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SR-71 Blackbird & More at Atwater Air Museum
The SR-71B Blackbird, NASA 831, slices across the snow-covered southern Sierra after being refueled by a USAF tanker during a 1994 flight. SR-71B was the trainer version of the SR-71.

My first experience with an SR-71 Blackbird was as a fourth grader at Glen Edwards School in Lincoln.

It’s an ironic coincidence I’ll get to in a bit.

It was morning recess.

As I was hanging out with classmates near the jungle gym, the ground rumbled as a loud sonic boom silenced the playground chatter.

It was 1966. It was one of the first flights of an SR-71 out of Beale Air Force Base 22 miles to the north of Lincoln.

There would be only one other sonic boom before complaints from Placer County officials prompted the Air Force to alter operating procedures.

Beale Air Force Base was the home of the SR-71 where it was assigned to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing through 1990.

The SR-71 is the aggregated result of various technology tested by men like Glen Edwards and Chuck Yeager. It set a world speed record in 1975 for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft that still stands at today at 2,913.2 miles per hour.

Much of its capabilities are still classified.

It could reach speeds in excess of Mach 3. The 32 SR-71 planes that were manufactured were capable of taking reconnaissance footage of 100,000 square miles in an hour at altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet. The fuselage would reach temperatures in excess of 500 degrees and would elongate 6 inches at top speed.

It was so fast that it was fired upon more than 1,000 times and never hit. Whenever a launch was detected, the protocol was to simply accelerate and outrun the missile.

During a presentation at the Lincoln Rotary in 1975, the base commander dodged specific questions about the top speed of the porous titanium aircraft that couldn’t be fueled until just before or else it would start leaking like a sieve.

He did share that under restricted operating speed that the SR-71 could take off from Beale AFB and be over Idaho in 15 minutes. An inkling of its surveillance tech was a series of photographs he shared of a license plate lying flat on a dock in Miami. The first looked like a patchwork of the earth like you’d see from flying high over the earth in a jet on a clear day. The last photo you could make out the numbers and letters in the license plate.

This was 56 years ago. One can only imagine how far the technology has evolved since then.

You can get a fairly close up look of the SR-71 as one — minus the classified guts — was presented for display at the Atwater Air Museum just north of Merced off of Highway 99. The museum is at the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater.

There are over 70 military aircraft used in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War as well as the Douglas VC-9C that served as Air Force One.

The e VC-9C aircraft tail number 73-1681 was in service with the 89th Airlift Wing from February 1975 to September 2005 when the aircraft was reassigned to the Air Force Reserve Command at Scott AFB, Illinois. This aircraft served the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush.

Over that time the wing flew thousands of missions. The VC-9 was one of the wing’s busiest airframes and flew mostly short domestic, North, Central and South American missions, however, the aircraft did cross the Atlantic and flew missions throughout Europe and to Moscow, Russia.

Those who used the plane were Presidents Ronald Reagan and President Clinton; Vice-Presidents Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Albert Gore, and Dick Cheney; First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush; plus Cabinet Members and dignitaries, both domestic and foreign

Tours of the VC-9C presidential aircraft are available Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The tours are $10 per person on top of the admission to the air museum.

Museum admission for adults (18-61) is $20, seniors (62+) are $15, youths (13-17) are $15, children (6-12) are $10, while children under 6 with paid adult are free. Active and retired military members (with ID) are $15.

The museum, weather permitting, is open daily except New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.

Admission to the grounds opens at 9 a.m. daily. Last admission to the grounds and aircraft exhibit areas sold at 3:15 p.m. The Gift Shop opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. daily.

The museum is reached from southbound Highway 99 by taking the Atwater-Merced Expressway exit and proceeding to Green Sands. Make a left turn onto Green Sands and proceed to Buhach Road. Make a right turn onto Buhach Road and travel approximately 1½ miles to Santa Fe Drive.


About Glen Edwards

Now for a little bit more aviation trivia.

Glen Edwards School in Lincoln is named after the test pilot by the same name.

On Oct. 14, 1947 at age 24 Chuck Yeager made history as he pushed the limits by piloting the bullet-shaped Bell X-1 rocket to a then daunting speed of 660 mph to become the first man to break the sound barrier.

Yeager edged out another test pilot for the privilege of being the first to break the sound barrier. The other man was Glen Edwards.

Yeager broke the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947 flying the Bell X-1 out of the Muroc Dry Lake bed in Southern California’s Mojave Desert that is now known as Edwards Air Force Base.

Edwards was considered a superb pilot, engineer, and officer. He had cut his teeth in World War II flying more than 50 combat missions in North Africa including 11 missions in a single day when the Germans broke through Kasserine Pass. They repeatedly attacked advancing German armored columns to successfully blunt their thrust. On one of those missions Edwards and his crew set a record for completing a combat mission. It took just 19 minutes from takeoff to landing.

After the war he was assigned to the test pilot program at Muroc Army Air Field. He tested numerous experimental bombers. Edwards along with Henry Warden set a new transcontinental speed record in December of 1945 when they flew the pusher-prop light bomber dubbed the XB-42 Mixmaster from Long Beach to Washington, D.C., in five hours and 17 minutes.

Edwards was part of a team of pilots and engineers at Muroc in May of 1948 putting the Northrop YB-49 through its paces. The experimental aircraft was an all-jet version of the flying wing, arguably the most exotic-looking bomber of all time.

On a test flight on June 5, 1948 the plane broke apart in midflight killing Edwards at the age of 32 and the rest of the five crew members.

The decision to rename Muroc in late 1949 in honor of someone that had given their life to experimental flight led to it becoming Edwards Air Force Base. Naming it after Edwards fell into the tradition at the time of naming Air Force bases after the native sons of states where bases were located.

Edwards was born in Medicine Hat in the Canadian province of Alberta. When he was 13, his family moved to Lincoln in Placer County northeast of Sacramento. The dashing Edwards, as newspapers referred to him during his heyday as a test pilot, graduated from Lincoln High in 1936. From there he went to Placer Junior College in Auburn then on to the University of California at Berkeley.

There is an elementary school named for Edwards in Lincoln that is across the street from his final resting place, the Lincoln Cemetery.

And while the paths of Edwards and Yeager crossed in the late 1940s in Southern California, they ended up sharing a Northern California bond of sorts.

When Yeager retired from the Air Force in 1975 he moved to Grass Valley where his wife was born. Grass Valley and Lincoln are 26 miles apart as the crow flies.

The rural areas surrounding the two communities are on opposite sides of Beale Air Force Base. The base, originally founded in 1942 as Camp Beale for use for training armored and infantry platoons as well as to house German prisoners of war was recommissioned as a base for the fledging Air Force.

Beale today is the only base where the high-flying U-2 spy planes are stationed. Among its various units and missions is the 10-story radar structure known as Phased Array Warning System that can detect sea-launched missiles and track satellites.

Over the years Beale has supported a number of high profile missions including a B-52 bomber wing as well as overseeing three nearby Titan missile bases near Chico, the Sutter Buttes, and just a half mile on the outskirts of Lincoln at the base of the Sierra foothills.

AF 1
Part of the interior of former Air Force One.