I remember first reading about the SR-71 Blackbird in Freddy Forsythe's The Devil's Alternative. I don't remember anything about the plot, but I do remember being awestruck by that plane. I suppose, looking back, I should probably be impressed at how much detail Forsythe managed to include about a spy plane that was still cloaked in secrecy.
Not so much now. SB*NATION's Spencer Hall has a great interview with a former pilot, Rick McCrary which goes into granular detail about the program. Especially striking is the way the Blackbird comes off as part spaceship.
SH: People forget you had to basically wear a space suit.
RM: It was a Gemini suit, built for sitting. Very cumbersome. It was the same suit you'd see astronauts walking into the capsule in, except ours were gold.
SH: How long did that take to put on?
RM: We'd go in about four hours before flight. Each day they'd give you a mini-physical, since you couldn't fly in a space suit with a head cold or anything like that. We had a backup crew ready for each mission ready to substitute. You'd then go have a breakfast, what was termed a "high-protein, low-residue meal" of steak and eggs. You're gonna be trapped in that suit for six or eight hours, the low-residue part is pretty important.
Here's why you needed the spacesuit:
One of the most amazing sights was flying out of England to the north of Russia to have a look at things up there. If you did that, it was a pretty long run. We'd refuel twice just to get up there. You would get a couple of sunsets and sunrises, because at those northern latitudes often you would see day to night, and then a terminator line, almost like a black velvet curtain where you can see how it's light on this side, and dark on the other side. It's the most amazing thing you can imagine to see that.
Another one was at night. It's astonishing--you're above the haze, and in the atmosphere--how deep into space you can see from up there. There's all this meteor activity you never see on the ground. A lot of stuff's going on.
We flew across a huge thunderstorm that covered half of Montana. Looking down into it from 75,000 feet and seeing lightning going for hundreds of miles across the top of this giant storm was just awe-inspiring. Sometimes it was hard to pull your attention back into the cockpit because it was just mesmerizing to see that stuff.
Once we were coming down off the coast of California and letting down across San Francisco and hit this huge thunderstorm. We had to go down into it because we didn't have enough gas to go anywhere else. There was incredible turbulence as you penetrated the thunderstorm, and the aircraft is just bouncing viciously around. St. Elmo's Fire is just rolling across the canopy. It was kind of like the first scene in the original Alien. To get down, pop out the other side, and see our tanker waiting with gas was an incredible sight.
Every flight had something like that to remember.
The full story is here and totally worth a read. Thanks to Beeso for the head's up.