SR-71 Blackbird Nose

The Saga of the SR-71 and the Pacific Coast Air Museum

by Dave Pinsky, Colonel (Ret.) USAF
Former Commander, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, CA
Executive Director, Pacific Coast Air Museum


As many of you know, the SR-71 was developed for the U.S.Air Force as a reconnaissance aircraft more than 30 years ago. SR-71s were the world's fastest and highest-flying production aircraft. The aircraft could fly at speeds of more than 2,200 miles per hour (Mach 3+, or more than three times the speed of sound) and at altitudes of over 85,000 feet. The SR-71 still holds most of the world's speed and altitude records.

And as many of you know, the Pacific Coast Air Museum now has three major components from an SR-71 "Blackbird" on display, right now, at the museum a nose, a rudder and an engine spike. We also have an Astro Navigational System (ANS) Guidance Group, two nose tires mounted on wheels (one tire is brand new and never used) and two main gear tires (the ones with the silver colored sides that were filled with nitrogen) mounted on wheels. And we are currently engaged in conversations that I hope will result in our getting an SR-71 J-58 engine.

Several people have asked how we managed to get this stuff, when it was secret for so long, and when we tried and were told "no" so many times. When I related the long saga, several suggested that I write it down for posterity, so here goes.

The saga started about two years ago, just after I became Executive Director. Most everyone knows that in a previous life I was Wing Commander of the 9th Wing at Beale Air Force Base. One of my responsibilities was the worldwide SR-71 program, and because of that, I got to fly the SR-71, as well as the U-2,  T-38 and KC-135 (and I actually worked too!).

Almost two years ago I heard from a friend that SR-71 engines (J-58) were becoming available for Air Museums. So I thought how cool it would be to get one for our Pacific Coast Air Museum. I was sure I could do that. Little did I know the journey that thought would take me on!

I heard that the Castle Museum had just received a J-58 engine so I called down there and talked to the Executive Director. He told me they got theirs on loan from the Air Force Museum. He also told me that there were warehouses full of SR-71 parts at Barstow, CA, under the control of NASA. A little checking revealed that was true, and that the fellow in charge of storing and disposing of all this stuff was none other that retired USAF SMSgt Mike Relja. Mike was in charge of the maintenance NCOs for me when I was at Beale, I knew him pretty well, and see Mike at the Blackbird Reunions we have every other year at the Nugget in Sparks, near Reno.

So I gave Mike a call and sure enough, the SR-71 parts were at Barstow and sure enough, he was in charge of disposing of them. I asked him what he had that might be of interest to put on display at our museum. He said he thought an SR-71 nose on it's dolly, an engine and an engine spike might make a great display. Just for the heck of it I asked him if he had a rudder, and he said "sure". He said he was putting my name on an engine, a nose, a rudder and an engine spike. I said we could mount a recovery team on fairly short notice and come get them. He said "good deal', all you need to do now is get the loan documents from the National Museum of the United States Air Force (which I will call AF Museum from here on out!). I said "whoa, how do I do that?" and he told me to contact the #2 guy at the AF Museum in Dayton, Tom Brewer, and gave me Brewer's phone number. I'm thinking this is going to be "no sweat."

So I call Brewer, nice enough guy, who is all enthused that I flew the SR-71 and that our museum wants to have some major SR-71 components to put on display. Then he says "I don't see your museum's name on the list of certified and approved museums". I told him we were on the Naval Museum's certified list, but he said that wasn't good enough. So I asked Brewer to authorize us the parts and we would get on their approved list. He said "no", that we had to get certified first. "Hhm, maybe this isn't going to be as easy as I thought".

So he put me in touch with the certification person and she sent me this huge package - - as daunting stack of paperwork to be filled out and policies to be followed as I've seen since I worked in the Pentagon! And I learned that the Pacific Coast Air Museum had taken a look at AF Museum certification before and decided not to pursue it because the requirements were so outrageous. This was a discouraging time.

As luck would have it, about a year ago the Forward Air Controller's Reunion was held at the AF Museum because we were dedicating a monument to our fallen Forward Air Controller comrades. So I made an appointment with Tom Brewer during the time when I would be there. I figured "what the heck, it can't hurt." And it didn't, as my meeting with Tom went quite well, and he took me and introduced me to Major General Charlie Metcalf, the Executive Director of the AF Museum (whom I promptly gave a Pacific Coast Air Museum challenge coin to!). We talked and he encouraged me to pursue certification, and introduced me to Sarah Sessions, the woman in charge of the certification program. She was not very encouraging, and handed me the same huge stack of paperwork to start working on. At this point things were getting more discouraging for me about getting the SR-71 parts that were already sitting in Barstow with my name on them. But I filled out the paperwork for the first step in the certification process called "Administrative Certification", and sent it in along with our By Laws, proof of our non-profit status, budget, financial documents, etc. Six months went by and we heard absolutely nothing.

Then, earlier this year, Guy Smith and I had the good fortune to attend the National Air and Space Museum Conference in San Diego and ran into Major General Charlie Metcalf, the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Air Museum. We spent a lot of time with General Metcalf and he asked me how our certification was coming along. I told him it had been six months and we had not heard a peep from his staff. I just happened to have a copy of our brand new Pacific Coast Air Museum DVD in my pocket and gave it to Gen Metcalf, suggesting he show it to his staff when he got back, as it was but one indication of how professional we are. I then asked him about helping us get the SR-71 parts and he said he couldn't help until we were certified. "Good grief, Charlie Brown." (My words were actually much stronger than that, not fit to print in this family publication).

The next day I spoke to retired Navy Captain Bob Rasmussen, the Executive Director of the Naval Museum System in Pensacola. We are certified by the Navy Museum and have several aircraft on loan from them. Captain Rasmussen said to contact him when I got back and he'd see what he could do to help us get the SR-71 parts. As this point I was getting a tad bit encouraged - - the Navy has been great and easy to work over the years.

When I returned from the museum conference in March of this year, I began asking the Navy Museum for help, and the Air Force Museum for the status of our "Administrative Certification" request. The Air Force Museum finally wrote back and said we were disapproved because we had not proved we had a professional paid Executive Director or Curator. That kind of blew me away! So I contacted Judy Knaute, she put together payroll records and I sent them off to the Air Force Museum.

I also began querying the Navy Museum regularly about their acquiring the parts from the Air Force Museum and loaning them to us. Amazing to me, the head of the Naval Museum and the woman we have worked with for years told me in late August that they were running into problems and issues they had never run into before, and things did not look encouraging. It was at this point that I came closest to giving up. But most of you who know me know that I am persistent.

Then, in the second week of September, I received a big brown manila envelope from the Air Force Museum. They said the payroll records I provided were the last thing they needed and we were "Administratively Certified to receive the loan of Air Force historic artifacts." But we still had to pay for them to come out, visit and inspect us to gain "Operational Certification", the biggest and last step in getting really certified by the Air Force Museum. Hhmm, I thought, I wonder if we might just be able to use this to our advantage.

So on October 1st I called Mike Relja, my old SR-71 maintenance NCO, at Barstow, and asked if the SR-71 parts were still available. Much to my surprise he told me that all the J-58 engines had been shipped to Tucson and were being cut up and sold for scrap. The other parts we wanted were still at Barstow, but the large shredding machines were in place, shredding had already started, and they would all be gone by the end of October.

This was a bit worrisome. So that same morning, October 1st, I called Tom Brewer at the Air Force Museum, told him we were Administratively Certified, that the SR-71 parts were going to be shredded, and what a shame it would be if the museum that Joe Rogers and Dave Pinsky, two SR-71 guys, were involved with couldn't get the parts to preserve a key part of aviation history. Tom asked if I could get him the serial numbers, Federal Stock Numbers and official nomenclature of all the parts and engine we wanted. Back to Mike Relja who responded in minutes after receiving my request, with all the info I needed. He also said we had to hurry or the parts would be shredded and gone forever. So on the night of October 1st I sent all the information that he had requested to Tom Brewer.

Well you can imagine my surprise when, on Tuesday morning, October 2nd, while reading the newspaper and drinking my coffee at home, I opened the museum e-mail and there were two messages from Tom Brewer - - one to Barstow telling them to issue an SR-71 nose, rudder and engine spike to me for the Pacific Coast Air Museum and that we would pick them up. The second message was to the Air Force Museum storage area telling them to identify and find an SR-71 J-58 engine and dolly for us and to prepare an estimate for shipping to us.

After all that time and all that work and so many disappointments along the way, I almost couldn't believe what I was reading. And I couldn't wait till 8:00am to call Jim Cook to tell him the good news, and to ask him to start putting together a recovery team. Later that morning I called Mike Relja at Barstow and he said "get your butts down here ASAP, we'll have the parts crated and will have everything you need to load them. Bring a 40 foot flatbed truck and trailer. And hurry!."

The rest of the week was spent trying to get trucks, trailers, whatever we needed to go down the very next week and get our long-awaited SR-71 parts. By Friday we had a truck belonging to Ron Stout's wife and a trailer belonging to a friend of Jim and Ron. The rest of the trailer possibilities kept falling through, as did a wonderful offer by a museum friend to bring everything up for us. Then, on Saturday, we learned that Larry Rengstorf had arranged to borrow a truck and a trailer. After much discussion, measuring, and brainstorming, Jim and I decided to rent a large Penske truck to make sure we had the room to bring everything back. After all this time and effort, we weren't willing to take a chance on getting there and having to leave something behind.

So on Monday, October 8th, exactly six days after receiving the message that we could go and get the parts, a recovery team headed south to lovely Barstow. Jim Cook and Dave Pinsky rode in the bumpiest empty Penske rental truck in the universe, Ron Stout and Bill Greene took a pickup truck and towed a trailer, and Larry Rengstorf and friend Carol Mousour drove a second pickup towing a trailer.

After a very late arrival in Barstow Monday night and just a few hours sleep, we headed to the Marine Corps Storage Facility in Barstow on Tuesday morning. Mike Relja and his team met us and had everything ready. We even talked them out of the SR-71 Astro Navigation System and two each mounted nose gear tires and main gear tires. We would have been loaded and on our way in 30 minutes except for a small problem - - the SR-71 nose was too big for the truck, and the dolly it was on was too big for our biggest trailer. Then Larry and Ron went to work -- the rest of us just stood back and watched in amazement as they did their magic. After an hour and a half they had jury-rigged supports for the dolly wheels, the nose and dolly were loaded and cinched down, and our little convoy was headed home by noon.

We made a stop at famous Mojave Airport for lunch and turned some heads when folks saw the big SR-71 nose sitting up on the trailer. And we really turned some heads as we drove it up I-5. A couple of stops to check and tighten the loads, fuel and fast food, and we arrived in Santa Rosa with our precious cargo late Tuesday night, October 9th, exactly one week to the day we got approval to get the parts, and three weeks before they would have been gone forever.

The next day, Wednesday, we all met at the museum, the recovery team was joined by Duane Coppock, Glyn Rowley and Mike George, Larry borrowed Daryl Bonds' forklift, and we unloaded and uncrated our precious cargo.

I'm still working on getting us the SR-71's J-58 engine, so when that hopefully happens, we'll let you know. And hopefully it will be an easier path and not a "saga".

So there you have it, the Saga of the SR-71 and the Pacific Coast Air Museum. Many thanks to our terrific recovery team - - Jim, Larry, Ron, Bill and Carol, and to Mike, Duane and Glyn for their help unloading.

The nose, rudder and spike are on display right now for you to see - - some amazing pieces of aviation history, technology way ahead of its time. Touch the nose - - it has flown faster than Mach 3 and over 80,000 feet, many times.

I think Joe Rogers is pleased, proud and smiling on our good fortune
- - I know I am.


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