My God, it’s full of Mentors! Doc Searls and Ben Bowles.

After writing my tribute last summer on Doc Searls‘ birthday RE his gift to me, starting my blogging career, I had an amazing reunion. My friend Ben Bowles stopped by for lunch. In the same way that Doc Searls is a source and wellspring for my better self, so has Ben Bowles been. One difference is that I’ve known Ben more than 4 decades. Ben was an SR-71 pilot. Check that. Ben was the quintessential SR-71 pilot. In the Blackbird program, there were no ordinary aviators. Even in that group, Ben stood out.

The suit they wore was an Astronaut’s suit. They likewise carried a portable air conditioner around with them. Everything about the SR-71 mission was cool and macho enough to twang the heart of any red-blooded American male. Just one thing about Ben Bowles is an exception to the clichéd archetype of the macho fighter pilot:

Like Doc Searls, Ben is one of the most gentle, thoughtful, easygoing and irreverent men I have ever met. He and Pat and Sally and I had great conversations and good times in the years around 1970. In retirement, he’s done a bit of painting. About ten years older than I, he almost bought himself a new motorcycle last year. Also like Doc, Ben is always exploring the most practical way forward from here to the commonsense, reasonable, shared existence that so many of us know is possible if we’d just get out of our own way. In other words, they both bring a systems engineering approach to How We Ought To Live.

Here’s the irreverent part. On Tuesday, Ben sent this insight: “The average fighter pilot, despite the sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of such feelings as love, affection, intimacy and caring. On the other hand, those feelings just don’t involve anybody else.

This is another too-long post about military aviation, but this time written to honor the two people I know who have taken more photographs from altitude than any of us can comprehend. Here’s Doc’s Aerial Recon collection, tagged aerial (4777 pics), aviation (998), sky (2682) windowseat (4421).

This is dedicated to Ben and Doc, who should know each other, mostly because they’re both interested in most things.

41 years ago this month, I graduated from USAF Pilot training. My housemate was Capt. Jack Ferguson who, unlike the rest of us college kids, had Real Air Force Experience, as a Navigator-Bombardier in the supersonic B-58 “Hustler” strategic bomber:

Convair B-58 Hustler

Ben Bowles had been an Aircraft Commander in Jack’s B-58 squadron, and an inspiration for him. Jack, in turn, was an inspiration to me. Jack was my housemate (at a sweet, pool-equipped rental in Tempe AZ, nearer to the ASU coeds we fancied than Williams AFB, where we trained). Jack was also my student commander, a Captain while I was a lowly 2nd Lieutenant (literally, from the French, a 2nd-class “holder-instead-of“; presumably, that would be instead-of officers who actually mattered.) Jack tutored me how to get through pilot training, which did not start well for me.

As we graduated from pilot training, three things happened:

  1. We got our orders distributing us into the pilot-devouring “exigencies of the service”.
  2. We lined up some Notable or relative to pin on our hard-won wings.
  3. We bought a Northrop-made model of our favorite trainer, the supersonic T-38 “Talon”.

Doc, and Ben can tell you I still have that industrial-grade solid-plastic model, marking the beginning of my insight into the Ben Bowles saga.

Like Doc, Ben started as a legend to me and became a friend. The first time I heard of him, he’d flown over to our Pilot Training graduation in a T-38 trainer from the legendary Edwards Flight Test Center to be the Notable to pin on Jack Ferguson’s wings: Item #2 on our graduation checklist. That was cool, because Jack had whispered that Ben was one of the early test pilots setting up the Air Force’s new hush-hush SR-71 Reconnaissance program.

When not flying tri-sonic spyplanes, these larger-than-life stratospheric aviators flew T-38s. That was a big deal because, for most of us over-trained cannon fodder, the T-38 would be the coolest aircraft we would ever fly. Hell, the T-38 is the coolest plane that most who ever touched her would ever fly:


In an age of jet aircraft as quirky as command-line DOS , the T-38 was like Mac OS X. It flew precisely, it rolled like a banshee (450 degrees/second roll-rate), and even taxied well, a rarity. At speed – 375 Knots IAS, a T-38 consumed 2 miles of altitude and a very few seconds to execute an Immelmann (a half-loop with a rollout at the top, flashing back at prodigious speed in the direction whence it came):

As I write this, I have a little trouble believing we did all this shit. I’m not so amazed that we 20-something college kids were capable of such heroics. What’s amazing is that our nation turns over such machines to such amateurs. A year later, in Vietnam, we got over being amateurs…

But Ben Bowles didn’t show up at our graduation ceremony flying just any T-38. No, nothing about Ben’s flying was ordinary. His airplane was tail #91605, the very aircraft model that all of us had bought, memorialized in solid plastic by Northrop and which I and most of my (living) classmates still display in our studies. Ben flew item #3 to Willy to be #2 on Jack’s checklist. But it gets better. 91605 was not just any T-38, it was a legend among us students.

Back Story: The Northrop Talon T-38 Trainer was one of the first aircraft equipped with a totally hydraulic flight control system. Up until the mid-fifties, aircraft had been controlled by a set of pulleys by which pilots pushed slabs of aluminum out into the slipstream to exert a force on that slipstream and thus push tail sections around or cause wings to selectively rise or fall. Properly choreographed into the ballet of flight, any skilled pilot could “feel” his way back home to a reasonably commodious stretch of runway. The modest mechanical exertions of those pilots meant that a minor flight correction required a slight effort and that a greater adjustment required a greater physical effort. In other words, the feel of the relative wind against the controls in your hands was a trustworthy indicator of what you were asking of your craft (and yes, “relative wind” is a technical description of the forces acting on an aircraft). Jets changed all that because it took so much force to move the controls, so hydraulics took over.

But the pushback of the relative wind is irrelevant to an aircraft with 3100 psi of hydraulic pressure to operate the controls. In fact, T-38 #91605, the very aircraft that Ben flew in from Edwards, was one of the original aircraft that had never been modified with the after-market “pussy-oriented” flight control system that we students required, a series of “springs and bell cranks” designed to provide we, the marginally-skilled student pilots, with the artificial feel that all other aircraft had, artificial feel acting as a surrogate for the pushback that the air provides for most aircraft when a pilot uses the ailerons, stabilizer or rudder to manipulate his craft. No, none of that was necessary for test pilots like Ben Bowles. Who cares if the stick and rudder in your aircraft provides tactile feedback to the poor schlub in the cockpit? The real test pilot needs none of that. Imagine the birth of awe that we Second Lieutenants felt upon introduction to such an aviator!

I was thrilled to meet Ben as I graduated, and to imagine that some day I might also be a “real” pilot. A year and a half later, after my visit to the Vietnam Unpleasantness, I managed to get assigned to aerial refueling of the SR-71 Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft, the coolest airplane ever built and likely to remain so:


This week, Ben and I agreed that he probably flew every one of the 22 SR’s ever built and that I probably refueled every one. As the head of the Standardization and Evaluation (Check pilot) Board, we know Ben flew this particular “B” model pilot trainer.

See those wet streaks on the wings? That’s a fuel leak, by design. If you look behind the aft cockpit, you’ll notice that the air refueling receptacle is still open, indicating that this aircraft has just finished taking on 100,000 pounds of special JP-7 fuel over the Sierra Nevada mountains, which was our familiar habitat just east of Beale AFB where both my children were born. That means the picture was snapped at 25,000 feet above sea level (FL 250), at a speed of 350 Knots Indicated Air Speed (KIAS), about 384 MPH, outside air temp, -55 degrees C.

Why is all that expensive JP-7 jet fuel flowing so easily out of its wings? It’s because this titanium aircraft is about to be accelerated to Mach 3.2, or so: 2,100 KTAS (True Air Speed), at 82,000 feet altitude. At that speed, the heat of the SR-71’s titanium skin rises so high that its skin plates close up tighter than a ground-pounding bureaucrat’s sphincter. Yep: when not flying at 3 times the speed of sound and about 13 miles above the earth, the SR-71 aircraft leaks fuel like an old boat. If not, the skin sections would buckle as everything heats up and the length grows by 8 inches (yeah, I know, you’ve heard that from pilots before). The rest of the time, the aircraft circulates its fuel around the skin to cool it. Why the special JP-7 fuel, when every other Air Force jet uses JP-4? Because JP-7 has a higher flash point, about 260 degrees Celsius, as I recall, to keep it from flashing. Every fuel load was tested at the lab prior to takeoff by the tanker. Woe to the tanker pilot who took off without the lab test in hand, even if the lab testy had been successful and everybody knew it. I saw that happen once (not to me, thank God) and the fuel load was pumped out into the stratosphere: 16,000 gallons. Yeah, we used to do that shit.

The SR-71 was an airplane that routinely would take off in daylight in California, fly into darkness over Ohio and return to land before sunset. Most airplanes leave the Air Force inventory with a whimper, but not the SR-71. On its last operational mission, The SR-71 broke its own transcontinental speed record: 68 minutes 17 seconds from the Pacific to the Atlantic, improving on the old record by 2-1/2 hours. Such was its urgency to become a static display at the Smithsonian.

SAM Spayed

Ben was over at the Okinawa detachment when I reported for duty at Beale AFB California in late summer, 1968. A couple of weeks later, I flew over for my 6-week rotation to Kadena AB, and stopped by the super-secret SR-71 Operations Center. There the Photo Interpretation people were celebrating a photo snapped accidentally that morning over North Vietnam on an operational sortie: Sure enough, the pilot was Ben Bowles and the photo was of a magnified nose cone of a SAM Surface-to-Air Missile firing straight up toward the SR-71, from about 20,000 feet below, intent on doing severe damage to Ben’s plane. As always with SAMs and the SR-71, it was not to be, but it was a great photo. A friend of my son Brian was in Intelligence at Hickam AFB, HI at that time and he still remembers spending a month analyzing that single image.

The SAM was on a fool’s errand. It was literally impossible to shoot down the “Blackbird” if both its engines were running. At 82,000 feet altitude and 3.2 times the speed of sound, it was a very large aircraft with a tiny radar signature, flying at the speed of a bullet leaving the muzzle of a high-powered rifle, doing so continuously, almost 16 miles up. I saw Ben in the bar that night, pleased to have a reason to commune with one of the masters of that arcane mission, and all it carried with it. Here’s a picture of Ben (left) taken a year later, after he flew the 100th operational SR-71 mission over North Vietnam:

Here’s Ben, a couple of years later, when he became the first SR-71 pilot to log 900 hours in the SR:

He still has that look. The quizzical eyebrow and direct demeanor. Like George Clooney with something to do.

“The Landing was uneventful”

A couple of months before the SAM photo shoot, Ben had even more fun. This was when the SR program was pretty new and people were still learning things faster than they’d like. On a training mission back in the states, Ben was presented the Air Force “Well Done” award when he saved an SR-71 which experienced an engine explosion “above 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5 while accelerating to a higher airspeed and altitude.” That description was penned 40 years ago, but how many aircraft have since been adorned with that offhand description of scalded-catness? Over the middle of America that day, Ben experienced the mother of all aberrant flight conditions. When an SR-71’s engine even hiccups in that circumstance, you’re in deep kimchee. But an explosion? Deformed pieces of titanium projecting out into the Mach 3 slipstream? Fuhgeddaboutit! You’re in full-on recovery mode. Somehow, Ben pulled it all back from the deep gulp of certain weirdness. Here’s Ben’s email describing this particular adventure:

On the morning of 29 July, 1968, my navigator, Jimmy Fagg, was not feeling well when we were having our preflight steak and eggs breakfast at the Personal Support Detachment. Butch Sheffield, returning from leave, walked in and mentioned he needed flight time for pay and he would gladly substitute for Jimmy.

The flight was going well. We had just finished refueling and were accelerating thru approx 2.6 Mach and 65,000′, leaving Louisiana heading West. (ed.: usually a 40 minute flight to Sacramento) First indication of a problem was when the right engine “unstarted”. However, this was more serious than a routine inlet unstart.

“Unstart” for laypersons: if there were a Bernoulli’s Third Law for Fast Airplanes, it would go like this: Thou shalt not ever, under any circumstances, introduce supersonic air into a jet engine. The turbine blades cavitate and the engine starts belching and the aircraft tries to shake itself apart, the kind of thing that can ruin your whole day. Unstarts were not unusual in the Blackbird, caused when the inlet spike was not precisely positioned to keep the trisonic bow wave outside of the inlet.

Ben, continued:

I heard a Big Bang and immediately had a big red light (ed: there are no small red lights) I looked through the rear-facing periscope and saw a huge smoke trail: obviously not a contrail.

Understand, when the inlet is unstarted, the aircraft is experiencing severe aerodynamic buffeting, making it difficult to read instruments until we slow to about Mach 2 (realize this was 39 years ago, don’t expect accurate numbers). Right engine is shut down. I ask Butch for the Engine Fire and the Descent checklist. I declare “Emergency” with Air Traffic Control center, “descending and diverting to Carswell AFB”. Then I tell Butch to “be ready to bail out”, who responds with, “Oh Shit”! (Butch had punched out of an SR once before and was not anxious to repeat the experience.)

Butch says, “I wish I had my checklist”. The roughness is now gone and the machine is flying smoothly with normal control. I tell Butch that I would just as soon stay with her as long as we have good control. Butch concurs (although, the check list says that if Fire Light does not extinguish…Bail Out). The problem remains, Fire Light is still On, flying on one engine, the smoke has diminished, but is it smoke, fuel spray (we are dumping as much as possible prior to landing) or contrail? I don’t want to land with a fire and Butch concurs. Still difficult to tell if we are trailing smoke due to overcast, poor light conditions, and looking through the periscope is like looking through the barrel of a 22 rifle.

We elect to request a fly-by with the tower to tell us if they can detect any smoke or fire. The Fire light is still ON. Tower says we look OK. Landing was uneventful. We taxi to and into a designated hanger, stopping inside, shut down the left engine and the hanger doors are closed. We complete the “shutdown checklist”…unbuckle our harness and stuff, but no one comes to help us out of the airplane. We at least need a ladder! Butch says the crowd is over by the right wing. Finally, a couple of considerate colonels come to our rescue and advised us, “you may want to see this”. We shuffled around to the right side. The outboard forward section of the nacelle had been blown out, taking with it a portion of the wing leading edge. Obvious severe fire damage. Not much of the engine was left in the nacelle…you could see daylight. Lockheed used this accident as testimonial for titanium airframes. Conventional construction could not have survived the intense heat from the fire…the right outboard wing would have failed rather quickly.

About that comment by Butch, “I wish I had my checklist”. What Butch meant was that he had Jimmy Fagg’s checklist, not his own. Every crew member marks up his checklist with useful margin notes, obviously of great personal value. As a stand-in, Butch was wishing he had his own annotated checklist rather than Jimmy’s, captured on the aircraft’s audio recorder.

At the Incident Hearing, the panel of officers was clearly interested in why Butch did not have a checklist with him, which would be grounds for dismissal. They were satisfied with the distinction he drew between Jimmy’s personalized checklist vs. his own, along with the fact that Ben saved the aircraft, which counts for a lot.

A while later, Ben showed me the plaque that the amazed engineers at Lockheed’s and Kelly Johnson’s famed Skunk Works had presented to him. They’d carved out a section of the wrecked nacelle structure, formerly a highly engineered segment of titanium, now twisted and distorted beyond recognition by the forces of Mach 3 winds and JP-7 fire. They’d polished the twisted section of non-deformable titanium and placed it on a piece of walnut and said the least and the most that could be said:

Great Save

Only Owls and Assholes Fly at Night

Ben has an even better story that sums up the focus of the test pilot, for whom regulations and foolish procedures have no place or, at best, provisional. When Ben Bowles made his Great Save, he violated regulations to do so, and could have been severely disciplined or lost his wings for doing so. When Ben reported to Edwards Air Force Base for his SR-71 training in 1966, he was delivered into the hands of test pilots who were less respectful of the procedures that Ben felt obligated to follow, having spent a lot of his career in the bureaucratic Strategic Air Command, flying supersonic bombers. It took a while for Ben to conform to the less formal standards that Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Right Stuff, including a selective disregard for regulations, especially for those highest up the invisible ziggurat of righteous stuffness:

Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

Test pilots never fly at night, for the same reason that they fly over immense dry sea beds perfect for emergency landings. Airplanes fly the same at night and day, so why would anyone test an airplane at night? But every Edwards test pilot was obligated to log a 75 minute night flight in a T-38. No one knew why. Just because. For this checkout flight, Ben was to be supervised by the legendary “Pete” Knight. The next year, Pete was destined to become the fastest, highest pilot of an airplane, the X-15, a record that still stands. Checking out SAC weenies in a meaningless night mission was not Pete Knight’s idea of a critical mission. When the UHF radio crapped out, he had his out.

“Screw it. Let’s go to the bar.’

Ben, conditioned by years in SAC, where a checklist was Holy Writ; “Hang on, Pete, this won’t take long.”

“My point exactly. I’m signing you off. Let’s go to the bar.”

“But really, they’ll be here in 40 minutes and we can go.”

“Ben, you know how to fly this airplane at night. Let’s go to the bar.”

“Pete, we really should do this, don’t you think?”

Finally, assuming all the authority of his position at the very top of the test pilot’s Ziggurat of The Right Stuff, Pete declared, “Ben, forget it. Only owls and assholes fly at night!” He turned on his heel and proceeded straight to the bar.

There are many doctrines, overt and subtle, encrusting the righteous ziggurat. The rule that only assholes fly at night is an implicit corollary to the Prime Directive of fighter pilots, which Tom Wolfe presented as the Holy Coordinates of the brotherhood: Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving. The problem with night flying is that you can’t do it and drink and drive at the same time.

When Tom Wolfe was in Denver on his Right Stuff book tour, I had him autograph several copies and handed him a letter with some of these Ben Bowles stories. I received a hand typed and penned reply, including his fabulous signature, going something like this:

Dear Britt,

I’m sorry it was so busy in the Tattered Cover that day. I hurriedly signed your books and didn’t read your letter until in the car to the airport.

It sounds like Ben Bowles deserves a book of his own. Pete Knight went on to break the Air Speed Record with a run of 6.7 Mach on 3 October, 1967.

Best regards,

Tom Wolfe

Sadly, I can’t find the letter. I never was great with atoms.

Clueplane to Cluetrain, A Personal Cross-Country

Doc Searls stayed here this week while keynoting the Conversations Network event, “Revisiting Cluetrain – 10 years later“. I’ve been working on this blog post for 3 months, and I wanted to present him with some atoms to celebrate the anniversary, so Ben and I cooked up a plaque so suitable for framing that we did. Thanks to both you guys: I wish I could deploy all your clues:

For Doc Searls: Thanks for keeping the Recon
tradition alive! Back in the day, negatives were
9″x 9″ and the geotagging accurate to the foot.

2100 miles and 600 prints per hour.               The cost per frame? Stratospheric.

Ben Bowles, Lt. Col., USAF, Rtd.
AKA Doc Searls, version 1.0

6 thoughts on “My God, it’s full of Mentors! Doc Searls and Ben Bowles.”

  1. My name is Todd LaMantia, and I went to grade school with Bens son Douglas, I saw that very plaque with the piece of the SR71 that he landed after the incident, sitting on his fireplace mantel.
    I only knew Ben as his sons father, but when Ben would fly over his house in Yuba City ca. on his way back to Beale, I was in awe of that jet, even as a small kid I knew how special the SR71 was and still is to me and many others.

    I still live in Yuba City not far from Beale AFB, and can remember each time I saw the SR71 fly in and out of Beale, an amazing jet.
    As a little kid I would beg my dad to take me to Beale AFB open-houses just so I could see it on static display.

    I greatly miss seeing the SR fly over Yuba City, it was a sight to behold and still would be even today.

    I’m not sure who will read this small memory/experience but seeing the SR fly over Yuba City is going to be with me forever.


  2. Ben was a great teacher for me as I learned to fly the SR-71. I even work with Ben on the FFT checklist for the SR-71 which turn out to be a big confidence builder for future SR pilots. I am very sorry to hear Ben has made his last flight.


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