Years ago, while working at Lockheed, a coworker gave me a certificate and a small flag.  The certificate says:

“This article was flown aboard an SR-71 advance reconnaissance aircraft in S/N 972 on February 9, 1990, to a speed in excess of three times the speed of sound and at an altitude greater than 80,000 feet.”  It is signed by R.E. Yeilding, Lt. Col. Pilot and J.T. Vida, Lt. Col. RSO.

I had assumed that this flight referred to the last flight of this particular aircraft as it flew from Palmdale in California to Dulles near DC on its final flight as it was delivered to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  Four records were set on that particular flight.  But as you will see, I assumed wrongly.

My kids were little at the time and I was super busy all the time. The certificate languished in a drawer until now (about 20 years).  I recently had it framed and in order to explain its significance to Erin, I looked up that record setting flight on Wikipedia.  I was surprised to note that the dates didn’t match up.  I checked on the Smithsonian’s web site and the Wikipedia date was correct.  It differed from the date on my certificate.

This bothered me. What did that mean?  Was my certificate bogus? 

I decided to check with the Smithsonian itself; after all, they had the plane.  They should be able to sort this out.  I emailed them; not expecting to actually get a helpful response but kind of hopeful.

Imagine my surprise when I got a response asking for more details.  They asked me to scan the certificate but since I didn’t want to crack open the frame I took a photo of it.  I emailed this and as many details as I could remember of the circumstance under which it came to me.

Today (3 March, 2011 – almost exactly 20 years after the event described on the certificate) I got a response.   They had tracked down the pilot and he had given a detailed response to my question!

Now that’s pretty classy!

The short version is that I had mistakenly assumed that the certificate referred to the record setting retirement flight to the Smithsonian.  I assumed that because the performance figures of this aircraft type was classified at the time that the certificate was deliberately vague. In fact, it referred to another flight on the date indicated.  Here is the email chain including the pilot’s response.

RE: Archives Web Inquiry Form

From:
“Daso, Dik” <DasoD@si.edu>

Add to Contacts

To: “greg@westbrookfamily.org” <greg@westbrookfamily.org>  
Cc: “Borja, Elizabeth” <BorjaE@si.edu>

Dear Mr. Westbrook,

Please read the response below as delivered to us by Ed Yeilding, the SR-71 pilot whose signature is on the document. I hope that you find it as satisfying and remarkable as I did.

Warm Regards,

Dik Daso

Curator

_________________________________________

Concerning Mr. Greg Westbrook’s Feb 2, 2011 email inquiry:

Mr. Westbrook’s Flag and Certificate are indeed valid, true, and authentic!  I would imagine that they were given to Mr. Westbrook because of his dedicated work with Lockheed.

I expanded Mr. Westbrook’s photo and read his certificate framed with his flag.  The certificate does NOT say the flag was flown “on a record setting flight” as Mr. Westbrook claimed in his inquiry, nor does it say anything about the “Palmdale to Dulles” record flight.  The certificate says the flag was flown faster than three times the speed of sound and above 80,000 feet on Feb 9, 1990, which is true!

On the last several test flights of SR-71 #972 in 1990, Lockheed asked that flags be flown for a number of Lockheed employees.  Packages of flags were carefully wrapped with special thermal blankets and placed by maintenance in safe locations behind some of the SR-71 panels.  JT Vida and I would not have signed any certificate that was erroneous or untrue.  By the way, on all these last test flights of #972, we continued to get as much test data as possible on all the various things we were testing in case a miracle happened that the SR-71 program was revived.  Our tests were for various improvements that would help keep the SR-71 viable well into the 21st century.  The flags being flown were NOT the main objective of the last flights, but only one of a number of objectives for Lockheed and the SR-71 Program.  I remember well those last flights in late 1989/early 1990, as we were extremely disappointed that the SR-71 Program was being canceled, and we were savoring every minute of those last flights!

Mr. Westbrook says in his 9 Feb ’11 email that the flag and certificate were given to him by Patricia Ames-Urie.  I remember Pat Ames.  JT Vida and I both talked with her a number of times at our SR-71 test facility at Palmdale.  I was at Palmdale Dec 1987 to May 1990.  Pat was a Burbank Lockheed employee and was either an engineer or worked closely with the Lockheed engineers.  I remember Mr. Urie very well.  He was an excellent engineer and was the senior manager of the group of Lockheed engineers that debriefed our SR-71 test flights.  I probably should not tell this, but he gave me one of the very best compliments I’ve had my entire life:  After my last SR-71 flight, he told me that I was the best test pilot that he had ever worked with and that my debriefings were unusually helpful for his engineers.  I’ll always treasure that compliment, as flying the SR-71 was a dream come true, and I had always tried to give it my very best effort.  By the way, after the last flight in 1990, or possibly shortly before that last flight, Mr. Urie and Pat Ames announced their engagement.  JT and I did not even know they were dating.  We wished these two good people the very best!  Hopefully, they are still together.

Mr. Westbrook might also like to know that JT Vida was an outstanding RSO and had more flight time in the SR-71 than any other aircrew member, almost 1400 hours!

Please express to Mr. Westbrook my thanks for his Lockheed service and my best wishes for his future years.

Sincerely, Ed Yeilding, Lt Col, USAF (ret)

So that answers that.  My grandkids should take all this stuff to Antiques Roadshow 50 years from now and see what it’s worth.  Using the logic of the typical Antiques Roadshow appraisal it will be worth about $20 and some stupid pottery jug or Navajo basket will be worth $20,000.  There’s an aviation memorabilia store in Palmdale right now that would probably give me at least $30 for it.

But all sarcasm aside, this does not detract from the coolness of my certificate and its history.