russia.  He was one of a handful of Royal Canadian Air Force officers working side-by-side with Americans in the NORAD facility. I don’t know exactly what he did but he worked on the ninth floor.

He said simply to my older brother and I: “I could get shot for this but make sure you’re out here at 1:12 p.m. and look up.” And with that, he closed the massive door on the Olds Delta 88 and snapped on the Comfortron, a thermostatically controlled air conditioning system unique to GM’s upscale brands. Back then, everything futuristic and modern was called something that ended in “tron.” My Dad couldn’t have enough “trons.”

At precisely 1:12 p.m., a contrail appeared on the southwest horizon and arced overhead to the southeast, covering the whole sky in less than a minute. My brother, eight years wiser than me gasped: “That must be the YF-12.”

It was actually more likely an early model of the SR-71, the super secret operational derivative of the YF-12, which had been publicly acknowledged to provide cover for the Blackbird. We peppered Dad with questions when he got home from work but he wouldn’t say a word. He wasn’t kidding about the getting shot part.

Now that I think about it, the midday airshow had to have been a deliberate display, an unnecessarily showy message to someone who was sure to be watching.

I think the military is using the same playbook with a sudden flurry of videos, speeches and other public references to some pretty nifty new weapons. I can think of a half-dozen unexpected announcements in the past few months showing everything from the SR-72 “Son of Blackbird” to the palletized weapons system described in today’s AVwebFlash

I inherited my Dad’s love of new gadgets so it’s right up my alley to have a job that includes keeping an eye on latest and greatest and there are lots of publications that are dedicated to sniffing this stuff out. But that’s collateral to the real purpose of these broad daylight displays of whizz bang technology. 

As Russia and China seem to be testing the West’s resolve, the U.S. and NATO seem to be letting them know that there’s some stuff they’ve never seen before ready and waiting to make them think twice about getting too cocky.

The other part of this is that some of the gear getting a public airing may well be cover for something even better waiting in the wings.

That’s how it was with the YF-12 and the Blackbird. The three YF-12s, all two-seater prototypes, were publicly acknowledged and openly flown while Kelly Johnson and his Skunkworks were put to work developing the SR-71. The logic was that anyone seeing the look-alike SR-71 would think it was just a YF-12, as my worldly teenage brother did.  The SR-71 flew hundreds of missions before it was ever officially acknowledged.

So, as we marvel at the airborne lasers, the high-flying drones and the hypersonic this and that being openly discussed, it leaves me wondering what they aren’t showing us.

And that, I suspect, is the whole point.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. “some of the gear getting a public airing may well be cover for something even better waiting in the wings”

    Like the recent pilots appearing on TV and released footage of “UFO’s”?

    I’ve always thought this was “cover” for what we were really up to.

  2. Re “Suddenly Chatty Air Force”, I was stationed in RCAF Stn., Cold Lake, Alberta 62-64. One of my duties was to take a T-33 up in the evening and link to Malmstrom and carry out PEGE testing of the radar, height finder and comm frequencies. Which was your dad’s SAGE site, Malmstrom controlled 4 radar sites in Alberta & Saskatchewan at the time. During one Winter storm one of the airmen was walking near the tankers (SAC KC-97 refuelling base) and a guard yelled at him to halt, due to the wind he did not hear and so he was shot.
    Regarding the SR-71, we had a couple of exchange officers from the RCAF instructing at Nellis AFB. They were told that if they had a problem with their aircraft and tried to land at some un-designated base they were told to bail out and stay away from that area, otherwise they might not return to Canada after their tour!!!

  3. The Wright Brothers and then the Lockheed Brothers…..Kelly and Ben. Still a jaw dropping story today. Stories within stories. The aircraft, the secrecy, the Titanium purchase from the Soviets, the star nav system, etc. I have often wondered how many Soviets (the lucky ones) were granted an extended Siberian vacation when the Kremlin heard the news about their Titanium sale?

    Wishing all of you a Merry Christmas and a healthy New Year!

    • Indeed.

      Choose your battles wisely and fight to win. John David Lewis’ book ‘Nothing Less Than Victory’ chronicles several wars including WWII in both sides of the world, the US Civil War, and an earlier war in Italy/Middle East. (In some of them good approaches resulted in residents of conquered areas helping the winning side and keeping the peace afterward so the forces could move forward to the next area.)

      ‘Peace Through Superior Firepower’ say the decals and jacket patches I have.

  4. Back in the 70s and 80s my avocation was placer gold mining on a claim east of Beale AFB in CA. We would regularly see a KC 135 take off and we knew that 30 minutes later we would see an SR 71 go streaking across the sky, and we did. The first order of business was to refuel after take off. The SR 71 while designed in the late 1950s was the first stealth aircraft. My brother-in-law scheduled SR 71 flights out of Japan and once commented that they would get a one sentence transmission from a returning Blackbird (usually at night) to the tune of “I’m coming in” and soon after he would land and taxi straight to a hanger. But those planes never showed up on the Kadena AFB radar. Many years later there was a big stink when the stealth nature of the F 117 was revealed as some kind of a national secret when in fact it was not the first stealth A/C and it was certainly not news to our advisaries.

    • Ironic! I did that, too, on the So fork of the Yuba River above Grass Valley when I was stationed at Beale ’70 – ’72.

      I learned how to fly at the Beale Aero Club and would routinely be cleared to taxi a C-150 to a stub taxiway as a student pilot and told to hold pending the departure of an SR-71 (after the KC135Q had departed) … what a hoot THAT was!

  5. Now just wait a doggone minute, Greg! Let’s not forget the USAF’s ‘new’ effort to fight climate change, too. At Edwards AFB last Friday, they unleashed someone’s ‘better idea’ on the Base … electric scooters to get around on a Base of 470 sq mi (although the actual Base is much smaller but still large):

    THAT oughta scare the bad boys and get the AF Test Center Commander promoted to 3-stars.

    • Electric vehicles (battery powered) have their niches.

      Think golf carts – short range, frequent stops and starts.

      Ones with box on back are used around facilities like U of Washington, for landscaping and facilities maintenance.

      Even bicycles – in the 1970s, Boeing had hundreds if hot thousands of bicycles running around inside their plants, people delivering small parts and paperwork. Perhaps adult tricycles for larger parts. Larger plants use golf cart type vehicles, probably recharge during lunch break.

      One reason inside plants is air quality inside the plant. So forklifts use clean running propane-fueled forklifts perhaps, but preferably electric ones.

      • I don’t disagree in principal … and I could likely be cajoled into possessing an urban / local use electric vehicle BUT … around where I live in NE FL, there aren’t any golf cart paths and it’d be a great way to get killed by all the New Yawkas moving down here and driving like they’re still up ‘there.’

        In The Villages, there are ~90 miles of golf cart trails and ~50,000 golf carts. I once walked into a golf cart store and asked which type of golf cart was the predominant seller. Answer … gas … by orders of magnitude. On Edwards AFB — where I served for 15.5 years — the thought of Sr NCO’s or Officers running around Base on an electrical scooter is not only ridiculous, it’s insane! The high desert winds and hills and distances will end that crazy idea in short order. And replacement of 8 volt cart batteries would make a grown man cry.

        I’m sure 99.9% of the residents of Mayfield, KY are glad they don’t have Teslas !!

  6. That is the generous interpretation, Russ.
    A less generous one is they are desperately pouring smoke to try and avoid queries about how the Russians got an unstoppable hypersonic glider missile while the U.S. did not.
    From all accounts, the U.S. is a couple of years from finding a way to stop it.
    Russian hypersonic missile news came, then came the threatened invasion of Ukraine, and the U.S. is left promising “very tough” sanctions. Oh dear.

    • Yes, we will sign off in an email without the proper pronoun! See how that destroys ones feelings of self worth! NO ONE will dare mess with the US.

  7. 40 some years ago, I worked at Draper Lab (the people that did the Apollo, Poseidon, Trident, etc guidance) on a very classified project that involved underwater intelligence gathering. At one point I thought it would never see the light of day but It has been on PBS Nova. Anyway, when I found out what we were doing, I thought we could quit worrying about the Soviet Union. I also had an admiral tell me that we knew the location of every Soviet sub from commissioning to decommissioning. About 30 years ago, when the fighting for the first Gulf War started, I was s university professor. I had a colleague tell that he did not think that our weapons would work as well promised. I had worked on some of the systems and knew a bit more on just how well they would work.j Basically, they worked just well. It was the Iraqi Soviet weapons that did not work so well.

  8. Russ, the really secret Blackbirds weren’t the USAF’s two-seat YF-12As or SR-71s, but their predecessors, the CIA’s single-seat A-12s (and the MD-21s), which flew operational missions in 1967 and 1968, before being retired. SR-71s on the other hand were quite publicly based at Edwards AFB and Beale AFB and neither their existence nor purpose were ever a secret, not even in 1968.

    President Johnson revealed the “A-11” (AF-12, later YF-12A) on 02/29/1964, and on 07/25/1964 he revealed the existence of a new USAF reconnaissance aircraft, the SR-71. So, it could have been any one of the extended Blackbird family you (might) have seen in 1968 on a training flight over Montana.

    And the SR-71 wasn’t a derivative of the YF-12. The YF-12 (KEDLOG) as well as the SR-71 (SENIOR CROWN) were derivatives of the A-12 (OXCART), as were the D-21 (TAGBOARD) drones.

  9. The YF-12A was codenamed KEDLOCK (not KEDLOG), sorry for the typo. How about enabling an edit option for ones own posts?

  10. Since the discussion has moved into various secret programs I would encourage people to read John Pena Craven’s book The Secret War to see how the military “hides” their secret programs. There is a lot of info out there if you read widely and have a good memory.

  11. Back in 1965, not long after President Johnson made the SR71 “public”, I was in high school in Fort Worth, Texas, home of Carswell AFB. The base was home for squadrons of B-52s and the supersonic B-58 “Hustlers”. We routinely saw both leaving in the morning for missions to who knows where. One weekend they announced that the experimental XB-70 would be visiting Carswell for a semi-public airshow as part of a tour around the country. A friend’s father was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force Reserve and he was able to get we two boys onto the base for the event. The B-70 was cool and it was a true experience to watch it take off for the return trip to California as the air show closed down. After that, the three of us were heading to the parking lot when we came around the corner of a hangar that had the main door just slightly open. We looked inside and discovered an SR-71 parked there. Imagine the surprise of seeing that alien looking craft at a time when I had never even seen a photo, let alone the real thing. We were all over the place looking at it and marveling at the machine, while the Lt. Colonel was nervously saying we probably didn’t belong there and should leave quickly.

    Looking back on it, the B-70’s tour was probably one of those “look what we got” events to possibly overshadow the SR-71, which was not supposed to be at Carswell. We never saw the plane fly, so it likely left and arrived at night, possibly accompanied by B-58s to hide the takeoff noise. Trying to secretly develop such weapons in a free and public society is difficult compared to the “Iron Curtain” countries. Dropping the occasional news tidbit serves two purposes; to tell the other side that we aren’t standing still, and to reassure the American public of the same.