Episode 17



Colonel Buz Carpenter puts Vanessa Kirby in the cockpit of his legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. In 1979, two Gulf nations were on the brink of war. To negotiate peace, the US needed detailed military intelligence on both sides. Buz shares the amazing (and awkward!) details of his dangerous secret mission along the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 17: Blackbird

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

This is True Spies Episode 17: Blackbird.

BUZ CARPENTER: In the room were many senior RAF leaders, other Air Force generals, and leaders. The heads of MI5 and MI6 were there. We went through the briefing. There were a few questions. I asked the deputy ambassador: "If I have a problem, where do you want me to go in the Middle East?" And he just turned white. He said: "We have no idea. And what do you mean, problem?"

NARRATOR: The language of war is the language of power - bullets, bombs, sieges, sanctions. Pick one. Pick another. They all mean the same thing: domination. In the first half of the 20th century, war was industrialized. Death accommodated its industrial scale. By the 1950s, humanity’s appetite for violence was diminished, if not quite sated. The language of power was changing. The next war between the world’s new superpowers, the USA and the USSR, would be fought in the shadow of the atom bomb. Open escalation was no longer advisable. The Golden Age of Espionage had begun. 

During the Cold War, new technologies allowed governments to gather information on their enemies with unprecedented efficiency. These technologies, including satellites and high-powered cameras, were especially useful to military intelligence. The proxy wars funded by Moscow and Washington - as well as other skirmishes with the potential to destabilize whole regions to the advantage of one or the other - could now be monitored with total, vital deniability. This is the story of how classified technology helped to pull two nations - one a powerful Western ally, the other in the grip of a Russian-backed insurgency - back from the brink of war. Saudi Arabia’s ongoing conflict with its neighbor to the south has always been tempestuous, to say the least. 

BUZ CARPENTER: I guess the Saudis and the Yemenis have had a historic battle over where their border actually is. It's ill-defined and at different times they have had conflicts. 

NARRATOR: In 1979, as Yemen tore itself apart in a Civil War between the US-backed north and the Russian-backed south, relations threatened to boil over once again. This is March in 1979. Saudi forces are mustering along the border. The Yemenis definitely feel threatened. As both sides amassed their tanks, the American government looked on with bated breath. If violence was to be averted, the US needed comprehensive intel on the positions and offensive capabilities of both sides. But how would they get it? An undercover agent on the ground? Too risky. Turning a member of the Yemeni military? That could be months or even years of work. No. Why plant a camera in the war room when you can put one 80,000-feet above the battlefield? 

BUZ CARPENTER: The satellites are still not covering the Middle East, so the only way they can get photography and see where these different armies are aligned is to fly into the Middle East, deep into the Arabian Peninsula, and collect that information. I'm Colonel Buz Carpenter and I served the United States Air Force from June 1967 until March 1995 flying a variety of airplanes. From 1975 to 1981, I was privileged to fly the SR-71, collecting photographic and electronic information on our reconnaissance missions. 

NARRATOR: Adelbert Carpenter - Buz to his friends - is a different kind of spy. He’s far more at home with a pair of jet-powered afterburners than dead drops and subterfuge. Today, the cheerful, 70-something Californian takes tours at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, passing on his infectious enthusiasm for everything that flies. Very few people would be better suited for the job. 

BUZ CARPENTER: My last job in the Air Force bases, I was a Vice Numbered Air Force Commander, and in that Numbered Air Force were all the reconnaissance and surveillance vehicles that the United States Air Force was operating. And we had about 15,000 personnel. 

NARRATOR: In his years as a pilot, Buz has accumulated thousands of flying hours across several different planes. But really, that’s no surprise. It’s in his blood. 

BUZ CARPENTER: My dad was an aeronautical engineer and did test work during World War II. My godfather was an aeronautical engineer. One of my uncles was an aeronautical engineer. I saw what would have been an advertisement in a movie theater and it was announcing the beginning of the United States Air Force Academy. 

NARRATOR: After graduating from high school, it took Buz two years to get an appointment to be assessed for the Air Force Academy. 

BUZ CARPENTER: It was very competitive, even though it was early in the academy time period. I graduated with the ninth class. 

NARRATOR: After four tough years of training, which combined an intense physical regimen with a college-level education in aeronautical science, he was finally given his wings. 

BUZ CARPENTER: I reported to pilot training in Arizona. I was assigned a C-141, the largest transport the Air Force had at that time. And, once I was checked out, I reported to my duty station and started flying worldwide. 

NARRATOR: Buz graduated from the academy in the late 1960s. His father’s war had been fought against the Nazis in Germany. His war was against Communist Vietnam. 

BUZ CARPENTER: I went into R-F4's - that's an F4 fighter. It's been configured with no weapons, but it's configured with cameras so I flew reconnaissance during Vietnam. 

NARRATOR: Buz spent half a decade scouting enemy positions over the dense jungles of Vietnam. The RF-4 was a fine plane but it had been retrofitted, not designed for reconnaissance. A chance meeting would put him in the cockpit of one of the most legendary spy planes of all time, however.

BUZ CARPENTER: During that time period, that's when I met an individual who had flown the first operational mission of the SR-71. And he got me very interested in the program. At that time, he was a colonel, Jerry O’Malley. 

NARRATOR: Colonel O’Malley didn’t have to work too hard to sell the SR-71 to Buz. Known informally as the ‘Blackbird’, it was a successor to the US Air Force’s U-2 spy plane. Yes, the U-2 was iconic, but it had serious limitations in the field. 

BUZ CARPENTER: On the 5th of July 1956, it overflew Moscow and they were surprised because the Russians could see it on radar at 70,000 feet, and the film showed that there were missiles around Moscow that they thought could reach up to that airplane. So they put together a commission, President Eisenhower, and in 1957, they studied for a year. They came back in 1958 and basically said: "We need a replacement airplane. We need an airplane that doesn't fly at 450 miles an hour. It flies at 2,150 miles an hour, Mach-3+. Not at 70,000 feet, but at 85,000 feet and above."

NARRATOR: And President Eisenhower’s number one requirement? 

BUZ CARPENTER: "I want a stealthy airplane that [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev can't see." Because he knew if we ever lost an airplane over Russia, it would cause quite a diplomatic problem. 

NARRATOR: That’s putting it mildly. Fortunately, Eisenhower’s wish was granted in the SR-71. When it came to covert surveillance, no plane on Earth was better equipped. Its powerful cameras were unrivaled... 

BUZ CARPENTER: If you were outside standing beside a car and I flew over it - 85,000 feet at Mach-3 - when they processed the film they would see you standing beside your car. They can’t recognize your face, but they could pretty much tell what kind of car you’re driving. Also, our side-cameras can see people out to about 25 miles, either side of the airplane, with about four-inch resolution. 

NARRATOR: It could even scan for electronic signals, a crucial tool for gathering information about the enemy’s own surveillance capabilities. 

BUZ CARPENTER: We could see about 320 nautical miles in any direction. So if there was a radar, if there was a radio transmitter, we could pick it up and we could give a pretty good location of where it was. And then this would be integrated into the national database as to what kind of defenses the Soviet Union and Red China had fielded. 

NARRATOR: Sleek, sophisticated, and nigh-on undetectable, the Blackbird was the ultimate spy plane. That’s not to say it couldn’t handle more conspicuous tasks in the service of American soft power.

BUZ CARPENTER: We would be periodically tasked by the State Department to overfly heads of state when they were greeting and of course, when heads of state meet. It's a very timed ceremony. I know at least one other occasion when [Soviet politician Leonid] Brezhnev was meeting [Fidel] Castro in Havana and an SR-71 overflew to lay the Sound of Freedom. 

NARRATOR: The Sound of Freedom - an ear-splitting sonic boom that would put the fear of God - or His nearest equivalent in the White House - into the hearts of America’s enemies. No, it wasn’t subtle. But it sent a message. 

BUZ CARPENTER: SR-71s overflew Panama three days before the Marines were coming in to tell [Manuel] Noriega: It's time to leave because pretty soon the Marines are going to show up.’ To create a sonic boom, you need to break the sound barrier. And a plane that fast gets hot. At cruising speed, the exterior reaches temperatures of 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit). How do you build something that can fly at those temperatures for hours without, well... melting? It's 93 percent titanium. And of course, all that titanium came from Russia. They never knew who they sold it to. 

NARRATOR: Take note: it really is worth keeping track of who’s buying your titanium. Developed as a joint enterprise between NASA and the US Air Force, the SR-71 was an impressive machine. It needed an impressive pilot. Buz had the experience but there was no guarantee that it would be enough to earn him a spot in the pilot’s chair. In the 32 years that the Blackbird flew operationally, only those with the right stuff would man the cockpit. What did it take to become one of them? 

BUZ CARPENTER: They were looking for somebody that had very good flying skills because it was a demanding airplane to fly, but also somebody - because you never knew when you might have an unusual emergency in this airplane because of the environment you worked in - so they were looking for people who were problem solvers. 

NARRATOR: After hours of interviews and 2 days of grueling physical tests designed for astronauts, Buz was accepted into the SR-71 program. 

NARRATOR: He was paired with the man who was to become his most trusted ally in the air - John Murphy, navigator. They were keen to get started. 

BUZ CARPENTER: John and I would find out when the simulator wasn't being used because it was the first computer simulator I had ever seen. It flew exactly like the airplane. So there was a lot to be learned. Before we ever started our ‘formal training’ John and I probably had at least 100 hours in the simulator. 

NARRATOR: But actually flying the plane was only half the job. As military airmen flying top-secret operations, Buz and John had to be prepared for the worst. While the SR-71 flew out of range of most conventional surface-to-air missiles, accidents happened. For a spy plane pilot running covert ops in hostile airspace, a crash or emergency landing was the stuff of nightmares. A fiery death at Mach-3 or a stint in a Siberian jail - pick your poison. These concerns were far from abstract. In 1960, the worst had happened. CIA spy plane pilot Gary Powers had been shot down over Russia, causing an international incident. 

BUZ CARPENTER: When Gary Powers was shot down, he had no idea... He hadn't really been taught what he should do and the demands he should make, and that there should be a cover story that would be released by the United States on what he had been doing. 

NARRATOR: The US had learned its lesson from the Powers’ incident. In case of their capture, Buz and his fellow pilots would be given training that would be familiar to any black-ops agent. 

BUZ CARPENTER: I go through a special intelligence school. I understand what the international rules apply as a military pilot, flying missions for the United States. If something should happen, ask for our ambassador. To be exposed to the type of interrogation that I might be exposed to - black boxes, loud sounds. I've been waterboarded. I understand those things. 

NARRATOR: But they were also trained to deal with situations that very few people outside of NASA’s space program would ever encounter. 

BUZ CARPENTER: We also had to go to water survival. And I'm here to tell you, water survival in a spacesuit is something else. If your life preserver that you're wearing is part of the suit doesn't inflate, you're going to the bottom of the ocean because there's no way you could paddle fast enough to keep yourself afloat. 

NARRATOR: By March 1979, Buz had been flying the SR-71 for two years. In that time, he’d flown 450 hours on covert operations and hundreds more in the simulator. His skills as a pilot were fine-tuned and battle-ready. But in the world of military intelligence, the call to action can come at the most inconvenient moments. 

BUZ CARPENTER: One of the new crews had flown together for the first time. They were hosting a party for the squatters and the staff on a Saturday night. At that party that night, Colonel Lawson, who was a director of operations for the wing, grabbed John and I and said: "Okay, tomorrow morning when you're through with church, come on down to the vault. There's a map you need to look at and give us feedback." 

NARRATOR: Well, that’s one way to ruin a party. Colonel Lawson’s urgency was troubling. The camaraderie of the close-knit SR-71 crews at California’s Beale Air Force Base was usually sacrosanct. But for now, Buz put it to the back of his mind. Whatever Lawson wanted, it could wait until morning. 

BUZ CARPENTER: At 7:30 am, I got a call. It said: "Get John and get down here." So we come down, we go into the vault. It's all classified. We see the route. We now know the objective is the Arabian Peninsula. 

NARRATOR: The alarm bells of international diplomacy were sounding over the Middle East. The Saudi-Yemeni border dispute, always an underlying concern in the region, was slowly, furiously, ratcheting up. Much as they are today, the Saudis were a key Western ally in the Arabian peninsula. If the US was going to play a part in defusing the conflict between them and their war-torn neighbor, they needed information - and fast. 

BUZ CARPENTER: About 1 pm, we're told: "You guys are going to England. You're going to receive the airplane when it arrives." I call home. I tell my wife I'll be there in about an hour. I'm going to pick up my bag and then I'm going to be going. 

The SR-71 had an exemplary safety record. The US Air Force never lost one on an operation. But sometimes, pilots don’t come home. Everyone knew that. 

BUZ CARPENTER: My wife gives me the normal: "I know it's important. And I sure hope I don't hear about you on the TV at night." Which is always what you do. These were high-priority missions. She didn't know exactly where it was to, at that point, and wouldn't know until, actually, years later. 

NARRATOR: Buz and John would take a conventional aircraft across the Atlantic to Mildenhall Air Force Base, north of Cambridge, UK. There, they’d be met by two senior pilots who would drop off the SR-71, which would then be prepared for its mission to the Middle East. Sounds simple enough. But the oil crisis of 1973, when Arab nations had embargoed fuel sales to the West over their support for Israel, was still a recent memory for European governments. 

BUZ CARPENTER: This is the first time the British are going to allow us to take off from England, fly into the Middle East, collect the information, and then land back in England. They're always afraid of an oil embargo. 

NARRATOR: Any involvement in the Middle East risked a repeat of the ‘73 embargo’s crushing economic impact, where the price of oil had risen almost 400 percent with devastating ramifications for society at large. Britain had seen its government replaced in the wake of the crisis. The Netherlands had introduced prison sentences for those who used more than their ration of fuel. The consequences of failure were serious. The British government was putting its own neck on the line. Unsurprisingly, other nations would be less accommodating. The mission will be nine hours and 45 minutes.

BUZ CARPENTER: The French are not going to allow us to overfly so we have to fly around Portugal and Spain and come in through the Straits of Gibraltar. Had the French allowed us to overfly, it would have been about a seven-and-a-half-hour mission. 

NARRATOR: The SR-71 burns thousands of gallons of fuel per hour. The French government’s refusal to allow the SR-71 within their airspace would cost the US dearly in terms of time and money. Those gas-guzzling jet engines would need to be refueled in mid-air several times over the course of the journey. These refuelings had to happen like clockwork. The last thing Buz needed was an unplanned landing in unfriendly territory. 

BUZ CARPENTER: So the first refueling will be off Lands End from tankers from Mildenhall. The second refueling will be in the Mediterranean. The third refueling will be over the Red Sea, and those tankers are going to come out of Cairo, west. Our fourth refueling will be, again, over the Red Sea. And then our fifth refueling will, again, be tankers that are coming from Spain. And then we'll recover back in Mildenhall. 

NARRATOR: Three days before the mission was to take place, the pilot and navigator were summoned to an operational briefing. The other attendees should give you some idea of just how important this intelligence-gathering was to the USA and her Allies. 

BUZ CARPENTER: In the room were many senior RAF leaders, other Air Force generals, and leaders. The heads of MI5 and MI6 were there. We went through the briefing. There were a few questions. I asked the deputy ambassador: "If I have a problem, where do you want me to go in the Middle East?" And he just turned white. He said: "We have no idea. And what do you mean, problem?" And I said: "Well, you know, I'm not concerned about the defenses, but sometimes airplanes have mechanical problems and you have to find a place to land." So it was up to us to figure out if we did have a problem where we were going to go.

NARRATOR: The implications of landing the Blackbird in the Middle East did not bear thinking about. The SR-71’s sleek black profile made it streamlined, efficient, and discreet at 85,000 feet. Much lower than that, and its powerful jet engines and distinctive curves made it rather more conspicuous. While Buz’s hours in the air had imbued him with an easy confidence, the rest of the room was all nerves. An intelligence breach at any level could be disastrous. 

BUZ CARPENTER: Either the head of MI5 or MI6 asked: "What does your family know about this?" And both John and I said: "Well, we keep it really low-key. All they know is we've come to England." And about that time, the same colonel that had tasked us - Colonel William Lawson - said: "No, not so fast, Buz. I called the house when I was trying to find you on Sunday as you were generating an airplane to go to England. And one of your daughters answered the phone. And I asked her: 'Do you know, is your dad home?' And she said: 'No.' I asked: 'Do you know where your dad is?' She said: 'No.' I asked: 'Could you take a message?' And she said: 'No, my handwriting is not very good.' So I asked her one more time: 'Do you know where your father is?' And in a very whispery voice, she said: 'I think he's out spying.’"

NARRATOR: Clearly, the young Miss Carpenter was not cut out for a life in the shadows. But she might have been an excellent spycatcher. 

And the whole room just absolutely bursts with laughter. And I looked at John and we said together: "This may be our last mission. We've been compromised."

NARRATOR: With the briefing complete, and Buz’s daughter presumably cautioned against any more minor acts of treason, the mission could begin. On Friday, Buz and John made their way to the runway. In the morning sun, the Blackbird stood regal on the tarmac, attended by a diligent coterie of engineers. As Buz climbed into the cockpit and John took up his position in the rear of the plane, an uncomfortable twisting sensation spread across Buz’s stomach. Preflight nerves? Surely not - he’d flown sorties along the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. He’d tormented Russian radar operators at the very edge of their airspace. Beyond the overlong flight time - for which he quietly cursed the French - this mission should be business as usual. Focus. You’re about to take off. You’re strapped into a 45-pound pressure-suit designed for the Columbia space shuttle missions, with a 10-pound helmet to top it off.

BUZ CARPENTER: The outer layer was a special material called fibro, and it was good to 800 degrees. So, if you ejected through a fireball, this suit was going to provide you some protection. 

NARRATOR: And with a lengthy flight ahead of you, you’ve got to make the necessary preparations. What would you take into the cockpit? 

BUZ CARPENTER: As you start the engine, your visor comes down from that point until you land - or you're going to be breathing 100 percent oxygen, so that's going to be dehydrating. So you’re going to carry a couple of bottles of water. And, on missions over five hours, I would carry something that looked like a tube of toothpaste, it was called tube food. 

NARRATOR: Appetizing? No. Essential? Absolutely. 

BUZ CARPENTER: So now you're out on the runway, and you light the two afterburners, and you're pushed against the seat. Those two powerful engines produce 34,000 pounds of thrust each. Now you're accelerating down the runway. You're gonna go 45,000 feet in about 20 seconds, and lift off doing 240-miles an hour. And, within two minutes, you're gonna pass through 20,000 feet. 

NARRATOR: Taking off in the SR-71 was something no simulator could prepare you for. As the Blackbird soared up to 25,000 feet, revealing the patchwork of the Cambridgeshire countryside, the twist in Buz’s gut intensified. A little discomfort due to the shift in air pressure wasn’t unusual, but this was something else. He cast his mind back to the previous night’s dinner at the Mildenhall Officers Club. Seafood. Oh no. Did you plan for that? 

BUZ CARPENTER: Refueling on the first tanker, I'm just kind of feeling not very good. I get a second tanker. And all of a sudden, I have a horrendous diarrhea attack. 

NARRATOR: A lesser man would have weighed up the prospect of a nine-hour flight in a sealed spacesuit full of yesterday’s langoustine and politely requested to return to base. Not Buz Carpenter. 

BUZ CARPENTER: And we had just a quick discussion said: "What would be the long-term physiological effect?" John and I said: "Well, if you don't change a baby's diaper, and they sit in it for x number of hours, they recover okay." The president of the United States is monitoring this mission because they need the information. So John and I kind of agree, we don't want a message sent to the President that the pilot pooped in his suit. 

NARRATOR: President Jimmy Carter had taken a personal interest in this mission and Buz had no interest in involving him further. 

BUZ CARPENTER: He was very much hands-on, as a matter of fact, a micromanager beyond belief. We normally ran radio silent but this particular mission - the only operational mission we ever flew like this - at the end of each refueling, John had to come up on the HF radio and make a report that everything was normal. 

NARRATOR: More to the point, neither pilot nor navigator had much interest in returning to Earth - for the time being anyway. It was a beautiful day to fly. Almost beautiful enough to make you forget any gastrointestinal distress. 

BUZ CARPENTER: So we depart the tankers. Head off, climb, accelerate, heading south, and at the correct position, we turn east. Pass through the Straits of Gibraltar. I'm absolutely amazed because in the Pacific you don't have nearly as many ships. But this Mediterranean is just full of ships going here, there, and everywhere. We come in, hit our second descent slowly. Come behind our second two tankers and we refuel. We climb out. We're heading towards our third set, which is going to be in the Red Sea as we come in. Of course, Cairo, you see the Sphinx and the pyramids, and there's a carbon cloud, I think, because they use charcoal to heat and cook with during the winter. 

NARRATOR: The Blackbird began its descent over the Red Sea for the third of five mid-air refuelings. Buz opened his radio channel to establish contact with the tanker pilots. Nothing. The closed frequency between the Blackbird and its tankers was dead. 

BUZ CARPENTER: Our tankers are our lifeblood. Without the tankers, this would have never been the type of weapon or collecting system it turned out to be. 

NARRATOR: Without fuel, this mission was over. A crash-landing could blow the entire operation, and cause a diplomatic emergency to boot. The presence of a US spy plane in a sovereign nation’s airspace would not be interpreted as Uncle Sam’s touching concern for his friends in the Gulf. Put yourself in the cockpit. An unplanned landing could lead to capture. Maybe you get lucky and the Saudis find you first. Maybe not. How would you hold up against interrogation in a desert jail? Say you do manage to stay airborne long enough to link up with your tankers, by some miracle. The drop in altitude puts you in range of conventional fighter jets. Remember, the US Air Force had never lost an SR-71 on an operation. How would it feel to be the first? More to the point, President Carter’s efforts to defuse the Saudi-Yemeni border conflict could be critically delayed, with potentially disastrous results. Fortunately for Buz and John, the job of a tanker pilot - while a little less glamorous than their own - still required years of meticulous study and practical experience. 

BUZ CARPENTER: They saw our contrail somewhere between 50,000 or 60,000 feet. And their experience says: "Okay, we know where we need to be." And they plan their pattern. They come around. We come down to 25,000 feet. And lo and behold, one mile ahead - just like you want - there's our tankers. They did it all blind. 

NARRATOR: The impossible skill of the tanker pilots had rescued the mission. The Blackbird was on the home stretch.

BUZ CARPENTER: So we refuel. Say goodbye to them. Climb up. And before we can turn out of the Red Sea and head along the Yemeni-Saudi border, we need to be above 75,000 feet. At 3.15-Mach as a minimum and our defensive systems have to work. So we're doing... filling all these squares. We make our turn. 

NARRATOR: This is it. The Blackbird is in position, screaming over the disputed border at nearly 4,000 miles per hour. Silence descends on the cockpit. The time for banter is over. 

BUZ CARPENTER: We start when we turn on what we call the country's camera. That's the big camera we carried in the nose. If you can imagine, every picture is 72 miles wide, 36 miles either side of the airplane. So we're filming a huge swath as we go along the almost 1,000-mile border that they share there. The collection is going well. 

NARRATOR: Thousands of miles below, tanks rumbled into position and both Saudi and Yemeni soldiers smoked nervous cigarettes as they awaited their respective marching orders. Unknown to them, their every move was being documented from 16 miles above them, ready to be relayed to the Blackbird’s masters in Washington. These data - the positions and numbers of infantry, tanks, and artillery - were crucial to the USA’s understanding of the situation on the ground. Once they knew which side stood to lose the most, White House diplomats could identify how best to dampen the will for war. The thought of American interference might have unsettled the men on the ground had it ever crossed their minds but for Buz and John, this was a moment of tranquility. Their mission was almost over. So naturally, disaster struck. 

BUZ CARPENTER: All of a sudden, the airplane tries to turn. It said we were going to turn to the left and all of a sudden the airplane started a hard turn to the right. 

NARRATOR: The Blackbird’s joysticks almost leaped out of Buz’s grip as the plane lurched wildly off course. Every muscle in his body tensed as he attempted to overpower nearly 8 tons of flying titanium. At Mach-3, he traveled nearly 3,500-feet in the wrong direction for every second that passed. If he flew out of range for his next refueling… Well, you know what’s at stake by now. In the back seat, John Murphy had his work cut out. In most respects, the airplane was cutting edge. But in 1979, satellite navigation technology was only a year old. Instead, taking advantage of its proximity to outer space, SR-71 navigators used the stars to set their course, much as sailors had done for thousands of years. A crate-like box - nicknamed ‘R2-D2’ by Blackbird pilots - whirred softly from its position in the aircraft’s spine, frantically recomputing its location in relation to the 64 celestial bodies in its memory. As suddenly as it had started, the SR-71 relented. The Blackbird’s tantrum had been caused by a random, and mercifully temporary, fault in its hardware. With a little help from R2, John read the skies and readjusted their course. Buz and John exhaled for the first time in minutes. They were in no rush to become better acquainted with the plane’s ejector seats. They began their descent for their last and longest refueling. 

BUZ CARPENTER: So when we come down, we're going to be north of Libya, which is a concern, and they need to stretch us instead of a normal refueling - which is 12 minutes to 15 minutes - this refueling is going to be 50 minutes so I have enough fuel reserve when we get into England. 

NARRATOR: After a tense hour over Libya where the Soviet-backed Colonel Gadaffi was at the height of his Revolutionary pomp, the Blackbird was holding enough fuel for the trip back to Mildenhall. And after another few hours of flying - studiously avoiding France, of course - Buz was almost in range of a fresh pair of briefs. 

BUZ CARPENTER: As we are approaching Lands End we broke radio silence as far as talking to the UK and contacted the radar, descended down to 25,000 feet, slowed. We were subsonic over the UK. Flew to Mildenhall Air Base. Intermittent rain. We knew that. So we'll get ready to land. 

Relief washed over the pilot and his back-seater as they began their descent into Cambridgeshire. All was finally well in the world. Ah. 

BUZ CARPENTER: The nose landing gear will not come down. So now we have to break out of the traffic pattern and go through an emergency checklist and try to figure out: "Can we get the nose gear to come down?"

NARRATOR: So close, and yet so far. In Buz’s opinion, and to his wife’s delight, the SR-71 was one of the safest planes in the sky. Its bad behavior during this mission had been uncharacteristic. Unfortunately, that didn’t make it any less of a reality. The Blackbird circled the airfield. Remember how much fuel this plane burned? Its last refueling had been in Libya, over 2,000 miles away. It couldn’t circle for long. You’ve got three options. You could eject, but it’s a long way down, and you’d be scrapping tens of millions of dollars worth of airplane. You could scramble a tanker to refuel, but who knew how long that could take? And it would only delay the inevitable. And of course, you could always pray. 

BUZ CARPENTER: And finally, there was an alternate means of lowering the nose gear. There was a cable release by yanking it very firmly. 

NARRATOR: Like a lot of aeronautical troubleshooting before the age of onboard computers, the solution to Buz’s problem was satisfyingly analog. Elbow grease. With a final clunk, the landing gear showed the locking position on Buz’s display. The Blackbird was cleared for landing. 

BUZ CARPENTER: We came in and landed, taxied back to where our hangar was, and we were greeted by over 100 people. At this point, the tankers have told the commander that I've had a diarrhea attack. So they have a formal ceremony at the foot of the ladder. And they've taken a black S.R. tie tack and it painted it brown. And they have created a certificate that I have somewhere: To Buz Carpenter, the first Mach-3 turd. And it's a vice-wing commander presenting it to me. You always had to have a good sense of humor in the program. 

NARRATOR: Buz’s little accident, understandably, had drawn some focus from the purpose of the mission back at base. 

BUZ CARPENTER: They had to rebuild the inside of the suit, pull out the whole liner. So I got the technicians who had to do the work a couple of cases of beer for their efforts. 

NARRATOR: But as backs were slapped and jokes were cracked, the Blackbird’s haul of crucial military intelligence was being downloaded. 

BUZ CARPENTER: Because the cameras used film, they had to be downloaded and processed, taken into a dark room, cut into 500-foot lengths, checked to make sure there were no tears or nicks, fed into a machine to be processed, and then delivered to the photo analysts to look at and find the pictures that they were interested in, and then get the information to the decision-makers. I've talked to the film processors and those cameras, if you can imagine, the film is two miles long. It's five inches wide. It took them 12 hours to process the film for our take there because we filmed, probably, 80,000 square miles as we went along the border. 

NARRATOR: After a grueling 12-hour shift from the analysts in Washington, President Carter had his intelligence. In a sealed room in the American capital, the Commander-In-Chief and his cadre of advisors poured over the film, weighing up each side of the conflict, identifying their weaknesses, their strengths, and the true cost of a hot war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen for the world at large. The stability of the region - one of the largest net exporters of the fossil fuels that powered the planet - hung in the balance. What happened next, Buz still doesn’t know. He does know that it worked. 

BUZ CARPENTER: I don't know what the options that the president or the secretary of state offered, but the Yemenis and the Saudis did not get into a full conflict and they were able to diffuse that problem. 

For now, a crisis had been averted, and by the end of March 1979 the region had returned to a tentative kind of peace. Buz considers this mission a highlight of his long and illustrious career in the US Air Force. But there are other stories, stories that might never see the light of day. 

BUZ CARPENTER: I worked with the CIA in about 2003 to start the declassification process. They brought me in, and one or two other people, to work with their intelligence analysts and try to figure out what in the program should we declassify, and what in the program it wouldn't matter if we declassified it because it wasn't going to have any long term effect. 

Now retired, he’s able to focus on what he loves, sharing his childhood obsession and life’s work with new generations of would-be pilots. 

After I retired from industry, I became a docent at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and that's at Dulles Airport. And that's where we have all of the large assets, the SR-71, the space shuttle, the Concorde, the original 707, and other space and aircraft assets.

NARRATOR: And in 1999, the SR-71 joined Buz in stepping back from the action. In a digital world, its analog data-storage system was deemed too slow to deliver the up-to-the-minute intelligence that modern geopolitics demanded. 

BUZ CARPENTER: You're the president. You've monitored the whole mission and now you have to wait probably 24, 36 hours, maybe longer before the imagery that you have tasked is finally available for you and your staff to render decisions. 

NARRATOR: Yes, it was outmoded. Yes, it would occasionally pull in the wrong direction. The landing gear could have been more reliable, certainly. But despite all that, there’ll always be a special place in Buz’s heart for the Blackbird. 

BUZ CARPENTER: It's still the fastest airplane in the world in retirement. It set a record in July ‘76 of 2,193 miles an hour. 

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another debrief with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Raised in California, Colonel Adelbert ‘Buz’ Carpenter dreamed of flying jets. He gained his pilot's wings in the US Air Force and flew a variety of aircraft with more than 4,400 jet flight hours to his credit. He served as a C-141 aircraft commander, flew RF-4Cs in the Vietnam War, and became an SR-71 instructor pilot executing global reconnaissance missions. He now works as a SPYEX consultant.

No items found.
No items found.