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How a Mach 3 SR-71 Spy Plane Created 13 Fireballs at an Air Show

SR-71 Spy Plane. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Blast From the Past: When An SR-71  Spy Plane (The Blackbird) Created ‘13 Fireballs’ at 1986 Air Fete Air Show – It was indeed a sight to behold for thousands who were in attendance at the 1986 Air Fete Air Show at RAF Mildenhall.

As seen in this impressive video (see below), an SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 spy plane created thirteen spectacular balls of flame while putting on an amazing performance at the air show thirty-five years ago.

Defense writer Linda Sheffield Miller at the Aviation Geek Club noted that one can find out more about what really happened that day by reading Richard H. Graham’s book SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story.

“On our very first TDY to Mildenhall, Mike Smith (the pilot) and I were lucky enough to be there for Air Fete—the big annual air show at Mildenhall. We got to fly the first day and thought we did a good job. During the 20 minute sortie we had a real hard kick during one pass when we went to afterburner and pulled up tight,” says former Blackbird RSO Lt. Col. Doug Soifer.

“We didn’t think much about it until we landed and were overwhelmed by people as we stepped off the jet and asked us what we did. We had no idea what they were talking about until someone brought over his camcorder and showed us the tape,” he adds.

‘Looked Beautiful’

Then he started to describe the thirteen spectacular fireballs that were ejected from the SR-71s exhaust for all to see.

“It looked beautiful, and people wanted to know if it could be done again,” Soifer says.

“They used the picture of us with the flames coming out for the next year’s Air Fete poster. Mike and I became known as the ‘Fireball Twins.’ The maintenance people figured it was the TEB (triethylborane) shooting out of its container and igniting the JP-7. With that start, we had an exciting six weeks in England,” he continues.

SR-71 Used One-of-a-Kind Fuel

The SR-71 Blackbird was known to burn JP-7 fuel—a one-of-a-kind fuel that is three times as expensive as the type used by most airliners. In order to meet the specifications of this particular high-end aircraft, the fuel-maker Shell Oil had to invent a compound blend of kerosene distillates—hundreds of hydrocarbons with all but 5 percent of the aromatics removed in processing. Possessing low amounts of aromatics point to the fact that it is a “clean” mixture, with low levels of impurities like sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen.

SR-71 Blackbird in a hanger.

SR-71 Blackbird in a hanger. Image: Creative Commons.

SR-71 Blackbird aircraft

A direct front view of an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft after landing from its 1,000th sortie.

“To ignite the JP-7 for engine start, and to light the afterburner section, a liquid chemical ignition system was used. The liquid chemical, triethylborane, had the physical property of exploding when exposed to air,” according to prominent defense writer Dario Leone at the Aviation Geek Club.

“During engine start, rising fuel pressure in the fuel control signaled the ignition system that a metered amount of TEB could be injected into the engine combustion section, after the pilot moved the throttle from cut-off to the idle position. Preceded slightly by fuel, the TEB exploded and ignited the JP-7,” he continued.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

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