25 years ago, Brian Shul and Walter Watson made a short incursion into Libyan airspace. Though the Libyans noticed their incursion and decided to do something about it – firing a couple of most likely SA-2 and SA-4 surface-to-air missiles capable of Mach 5 and reaching the altitude our heroes were flying (at or over 100,000ft – airliners fly at around 30-35,000ft.
I estimated that we could beat the rocket-powered missiles to the turn and stayed our course, betting our lives on the plane’s performance.
After several agonizingly long seconds, we made the turn and blasted toward the Mediterranean ‘You might want to pull it back,’ Walter suggested. It was then that I noticed I still had the throttles full forward. The plane was flying a mile every 1.6 seconds, well above our Mach 3.2 limit. It was the fastest we would ever fly. I pulled the throttles to idle just south of Sicily , but we still overran the refueling tanker awaiting us over Gibraltar.
To give you an idea of how fast that is, the distance involved here is between 800 and 1,000 miles (Houston-Tucson, Houston-Savannah). At the speed they were going, they would have covered that distance in about 20-30 minutes, then blown by a tanker flying around 500mph.
One day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied. A twin Bonanza soon made the same request. ‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded. The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walter’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘ Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’ We did not hear another transmis sion on that frequency all the way to the coast.
There’s a similar story where a pilot contacts ATC:
Pilot: Request clearance to flight level 1,000 (100,000ft)
ATC: Sure, if you can get there.
Pilot: Roger. Descending to flight level 1,000
Here’s the author and his EWO: