• Former SR-71 pilot Buz Carpenter speaks on Saturday at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in this file photo from 2009. 

  • A crowd of people listen to former SR-71 pilot Buz Carpenter speak on Saturday at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in this file photo from 2009. Carpenter gave his presentation in the lobby beneath the SR-71 which he once flew.

  • The SR-71 Blackbird, a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance plane, undergoes testing on May 23, 1995, near Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.  (AP Photo)

  • Former SR-71 pilot Buz Carpenter looks up to the plane hanging in the lobby while speaking on Saturday at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in this file photo from 2009. 

  • Three cranes lower the 30-ton Lockheed Sr-71 Blackbird onto pillars, Monday afternoon, Nov. 6, 1995 at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kan. With the plane in place, the final phase of the cosmosphere's expansion can be built around it. (AP Photo/Monty A. Davis)

  • Students at the Hutchinson Magnet School at Allen investigate the point of the SR-71 Blackbird spyplane Friday morning at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in this file photo from 2012. Over 300 students from Faris Elementary School and the magnet school met and asked questions of actual SR-71 pilots and maintenance crew members.

  • Ramey Anderson, 4, has her picture taken with former SR-71 pilot Buz Carpenter on Saturday at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in this file photo from 2009.

Five questions for a real spy plane pilot zero in on Blackbird, Cold War movie 'Bridge of Spies'

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Bridge of Spies," a historical drama depicting the tense Cold War negotiations to bring home captured American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, is showing at the Cosmosphere's Carey Digital Dome Theater. No visitor can take their seat to see the Tom Hanks movie, however, without walking under the giant shadow of the U-2's successor, the SR-71 Blackbird.

Retired Col. "Buz" Carpenter, a former Blackbird pilot and instructor with the Air Force who now serves on the Cosmosphere's Foundation Board, attended a premiere of the film. Reached by email, he shed light on his career, the plane and that special cinematic experience.

Here are five questions with the aviator:

  • HNWhat years were you active as a Blackbird pilot and what types of missions did you engage in during that time?
  • BCI was in the program from July 1975 until July 1981.

Our missions involved peripheral missions around the Soviet Union and China, which we never overflew. Missions along the North Korean borders, particularly along the demilitarized zone, flights in the Baltic, flights over West Germany filming its border with Soviet satellite states, and I flew a very special presidential mission from the United Kingdom in March 1979 into the Middle East.

During the Middle East war of 1973, the SR-71s flying from the East Coast of the U.S. basically provided the critical photography our president used to assess this war and how we could best aid our ally.

  • HN: What was it like to fly the SR-71?
  • BC: The SR-71 was a remarkable aircraft to fly – for an experienced pilot.

Took us a year to train an experienced pilot to fly this aircraft. Your great sense of speed was on takeoff. Release the brakes and light the two powerful afterburners and within 20 seconds you will have accelerated to 240 mph, traveled about 4,500 feet and are lifting off and climbing. ... You will pass through 20,000 feet in less than two minutes from the time you released your brakes. The climb to 80,000 feet from here will take another 17 minutes because not only are you climbing another 60,000 feet but you are accelerating at the same time from 400 mph to 2,100 mph.

This was a demanding, challenging and remarkable aircraft to fly that was well ahead of its time, and when it was retired in 1990 it still did not have a competitor. At altitude you can see the curvature of the Earth and see almost 350 miles in any direction. The sky is black above you because 97 percent of the atmosphere is below you.

  • HN: What made it a successful spy craft?
  • BC: The aircraft was approved by President Eisenhower to replace the U-2 because the Soviets had the capability to shoot the U-2 down, and this approval came a year before Gary Powers was shot down. His advisers said we need an aircraft that does not fly at 70,000 feet but 85,000 feet-plus, cruises at 2,100 mph, not 450 mph, and finally become America's first stealthy aircraft that would be very difficult to detect on radar. ...

Its photography was superb. If you are standing in your parking lot and I fly over at 85,000 feet doing 35 miles a minute (2,100 mph) and take your picture, when I process the film I'll see you standing beside your car and can generally determine you're a male, plus most of the time tell you what kind of a car you are driving.

  • HN: You attended the premiere of "Bridge of Spies." How did that invitation come about, and can you describe that experience?
  • BC: "Bridge of Spies" was partly filmed at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, where U-2s today are still based and fly from. Because of the wonderful support the USAF provided to create this film at the air base, it is my understanding that the Disney Corp. and director [Steven] Spielberg arranged for a special premiere showing of this movie in the Washington, D.C., area.
  • HN: Were you able to meet Tom Hanks, Alan Alda or others involved in the film?
  • BC: Neither Spielberg nor Hanks were present at this secondary premiere, with the audience made up of current and former U-2 pilots and their families plus members and supporters of the Cold War Museum located in this area. One of the founders of the Cold War Museum is Gary Powers Jr.

About 200 people attended this showing, which was introduced by a former U-2 pilot and commander, Col. Chuck Wilson, who gave a quick background on the U-2 and its current operations . ... After the movie concluded, Gary Powers Jr., his older sister and the granddaughter of James Donovan (the attorney who negotiated the exchange of Gary Powers for Col. Abel) talked for about 45 minutes about how the families interfaced with the filming and so appreciated the accuracy of the film and the film's depiction of the main characters.

It was a wonderful event. The Gary Powers shoot-down changed many of our rules. Over-flights of hostile nations would be largely carried out by satellites. Reconnaissance crew members would go through special training in case they also would become prisoners of a foreign hostile power. Powers had no training on this. Crew members' families would also be trained to understand what might happen if a member were downed. The Vietnam prisoner-of-war experience taught us a lot also on how to deal with these potential problems.