WAY BACK WHEN
By: Sam Pizzo
One of the most closely guarded of our Nation's secrets back in 1961 would have been the A-12 aircraft. Thirty-six years ago that was the CIA version of what became the Air Force's (SAC's) SR-71. Thanks to BGen Robert J. H. Holbury (Ret.) I had the great good fortune to be one of the Air Force officers chosen to participate in the program which gave birth to the SR-71.
The unfolding of events which took me, a captain, from my RB-47H crew position as navigator and later squadron navigator in the 343rd SRS at Forbes to "The Ranch" is a tale that could have been an episode in the life of Maxwell Smart.
I had been on TDY in England for a couple of months and, on the first Friday night after my return, my wife Mary and I went to the Forbes Officers' Club for dinner. There we ran into (then) Col. Holbury. Formerly the Director of Operations of the 55th SRW, he was then running the SAC Reconnaissance Center at SAC Hq. Once a month he came back to back to get his flying time on one of the very long weather reconnaissance missions 55th crews flew up around Labrador and northern Canada.
On this Friday night he was dining at the club and Mary and I started chatting with him. During this conversation, he asked me if I would like to work for him. I assumed he meant in Omaha. And I asked him if this were so.
"I can't say", was his reply.
"Where would I be?" I pursed
Same response. As well as to my next question.
I turned to Mary and said,
"What do you think?" Always supportive and boss of the family
Mary said, "It's up to you." So, with that. I agreed.
Col. Bob then told me that I would be receiving a security clearance form which I was to fill out and return to him. I shortly received the form, filled it out and mailed back to him. Shortly thereafter neighbors, former neighbors and associates began telling me of strangers asking lots of questions about us: life style, debts, drinking habits and the like. I'm sure that they must have felt certain I had done something really bad to cause all of these government people to ask these questions about me.
After a while I received a call from Col. Bob who told me that I'd be receiving orders directing me to report to Washington. D.C. and to check into a certain hotel. This also took place. Soon after my arrival in the nation's capital I received a call and was told to be out front at 0800 hours and that I would be picked up. I asked my usual questions and received the standard "Can't say."
The next morning I was picked up and taken to a building in downtown D. C. After many questions and a black box lie detector test I was told I had passed and would be receiving orders soon. At last, I thought, I'm now going to find out what, where and when.
Not so. I had been tested. I had passed. go home and await orders, I was told. When I called Mary to apprise her of this cryptic information on our destiny, she gave me the good news that I was on the promotion-to-major list. Shortly after I returned to Topeka, Col. Bob called and said, "Sell your house and stand by." Being the good soldier, I did just that. And Boy! What a surprise when I did get the orders! I'm to report to a special activities squadron in Las Vegas, NV and it's a four-year unaccompanied tour. How can one tell his wife that he's going to Las Vegas for four years and can't take her or the kids!
A quick call
to Col. Bob and the unaccompaniment was
immediately cancelled. However, still no clue as to what I was
going to do.
On arriving at Las Vegas I meet Burt Barrett, a friend and former AC in the 38th SRS at Forbes. And he's a member of the group. Burt takes me and another officer up to Mercury, Nevada the atomic bomb test facility, thence to Area 51. At last I found out what my job is to be. And what a fantastic job it was!
My job at "The Ranch" was that of Chief, Mission Support Division and all of the goodies that went along with it, such as getting up at 0500 hours on Monday and driving two hours or so to the Ranch returning on Friday around 1700. We did, however manage to get in during the week on occasion. Lots of activity such as developing mission planning techniques, special type maps, briefing procedures plus other most interesting activities were part of the job.
The job and association with the legendary Kelly Johnson and his Lockheed people plus our own Air Force personnel was something you only dream about happening to you during your Air Force career. (Kelly Johnson was Lockheed's design chief responsible for creating the U-2 and the A-12. Ed.)
After four years at "The Ranch" I was assigned to SAC HQ. I was promoted to LT COL and assigned as chief of SR-71/B-58 Section, DOSR and, as such became the Directorate of Operations project officer for Desert Queen, as the SR-71 project was then code-named. It was my job to develop requirements for the program. I was one member of a team composed of representatives throughout the headquarters whose job was to bring the SR-71 into SAC's reconnaissance inventory. A lot of outstanding people were engaged in the many facets of the project. They included computer and electronics experts, members of the Personnel, Intelligence and Plans Directorates along with those of us in Operations. Many requirements needed to be identified and resolved. Beale AFB, the home of our exotic bird, literally had to be built from scratch. Personnel had to be selected to man Beale. Also KC-135 tanker aircraft had to be modified to enable them to carry the new type of fuel required by the SR-71.
On our part in the DOSR, we had the responsibility of developing mission planning procedures along with the Beale folks as they came on board to write the SAC operations Plan which would govern the employment of thc SR-71. My section also had to coordinate with many agencies throughout the world where this aircraft would perhaps fly one day.
Blessed are those who have great people working with them, and I was truly blessed. Cliff Newman (also a former 343rd SRS navigator), Don Mathers, Jim Jones, Don Eming, Pierre del Negro and Don Cook were the initial team members reporting to me who made things happen in DOSR. Many others, similarly talented, including those who joined us later at Beale.
Once the aircraft was in the inventory and the unit was declared operational, we in DOSR, based on Intelligence requirements, planned missions to satisfy those requirements. Every mission required the approval of the SAC Director of operations, and an approving authority in Washington. It also was our job to transmit mission requirements to Beale and to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, from which missions over Vietnam were being flown. In those days we were flying only over Nam.
Burt Barrett, another transplant from "The Ranch," was chief of the Intelligence shop which was our interface with that Directorate. They told us what geographical areas they were interested in and what targets we should focus on. Photographic and electronic collection was the name of the game in the years 1965 to 1969 which was my time at DOSR. We developed a sun angle chart that allowed us to pick the best times over target to obtain optimum photographic clarity.
Our mission planning
started early in the day and went like this:
By referring to our sun angle chart we picked the time over target. >From initial time over target we back tracked to the air refueling point, determined off load and thence back to take off time from Kadena. Lots of coordination then followed with the folks in the Vietnam area and others and by 1500 or 1600 hours we had the mission laid out.
To get the DO's approval we had the route displayed on a briefing board and I, usually, briefed Maj. Gen Gillem, the DO, at his desk around 1700 hours. If the DO directed no changes, out went the mission to the field. I made, many trips from the DOSR shop across to the other side of the HQ building lugging that board!
We still needed an okay
from Washington which would come the following morning. Even after the
mission itself was approved. Washington had to give us a go-no go