Air-Minded: Habu

This photo, posted to an F-15 Eagle Facebook group this morning, brought back memories of my time at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, during the final two years of SR-71 Blackbird operations at the base, 1989-1990.

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SR-71 holding short of runway 5R at Kadena AB, Japan, F-15s landing on 5L. Late 1980s, photo credit unknown.

The SR-71 detachment was located on west side of the runways at Kadena; the F-15s, which I flew, on the east. When the Blackbirds weren’t flying they were hangared to keep them from showing up on satellite imagery (I believe their takeoffs and landings were timed to happen during periods when foreign satellites weren’t overhead). I knew we shared the base with SR-71s but for my first few months at Kadena never saw one. Then, coming back to land at Kadena one day after a training sortie, tower directed me to carry through because a vehicle was blocking the runway. No problem, I thought, but aren’t there two parallel runways? How can a vehicle block both of them?

By then I was directly overhead the field, looking down on the vehicle in question, an enormous flat-black delta-shaped object taxiing into position for takeoff. I carried through as directed and flew around the outside pattern. By the time I lined up with the runway again the vehicle had launched and I was cleared to land.

As to the strange terminology tower used for the SR, calling it a “vehicle” … that was a bit of misdirection meant to mask its movements from anyone listening in on tower frequency. I don’t think anyone was fooled.

The Air Force shut down the SR-71 program in 1990. The day the last one at Kadena flew its fini flight, I was also on the flying schedule. When I stepped out to preflight my aircraft it had just returned from the final mission and was beating up the pattern, flying some of the most heart-stopping closed pull-ups I’ve ever seen, its pilot standing the big beast almost on its tail in afterburner and horsing it around like an F-15.

SR-71s were generally called Blackbirds, but the ones at Kadena were nicknamed Habus after the venomous pit vipers native to Okinawa. There’s a small flat-topped hill just outside the base fence where civilians gather to watch takeoffs and landings (most are simply aviation enthusiasts, but some are closer to spies). We called their observation post Habu Hill, and I understand it’s still called that today, even though the Habus have been gone for 32 years.

One of my USAF pilot training classmates, Gary L., went to Strategic Air Command to fly bombers. Since he was a top graduate with his pick of assignments, I wondered at his choice, but it turned out he had a plan. SAC, you see, ran the strategic reconnaissance program, and after a tour in the B-52 he got into the SR-71 program and flew Blackbirds for the next 20-plus years.

In 1993, three years after the Air Force retired the SR-71s, Congress authorized the reactivation of three aircraft. The USAF based them at Edwards AFB in California, where they flew from 1995 to 1999.

After I retired from the USAF in 1997 I went to work as a defense contractor, teaching a flight safety methodology called cockpit resource management to Air Force fighter and recce pilots. We traveled, in a Winnebago fitted out as a classroom, to USAF bases west of the Mississippi. In 1998 I drove to Edwards AFB to train the last SR-71 pilots. To my surprise, the detachment commander was my old classmate Gary, who gave me an exhaustive walk around and cockpit tour of the SR-71, a steam-powered locomotive of an airplane compared to the F-15, but impressive as all hell. The Edwards detachment closed a year later and the fleet is once again retired.

No, I don’t know if there’s a replacement. Wouldn’t it be keen if there is?

© 2022, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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