FLORENCE — An early twilight sky allotted enough light for Ed Yeilding to see the white foam of waves breaking on the California coastline.
Exactly 67 minutes, 54 seconds later, Yeilding reached the coastline again. This time it was the eastern coast off Maryland as Yeilding had piloted his way into history: the fastest cross-continental flight ever.
That was March 6, 1990 — 23 years ago today — and Yeilding, a Florence resident, still fondly recalls that flight, which also was the final journey of the famed SR-71 Blackbird.
Yeilding and reconnaissance systems officer J.T. Vida pulled the retired Blackbird into Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., delivering it to the Smithsonian Institute where it remains at the Udvar-Hazy Center at the airport.
Yeilding, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, said it is an honor to have piloted the trip, but he refuses to refer to the record as his own.
“It’s a point of satisfaction to know I was fortunate to be the pilot, but to me it was the Blackbird’s record,” Yeilding said.
To this day, his low-key disposition doesn’t allow him to boast about being a record-setting Air Force pilot, but he is gratified to have accomplished the goal he had set in high school.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced the U.S. military would utilize the sleek-looking SR-71 Blackbird, an aircraft that would travel faster and climb higher than any other.
With that announcement, Yeilding envisioned operating the craft that could surpass 2,000 mph and reach an altitude of 85,000 feet.
“I was in high school and thought maybe I could fly that one day,” said Yeilding, a Coffee High School graduate. “It just looked so cool. It was the world’s fastest and highest-flying plane.
“To me, it still looks futuristic, even through it was built years ago.”
That became the high school student’s goal, one that he carried through his days as an ROTC student majoring in electrical engineering at Auburn University and into his U.S. Air Force commission as a second lieutenant.
After a year of pilot training, Yeilding flew F-4 aircraft for nine years.
“All those years, I flew the F-4 the best I could, because I wanted to be considered for the SR-71,” he said.
That opportunity came in 1982 with a weeklong interview process that included Northrop T-38 flights and SR-71 simulator time. Yeilding did well and received the nod to become a Blackbird pilot in 1983. After 60 hours in a simulator, he climbed aboard the black, menacing-looking plane and launched a career that would see him fly 93 overseas reconnaissance missions during the height of the Cold War.
The first time he took off in a Blackbird, Yeilding was impressed. Turning on the engine burners while taking off created incredible force that “sealed you against your seat.”
“It was a real kick in the pants,” he said.
Yeilding remembers looking at an indicator that recorded the mileage of each trip. It could click off another mile about every 2 seconds in flight as the plane burned up some 2,000 pounds of fuel every 3 minutes.
“I’d think, ‘Man, I’m flying along faster than a rifle bullet,’ ” Yeilding said.
The reconnaissance information provided by the SR-71 and just the fact that the United States owned such an aircraft were invaluable tools throughout the Cold War.
“It had a really vital mission during the Cold War,” Yeilding said. “It was an important element of our overall deterrent force — deterring war through strength.”
The Blackbird was so important that Congressional officials decided when retirement came, the airplane would do so in style. Officials knew it was capable of achieving a cross-continental record and they turned to Yeilding to occupy the pilot seat for the mission.
“It just happened that I was one of the most experienced pilots of it,” he said. “I was an instructor of it and was working in Palmdale, Calif., at the time. Since I was so senior, they asked me to fly the record flight.
“The purpose of the record was to call attention to the Blackbird’s service to the nation for 25 years. It was a great honor to do this.”
They also turned to Vida to be reconnaissance systems officer, which Yeilding knew was a good move.
“He was a great guy, an outstanding RSO, good friend and good family man,” Yeilding said. “He had more time in the Blackbird than anyone else — 1,392.7 hours.”
At 4:30 a.m. March 6, 1990, Yeilding and Vida took off from Palmdale on a mission for the transcontinental flight.
Yeilding and Vida worked with a team to map out a route, tanker support and fuel checkpoints in anticipation of the flight. They knew fuel would be in tight supply, so precision planning was essential.
Yeilding took the Blackbird over the Pacific Ocean for fueling.
Then, with a “running start” some 200 miles west of the California coastline, Yeilding started accelerating the Blackbird. Once they reached the coast at 6 a.m., the clock on the cross-continental flight started ticking.
The plane had capacity for 80,000 pounds of fuel but for some reason it wasn’t registering past 74,000 pounds even though it was full. It turned out, 6,000 pounds of fuel was trapped in Tank 6A. By flipping back and forth from Tank 5 to Tank 6A, Yeilding was able to release it. At that point, they knew there was enough fuel to make the trip.
Some eight minutes after crossing the West Coast, the plane reached Mach 3.3, which Yeilding maintained into Maryland. Along the way, various city-to-city records were broken. They traveled at 2,190 mph from high above St. Louis to high above Cincinnati — a distance of 311 statute miles — in 8 minutes 32 seconds.
At 83,000 feet, the pilot looked upward and saw darkness and looked downward and saw the Earth’s curvature.
“It felt like being at the edge of space,” he said.
The journey was made at an average clip of 2,125 mph. At that speed, the plane’s skin reaches 550 degrees, even though the air temperature at that elevation was minus 71 degrees, Yeilding said.
The heat caused the 107-foot-long plane to expand about 4 inches in length, he said. It would resume normal length as it cooled. Expansion joints allowed that to occur.
Once over Maryland, they began turning left to make it over the coast and fly into Washington.
They landed, and Yeilding climbed out of the SR-71 for the final time. He received a nice surprise when he saw his parents, sister and brother on the tarmac. He knew they were coming to watch the landing, but thought they’d be at an observation deck at the terminal. Yeilding later would find out an Air Force officer who was in the deck with them found out who they were and invited them to greet Yeilding on the tarmac.
His parents, William E. and Carolyn Yeilding, welcomed Yeilding with a giant hug.
“I was still in my pressure suit when they greeted me,” he recalled. “That was the first time they saw me fly the Blackbird.”
Yeilding said he was glad his family could share that spotlight, not just for the family but also because they represented a part of Florence. He said he owes a great deal to the influence of his city, which was important to his family. In fact, Yeilding’s grandfather, Ency Yeilding, was the mayor from 1948 to 1951, and his grandmother, Garner Yeilding, taught at Brandon School for years.
“I’m really proud of my hometown,” he said. “I don’t think I could have grown up in a better place. My teachers, church youth group, Boy Scout troop — I still remember my Scoutmaster Ted Margolin and his wonderful influence.”
Yeilding said credit for the record should be distributed among the many dedicated people who developed and supported the Blackbird. He specifically mentioned Kelly Johnson, the Lockheed genius who designed the plane.
“Kelly Johnson is pretty much the man I’ve always considered my hero,” he said.
Looking back, he said it was an honor to fly the plane that he has been in awe of since his teenage years. “It’s a dream come true. I actually got to do it.”
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.
Not registered? Click here
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|