Green Beret – ‘Black’ Aircraft – Supporting the USAF at RAF Mildenhall, 1978–1980

Between 1977 and 1980 I was stationed at the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (JARIC) at RAF Brampton in Cambridgeshire. In Spring 1978 I called to the Operations Officers office to be told that I, together with a WO2 “Mick”, had been selected to be part of a joint army/RAF team to support operations by Detachment 4 (Det 4) of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (9SRW), USAF at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.

Det 4 was equipped with the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2R ‘black’ aircraft and were permanently based at Mildenhall. The unit had an integral photographic processing and photographic interpretation capability but at times of higher mission rates it was augmented by US personnel from the 544th Imagery Exploitation Squadron (544 IES) from Offutt AFB, Nebraska. The UK involvement came from the desire to increase interoperability between the two nations, especially in crises when British personnel could be quickly deployed to Mildenhall, unlike their US counterparts who would have to come from the mainland US and would also be at the mercy of airlift priorities.

So a team of RAF photographers and army and RAF Photographic Interpreters (PIs) was selected to support Det 4. At the time, this overt support to the US forces was viewed as sensitive by the British authorities. Because the base was designated RAF Mildenhall there was a small RAF element permanently stationed there to liaise with the US authorities, so the RAF augmentees were ordered to be in uniform. However, the Army element was ordered to be in civilian clothes because there was no army presence. This difference in dress requirements caused some amusement when the colonel at JARIC visited us dressed in his suit. He was confronted by his army PIs dressed in an  assortment of very casual dress. He looked a little askance at this but when he saw the way the US technical representatives (contractor personnel who supported the aircraft and systems) were dressed, he conceded that we had found very effective camouflage.

The periods selected for the UK support to the SR-71 operations were the biannual Soviet troop rotation periods in Germany when time-expired conscripts were returned to Soviet Russia and replacements were brought in. The conscripts were moved mainly by rail but by the late 1970s movement by air became more commonplace.

SR-71 missions had two tracks: the short one flew along the Inner German Border (IGB) and Czech border from north to south and vice versa. The long one flew to the North Cape and imaged Soviet naval targets in the Murmansk and Severomorsk areas. It then flew down along the IGB and Czech border, similar to the short mission. In all cases the missions were flown in either international or West German airspace and the primary sensor was High Resolution Radar (HRR)

An SR-71 mission took considerable planning and there was a long lead time between authorising the mission and flying it. Once the mission was authorised the aircrew went into a preparation sequence, which took several hours. There were always two crews in preparation so that there was a reserve crew. Preparation consisted of a full physical examination, a low residue diet and pre-breathing oxygen to purge the blood of nitrogen.

Because the SR-71 required tanker support, the first indicator that a mission was on was the launching of the KC-135Q tankers of which up to six were needed to support it. The KC- 135Q was specially adapted to carry the JP-8 fuel used by the SR-71 and was unique. They were converted from early model KC-135s and had the original model of engine that equipped those aircraft. This made the aircraft marginal at take-off at high all-up weights and to boost the take-off power, water-methanol was injected to increase thrust. A KC-135Q take-off always drew a crowd of spectators. The aircraft entered the runway and was then pushed back so it could use the maximum length of available runway. The engines were opened up to maximum power and a puff of blue-grey smoke told us that the water-methanol had been activated. The brakes were released and the aircraft lumbered along the runway and seemed to stagger into the air after using an awful lot of runway. The critical bit was that the water-methanol only lasted for 45 seconds. I once asked what would happen if an engine failed after take-off or the water-methanol gave out. I was given an old-fashioned look that said “Don’t ask”. A USAF master sergeant was more forthcoming and told me that there would be “a large smoking hole in the fields beyond the end of the runway.”

About an hour after the tankers had launched, the runway was declared ‘sterile’ and checked for foreign objects for half-an-hour before the SR-71 took off. The noise was incredible and the shock waves made your flesh creep – literally. Once the SR-71 took off it was a case of wait until the aircraft returned. When it returned there was quite a time before the sensor payloads could be downloaded. This was because of the surface heating caused by the Mach 3+ flight which made the outer skin too hot to touch for some time after landing.

After sensor download the film was taken for processing. The optical take (the tracker camera) was processed as normal photographic film. The HRR take was first processed as normal photographic film then it had to be passed through a device called the correlator which converted the raw radar data film into a photographic film that could then be processed as normal film that was passed to the PIs for exploitation.

SR-71 takes off on another mission

The PIs task was to produce reports for the Initial Photographic Interpretation Report (IPIR). If I remember rightly this was expected every six hours and was passed to various US and UK agencies. There was always pressure to produce something for the IPIR which was strange to the UK PIs who were quite used to the attitude of “If there is nothing to report either say nothing or signal nothing to report”. The US felt that if there was nothing in the part of the IPIR that they had failed.

The operating constraints applied to RAF Mildenhall meant that the aircraft often launched in daylight. Consequently the processing and interpretation phases took place in the later in the day and the PIs often did not finish work until late night/early morning.

Supporting  the  U-2 was slightly different.  Its  sensors  were  day-only optical and the  main target area was the autumn exercises in West Germany. The aircraft launch in the early-to- mid-morning and flew a track that covered virtually the whole of West Germany, often more than once. We were told that the aircraft normally flew at about 70,000 feet but I saw height   readouts   higher   than   that.   Aircraft recovery was an exciting affair. Because the U-2 was essentially a powered glider, it wanted to keep flying and the pilot had no sense of where it was in relation to the ground. The solution was for another U-2 pilot to chase the aircraft down the runway in the ‘chase car’ – an X litre American pick-up – and tell the pilot where he was in relation to the ground. I got an opportunity to go in the chase and I can tell you it was a real white-knuckle ride. When  the aircraft came to a halt, and it was a point of honour for the pilot to have the aircraft balanced on the main wheels, the ground crew inserted the pogo wheels under the wings so that the aircraft could taxi to its parking space. Once the aircraft had parked, the film was taken to JARIC for processing and interpretation which took most of the night. The reporting format was the US IPIR and the aim was to provide the high-level G2 and G3 staff with “enemy dispositions”, although the information was definitely somewhat stale by the time it reached the customer. The number of targets found was relatively small because it was only if units were caught in the open that they could be reported. Most mobile military units tended to go into cover in woods or buildings that made them invisible to optical imagery. During a mission we were not given any direction about areas of priority interest to G2, so we had to look at all 2,000 to 3,000 feet of film – a long and arduous process.

U-2R from the front – an evil-looking beast

Besides the work there were many, many memories of working with the Americans and “black” aircraft:

Inevitably there were the “two nations separated by a common language” moments, most of them unrepeatable in a family newspaper but it broke the ice. The Brits were very useful at getting telephone lines to the US opened. The “cute” British accent worked wonders with the American, mainly female, switchboard operators. On one occasion our ops officer, a US Army captain, was told there were no available lines to Offutt for at least two hours. I tried and was put through in seconds – well we got to the pub before closing time!!

There was also the matter of dealing with warrant officers. In the US forces they can use the officers’ club but they are not commissioned. Most of the officers referred to their warrant officers by their first names. The detachment commander was one Lieutenant Colonel Daniel “Zee” Smith the Third, USAF and he used to call me by my first name. After explaining British custom and practice we reached a compromise. He called me “Sergeant Major Pete” and I called him ‘Colonel Dan, Sir’ so honour was satisfied.

To my cost I forgot the old army advice: never volunteer. A U-2 had landed and the one of the pogo wheels would not engage, so the aircraft was stuck. The suggestion was that if someone sat on the end of the wing that had its pogo in place the aircraft could be taxied to the hangar where the recalcitrant one could be put in whilst the aircraft was downloaded. Being young, fit and foolish, I volunteered to sit on the wing. Up I got and the aircraft started to taxi. At the first turn when the wing I was sitting on was on the outside of the turn, I realised my folly. I was at edge of a 50-foot radius circle and had to cling on for dear life, much to the amusement of our American cousins. The phrase ‘set up’ sprang to mind.

There was inevitably the end of detachment ‘beer call’ and barbeque. The British contingent joined the party in the hangar where there was a large noticeboard with team names and times. When we asked what was going on we were told that this was the ‘Budweiser case demolition contest’. The rules were simple: a team of 10 stood in a circle and a case of 24 cans of Budweiser beer was thrown in. As it touched the ground the watch started. When the beers had been consumed and the last piece of the case touched the floor outside the circle, the watch stopped. Up for the challenge, the Brits formed an ad hoc team after being warned that the USAF had been practising for weeks. The scoreboard showed the fastest time to be 1 minute, 35 seconds. The case hit the floor and we went to work. 45 seconds later we were all done and dusted. There was a shocked silence that was broken by an American voice saying “Jeez that was ‘ossum.” That will teach them to throw tea into harbours.

The abiding memory – the long hours and the amount of film exploited, prodigious, but all the deployments supporting the “black” aircraft were worth their weight in gold. It introduced us to another nationality and their working methods, and forged bonds that lasted. I used to get a Christmas card from the chief master sergeant until he sadly passed away in the late 1990s. Would I do it again? Like a shot!!

PJ, July 2014