Weekend Wandering: A Priest and the SR-71


As the college football world is in turmoil over new conferences and traditional rivalries that might disappear, I found a different story about Notre Dame. Notre Dame football is in the spotlight; will they remain an Independent or will they join a Conference. There is more to Notre Dame than football.

The late Father Theodore Hesburgh President of Notre Dame was an aviation buff.

From Notre Dame Scholastic:

While he’d wanted to become a priest since the age of six, his goal after that was to become a chaplain on an aircraft carrier. His childhood hobby was building model airplanes, but his fascination really began with his first plane ride. When Hesburgh was 10 years old his father paid five dollars for him to ride in a barnstormer’s stunt plane. “I was hooked for life,” Hesburgh said of the ride in his autobiography.

Hesburgh subsequently logged nearly three million miles in the air, flying in exotic aircrafts such as an F14-Tomcat, a Torpedo Bomber, a Weather Plane and many more. He also broke the sound barrier several times, flew into a volcanic crater and piloted a naval bomber over the Pacific, despite having no formal flight training. But in 1979, Hesburgh fulfilled a lifelong dream — he set an unofficial airspeed record in the world’s fastest airplane, an SR-71 Blackbird.

‘That’s all right. I thought you were Commander-in-Chief.’”

In 1976 the SR-71 set a record by reaching a speed of 2,193 miles per hour. Father Hesburgh wanted to get a ride in the SR-71. Father Hesburgh had a meeting with President Carter in the White House. When President Carter asked Father Ted if there was anything he could do for him Father Ted said there was one thing he could do.

His chance came while talking with President Jimmy Carter in the White House. Carter, grateful for Hesburgh’s help with several projects, asked if there was anything he could do for Hesburgh. Hesburgh jumped at his chance. “I happen to be an aviation nut. I’d like to ride in the world’s fastest airplane,” he said.

President Carter, speaking at the March 4th memorial service, recalled the moment Hesburgh asked for the favor: “I said, ‘Fr. Hesburgh, it’s not customary for civilians to ride on a top-secret airplane.’ He said, ‘That’s all right. I thought you were Commander-in-Chief.’”

Two days later, Hesburgh got a call from the Air Force’s chief of staff. He was to report to the Beale Air Force Base in Sacramento to undergo a training regimen and series of rigorous tests. After passing the physical and psychological examinations administered to astronauts, Hesburgh had to learn how to operate every instrument in the back seat: navigational equipment, radios and dozens of gauges and meters. He was then put through situational training for various emergency scenarios including ejection and equipment failure. On February 29, 1979, Hesburgh and the pilot, Major Tom Allison, prepared for their attempt to break the Blackbird’s speed record.

After cruising at 30,000 feet just under the speed of sound, Allison and Hesburgh dove 5,000 feet and broke the sound barrier. They then turned the nose upwards and rocketed past 80,000 feet, accelerating through Mach 3. As Hesburgh watched the speedometer, the Blackbird pushed past 2,200 miles per hour, breaking the plane’s speed record. In his autobiography, Hesburgh said that when he’d landed, he “asked Tom if he had pushed the plane as fast as it would go.” Allison responded, “My God, Padre, I went within five degrees of burning us up. What more do you want?”

Fighting to Go Faster

The University of Notre Dame has completed development of the country’s largest quiet Mach 6 hypersonic wind tunnel. Funded with support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the AFOSR-Notre Dame Large Mach 6 Quiet Tunnel has a nozzle diameter 2.5 times larger than current quiet hypersonic wind tunnels in the U.S.

The $5.4 million project is the first step in a partnership between Notre Dame and Purdue University to develop multiple hypersonic tunnels.


Published in Science & Technology
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There are 4 comments.

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  1. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt

    Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m going to read that story to the Sunday School kids next week.

    • #1
  2. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    Found an excellent piece of writing by an SR-71 pilot, which I linked and excerpted here: Blackbird Among the Stars.

    • #2
  3. Stad Coolidge


    • #3
  4. Skyler Coolidge

    My senior year at Notre Dame, I finally got the chance to meet Fr. Ted in person.  I stood in a short line of others who wanted to shake his hand after mass at a nearby women’s dorm, and I told him I was happy to meet him and shake his hand.  Then he decided to insult me by negatively commenting on my appearance for no discernible reason.  I was dressed and groomed appropriately, he just seemed to think he should make a rude comment.  I quietly made a quick retreat.  

    We can all have bad days, I guess.  

    He also had a very strange ritual at commencement activities.  I sat through four years of them (I was in the concert band), and it was well known.   He asked the parents to raise their hands up over the graduates to join him in blessing them.  The result was a perfect picture of the crowd at the arena performing a mass Hitler salute.  Good intentions, but I can’t help but think it was in poor taste.

    He did a lot of great things, but sometimes . . .

    He was better than his successors, though.  By a long shot.

    • #4
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