9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, California

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Terry Pappas watching the camera through his birdcage cockpit. He wrote in his book: You can see that it's pretty cozy in this SR cockpit. The combination of the pressure suit and the tight cockpit made for poor visibility at times. In the descending 180 degrees turn to final approach for an overhead landing pattern, I would lose sight of the runway for several seconds. That meant I had to monitor the cockpit flight instruments and ‘feel’ the aircraft around the final turn to some degree. (Terry Pappas via Lockheed Martin)
Terry Pappas and his faithful RSO (Reconnaissance Systems Officer), John Mezi during their last Blackbird flight together. They had just landed at March AFB, CA where they delivered SR-71A #975 on Feb 28, 1990. (USAF via Terry Pappas)

One of the most intrigued pilot careers of Greek Americans is the one of Terry Pappas. We can definitely say that he is the fastest Greek heritage pilot in history, as he was privileged to fly the marvelous SR-71 Blackbird. During our communication with him wrote to us about his family history.

“My grandfather, Nikos Papapostolou Pappas was from Petrona, a small community above Agrinio in the region of Aetolokarnania. From Athens, you take the highway towards Patras and turn onto the new bridge call Rio Antirio towards Agrinio and Messolongi, the birthplace of my Grandmother, Sophia Drossopoulou Pappas. My grandfather immigrated to the US at Ellis Island in 1915. My grandmother, Sophia, arrived in 1920. They settled in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is where I was born. My parents were both born in Winston-Salem, NC and I am the oldest of eight kids.”

Terry spent 41 years flying aircraft, primarily for the USAF and NASA. His career started during the Vietnam era, conducting officer training while in college at the University of Florida, being commissioned there and attending AF pilot training at Reese AFB in Lubbock, Texas in 1971. After earning his wings he became an instructor pilot in the T-38A, training USAF and foreign national pilots in that high-performance aircraft. He went on to fly numerous aircraft, in and out of the Air Force, to include the B-52G, while stationed at Blytheville AFB, Arkansas, ’81-‘85. He was a mission commander and during the Cold War, his primary duty was the nuclear strike, according to SAC doctrines. From there he was selected to fly the Mach 3 plus, SR-71, stationed at Beale AFB, California from ’85-’90. Terry Pappas was one of those pilots who earned the title 'Habu' – the unofficial name given to the SR-71 and its flight crew in a nod to the venomous snake that the airplane is said to resemble. Pappas spent more than 5 years in the SR-71 program and flew numerous operational missions over hostile airspace. What made the Blackbird so unique was its ability to fly very fast (Mach 3.3) and very high (85,000 feet). This performance allowed it to overfly nearly any area of the world and take surveillance photos with relative impunity. Intercepting fighter pilots could only shake their fists as the SR-71 flew high above their reach. To escape surface-to-air missiles, Blackbird pilots would just ease the throttles forward and outrun them. Throughout its service life, the SR-71 was a very closely-guarded and coveted asset. Not only was it stuffed full of proprietary technology, it was also extremely expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate The US Air Force wouldn’t let just anyone fly their prized machine. It implemented a very rigorous selection and training process for the pilots and Reconnaissance Systems Officers (RSO) that would fill the Blackbird’s seats.

When the Blackbird ended its operational service of over two decades in 1990, he transferred to Edwards AFB, near Los Angeles, and served as an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the T-38A for the Air Force Flight Test Center, until he retired from the AF in 1994. Terry flew Learjet’s with camera systems onboard filming aerial scenes for the movie industry for a couple years. Then he accepted a position as a demonstration pilot for an aircraft manufacturer. There he demonstrated new business jets to chief pilots and company presidents around the world. He flew for a privately held business in Las Vegas, Nevada for two years before accepting a position as an Aerospace Engineer and Research Pilot with NASA in 1998. His duties included: T-38 Project Pilot, IP for astronauts in T-38, Gulfstream I, II and III executive transport, Super Guppy transport for outsize cargo, and DC-9 for microgravity research flights. He also managed a number of training functions for the Aircraft Operations Division. During an interview he gave to and Terry Dunn he referred to his NASA Service:

"It was much more challenging at NASA because I flew five very different aircraft at the same time. I remember flying all of them in a two day period more than once. The eye-height at landing is very different for each aircraft. Pilots must use their eyes heavily during a landing. And the picture that you try to 'burn in' differs greatly for each aircraft. The handling characteristics for each aircraft were vastly different too. One of the more difficult aircraft to fly, and therefore enjoyable for me, was the Super Guppy. It was 170,000 lbs, with a top speed of 205 knots, indicated airspeed. Faster, and the air over the top became supersonic. Flying the Guppy meant being low and slow, and frequently getting bounced around in the weather. It had no auto-pilot and no hydraulic assist on the flight controls. You just had to manhandle the beast. And anything approaching 15 knots of crosswind, and it wanted to weathervane and go for the grass. It was built based on the 1940's era KC-97, with the original cockpit and controls. I could fly a modern glass cockpit in the morning and then later that day, leap 60 years back in time in the Guppy. It was a blast."

During the same interview Terry also spoke for the fighters he would like to fly:

"I was in USAF pilot training during the Vietnam War. Only one guy from my class went since the war was winding down by the time I got my wings. One of the aircraft I wanted to fly if I had served there was the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, mainly due to its attack mission supporting our ground troops, and its search-and-rescue missions. The second aircraft on that list is the F-22 Raptor. Throughout most of my Air Force career, the hottest fighter jet was the F-15 Eagle. It is a phenomenal aircraft. I flew my last flight in the Air Force in an F-15. A USAF test pilot, a friend of mine flew the F-15 operationally, and he worked on the F-22 development team. He told me that the F-22 is to the F-15, as the F-15 is to the WWII-era P-51 Mustang!"

He has over 10,000 flying hours, most of which are hour-long flights, with numerous instrument approaches and landings. Terry retired from NASA in Oct 2011. He spends most of his time now pursuing writing and speaking projects. Terry’s hobbies include golf and photography. He lives in Houston, Texas.


Book Review by Dimitris Vassilopoulos
Terry Pappas - SR-71, the Blackbird, Q&A

As an aviation fan and aviation history researcher, I have the privilege, to read a lot of books. One of my favorite subject for study was and still is the Blackbird. For me, Lockheed SR-71 epitomizes the aeronautical science. I’m trying to read every book concerns it and I should point out that each time I get my hands on a new publication regarding this excellent machine, I’m learning something new. However, what happens if you combine the famous 'Habu' with the Greek heritage? It’s just get strapped with the fastest flying Greek pilot, actually Greek-American pilot. Meet Terry Pappas, one of the selected few to fly the miracle created by the legendary Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works. Terry wrote an incredible book. While other noteworthy publications written for the SR-71 kept their highly respected research along with first-hand accounts, Terry’s book is actually a guide for what it takes to be a Blackbird driver as well as how to fly and fight with it. The reader will be thrilled from the first pages. Through a series of questions we all might ask him if we were near him, he answers for every aspect of the SR-71 from the pilots perspective. It’s easy to read, easy to introduce someone in strategic reconnaissance while flying at 3.0+ Mach and also to motivate the reader to continue learning about that awesome flying machine, by studying more on the subject. Off course for the Greeks and Greek-Americans it’s even more interesting story. I could write many pages in his bio above, concerning his career and his interesting notes from training through his operational missions but I could only spoil his effort. That's something everyone should learn by purchasing his book. I had the honor to know this great character through the net and I hope I’ll be able to meet him in person someday. If you don’t have his book, buy’s an order! Be aware that Terry donates all the profit from his book to charity. So everyone is learn how to fly a Habu and you also doing good to the man next door who need our help.

Right: Probably one of the most demanding tasks about flying the Blackbird, was the air-refueling. RSOs will have managed the fuel load by having the tanker co-pilot reduce the number of fuel pumps from four, to three, to two, and finally to one fuel pump, as the SR fuel tanks completely fill up. At that point, the Blackbird’s full tanks would cause a pressure disconnect from the tanker boom. The RSOs were expert at getting this to happen exactly as we reached the end of the air refueling track.  This gave to the crew maximum fuel for the next leg of our mission. (Terry Pappas)
Blackbird book cover scan
During the Iraq-Iran War, Major Terry Pappas and Captain John Manzi launched their SR-71A from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, with a distant target in the Persian Gulf. Facing perhaps the most ominous weather of their flying careers, they were required to stay in close formation with the refueling tanker aircraft — often within 12 feet —for nearly a third of their harrowing journey. Ultimately, the Blackbird required five air refueling, and the non-stop flight took over 11 hours, one of the most grueling and challenging missions ever attempted by the Air Force pilots. (Copyright Gaetan Marie)
I’m telling fellow SR pilot, Tom McCleary, something that he finds amusing. Note the ‘brick’ that Tom is carrying. Since he’s the mobile control officer for the day, he has to stay in radio contact with the Beale command post, the squadron, the SR-71 aircraft and crew that is flying that day. He may have to coordinate last-minute maintenance for the SR or help with information associated with an in-flight emergency. Note I’ve opted for a Dr. Pepper after my flight today vs. a beer. I must have planned on running a few miles later. (Terry Pappas)
Terry Pappas flying his T-38 Talon, used by his Wing for flight proficiency. Note the SR-71 patch on his helmet. He commented about those flights: Occasionally I flew the T-38 solo, such as on a functional check flight, or taking an aircraft cross-country to pick up another pilot. Ever since I started flying airplanes, I felt something especially enticing about flying solo. I still do. The T-38 remains one of the most fun aircraft in the world to fly. It’s sleek, fast, maneuverable, and it can kill you. That’s all the ingredients for having a good time. (Terry Pappas)
Terry was a B-52 pilot and mission commander before he transitioned to the Blackbirds. According to him: Here's a photo of my B-52 crew in 1983 at Blytheville, Ark. Since each of them had a private pilot's license, I had each man come up and fly the airplane for a few minutes (three of them were trained as AF navigators and one was our gunner). I wanted them to appreciate what it was like to wrestle that 500,000 lb beast. They loved it. (Terry Pappas)
This is my official SR-71 squadron aircrew photo. Every aircrew which had ever flown the SR-71 had their photo displayed on the wall in the squadron aircrew meeting area (bar).  Those photos had the pilot and RSO standing together in front of the Blackbird. Active aircrews also had a photo like the one above on a separate wall in the same room. (USAF via Terry Pappas)
The Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, 61-7975 / 2026, which was used during the mission over the Persian Gulf, during Iran - Iraq war, now rests in March Field Air Museum. The beautiful sleek lines are clearly visible in this photo. When Terry Pappas learned that he was finally selected to be a member of a very special kind of aviators who were going to fly the 'HABU' he stated: In June I got a phone call, followed by a letter notifying me that I had been selected to fly the Blackbird. I can’t adequately describe the feelings that I felt. I think I was stunned, amazed, overjoyed, excited, relieved, and fulfilled, all at once. It was the happiest moment of my professional life. (Copyright - Air Britain Photographic Images Collection - Erik Frikke)
I had just landed from my first A-model flight. It was with RSO, Denny Whalen. New SR pilots had to fly their first two A-model sorties with an experienced RSO. It was Denny’s last flight in the Blackbird. In other words, it was his ‘fini’ flight. That’s why we celebrated with champagne. Being that it was my first SR flight as the pilot in command, it was a significant event for me too. (Terry Pappas)
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This photo is what usually called 'THE RIGHT STAFF'. Group photos are difficult to shot. As Terry wrote in its caption: Normally, half our SR-71 aircrews were out of the country, and a quarter was on leave, preparing to go overseas. This picture was taken close to the end of the program when most crews were back in California. This may be the most number of active Habus assembled at one time during the Blackbird’s entire operational history. L-R: Bernie Smith, Rod Dyckman, Tom Bergam, Larry Brown, Doug Soifer, Randy Shelhorse, Terry Pappas, Bill Orcutt, Tom Veltri, Don Watkins, Mac McKendree, Mike Finan, and Greg Crittenden.  (USAF via Terry Pappas)



1. Dimitrios Vassilopoulos correspondence with Terry Pappas.
2. SR-71, The Blackbird Q&A by Terry Pappas ISBN: 978-0-9853498-0-7, ADI Publications LLC, Houston, Texas.