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Working with the Blackbird

Out of high school, I had the same choices as anyone: go to work, go to college, or join the military. I had been working for years and I thought I knew everything already, so I picked the military.

I tested high, and the Navy wanted me for nuclear power school. I’m 6’4”, so I knew I’d just be banging my head all the time in submarines, so I joined the Air Force.

I was assigned to Beale Air Force Base in California, and I hit the jackpot — I was assigned to work with the SR-71 Blackbird.

It’s a two-engine supersonic jet aircraft, originally designed for the CIA. It’s 110 feet long, flies at a cruising altitude of 80,000 feet, and has a cruising speed of Mach 3. The top speed is still classified. It’s a reconnaissance plane — it carries no munitions. Its purpose is to collect electronic, photographic and radar intelligence.

It’s classified

I helped plan missions and flights. We kept track of other people’s militaries. We could see 80 miles to the side, so if we wanted to see what North Korea was up to, we could just fly right along the Demilitarized Zone.

I would help plan the flights, and load the plans onto paper tapes that were loaded into the aircraft’s computer. It was all highly classified. 

The political landscape was simpler then, in some ways. It was us versus the Communists. That’s changed somewhat now — the names have changed, though a lot of the players are the same.

An unbreakable bond

While I am proud of my service, the honor to serve is a debt I owe. I was proud to put on the uniform each day. I got more from serving than most can imagine. I was given more responsibility as a 20-year-old than most folks get until they are much older.

I always feel somewhat abashed when someone says “thank you for your service.” It was my good fortune to have served. Like many veterans, it gave me a bond to this nation that cannot be broken.

As a white person, one thing that came out of my military experience was a greater understanding of race. In the military, you will have colleagues and comrades of all races and backgrounds.

For a large part of our society, people of color have handicaps placed on them they shouldn’t have. It’s been hidden a long time, but it’s time to fix it. If you haven’t seen it by now, you ought to.

If you have suggestions for My Name Is, please contact David Gilbert at dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com.