This story has been kicking around the internet for a while, but man oh man oh man is it worth a read. Test pilot Bill Weaver was flying an SR-71 Blackbird on an experimental evaluation flight when a malfunction at Mach 3.18 caused the plane to literally tear apart. Yet somehow, Weaver survived.
Here's the moment when things went swiftly south, in Bill's own words:
The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal stability, increased angle-of-attack in the turn, supersonic speed, high altitude and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded flight control authority and the Stability Augmentation System's ability to restore control. Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only 2-3 seconds.
Still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces. Then the SR-71. . literally. . disintegrated around us. From that point, I was just along for the ride. And my next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream. Maybe I'll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realised this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I COULD NOT HAVE SURVIVED what had just happened.
You really must read the whole account. It's astounding -- both in the magnitude of how things went so out-of-control so quickly, and in the sheer astounding unlikeliness that Weaver was actually able to survive.
The SR-71 was, and still is, a magnificent beast of a plane, and the pilots who flew it were truly strapped in to the bleeding edge of aeronautical achievement. We spoke with a Blackbird pilot back in 2012 , and his stories, just like Bill Weaver's, will make the most exciting day you ever had in your life seem utterly mundane. [Barthworks (dead link), Roadrunners Internationale]
Update: It seems the traffic going to our original Barthworks link to this story crashed that site. Here's another source, Roadrunners Internationale. We've updated our links above.
2nd Update: Our resident lover of all flying things Attila Nagy found these two great photographs. Here's Bill Weaver posing with a Blackbird:
And a shot of the actual plane that disintegrated with Weaver inside:
Lockheed SR-71 in flight refueling. SR-71A (S/N 61-7952) refuels from KC-135A (S/N 58-0094). (U.S. Air Force photo)