Blackbird: Quiet neighbor was a spy plane pioneer
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:28 PM
"Ken Hurley has flown higher and faster than most people will ever dream about. But most people would never know that. Not from talking to Ken, anyway.To casual aquaintances, the 75-year-old former Air Force aviator describes himself as just one of many retired servicemen on Whidbey Island who who did their jobs, served their country. So genuine is Hurley's modesty, says Bill Stowbridge, a friend and neighbor since 1981, that it took almost two decades for Stowbridge to discover he lived next door to a pivotal figure in aviation history. To learn that the same courteous Southern gentleman who doted on Stowbridge's grandchildren also helped develop, test, or fly more than 25 planes for the military, including the SR-71 Blackbird, the first - and with a 2,150 mile-per-hour cruising speed - fastest 'stealth' spy plane ever made. Or of Hurley's double life, participating in black government projects deemed more secretive than the development of the atomic bomb. Or of the mid-air mishaps - near-death experiences at 80,000 feet and more than three times the speed of sound.There were some occasions, Strowbridge said last Wednesday, when Hurley would admit to certain aspects of his career.I'd see a picture over at his house and ask him about it. And he'd say, Oh, that's me in my space suit,'' Strowbridge said.But there was rarely any more elaboration than that until last summer, when Strowbridge travelled with Hurley to an Arizona aerospace museum for a special reunion of World War II aviators.Hurley was clearly one of the stars of the show. And the museum was filled with people he knew and planes he flew over the course of a storied life.WILD RIDES The aviation career of Lt. Colonel Kenneth D. Hurley, USAF (Retired) was nearly very brief, and very nearly ended, the day before his 20th birthday.On Aug. 8, 1944, then 2nd Lt. Hurley was bombardier-navigator aboard a four-engine, B-29, flying bombing missions over Japan.The target on that day was an engine plant that had been hit several times but was still heavily defended.During the run, the formation leader changed speed.It caused the formation to stack up like cars on a freeway, Hurley said. We ended up falling out of formation and our tail went up into the bomb bay of another bomber. We lost seven feet off the top of the tail and their bomb bay doors were torn off. We were already on three engines because the number three engine had been knocked out by flak.Flying the crippled plane back to Guam was out of the question, and even landing at nearby Iwo Jima was iffy because the pilot was hard pressed to control the damaged plane. Meanwhile, the other damaged bomber, right above Hurley, started losing its payload of quarter-ton bombs.I can still see those 500-pound general purpose bombs dropping past us, going off armed, Hurley said, adding that any one of the bombs could easily have ripped a wing off his B-29, just from weight and velocity.Hurley flew 24 more missions over Japan, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals before the war ended. After the war, Hurley returned to his home in Memphis and earned a degree in math and physics at Memphis State College. He then went on to earn a masters degree in Automatic Controls Engineering at the Air Force's Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. From there, Hurley left the states for a year-long stint in Korea, as navigator in a B-26 bomber at the tail end of that war.There was a shortage of navigators by then, Hurley said. Sitting in the wood-paneled living room of his Polnell Shores home Wednesday, Hurley said he doesn't recall ever being scared while flying through sheets of flak during bombing runs.Sure there was adrenalin flowing, but there was also a certain degree of fatalism, he said in his soft, Tennessee drawl. Any bullet could have your number. We got shot up several times.ROCKET WITH WINGSOver on a bookshelf in the corner of the room sits a small, dusty black airplane model. The model looks like a rocket ship with wings.Which is pretty much what the SR-71 Blackbird was. Capable of flying at an altitude of 80,000 feet, and cruising at Mach 3.2, or more than three times faster than the speed of sound, the development and flight of the Blackbird was prompted by the downing of another American spy plane.When Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia on May 1, 1960, he was flying a U-2, then the military's most advanced spy plane. By Christmas, the Air Force turned to developing a plane that could fly faster and higher than anything ever seen - the SR-71 Blackbird.With his war experience, his reputation as a defensive weapons expert, and his background in engineering, research and development, Ken Hurley was tapped to develop the Blackbird.It was designed to be the first stealth airplane, Hurley said. By the time the enemy could see it, track it, and fire at it, it was gone.Starting in early 1961, Hurley joined a team of civilian and military engineers and pilots to develop the Blackbird.From the beginning, the Oxcart Project was deemed a black operation, requiring byzantine security regulations.Hurley couldn't tell his wife and children where he was going when he left for work, or even if he was flying. Not that it would've mattered. He'd leave in the morning for his official Air Force job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base only to change out of his uniform and show up at a secret test facility somewhere else.I was working both sides of the street, Hurley said. This was so black I couldn't tell anyone what I was doing.The project required long, unexplained absences that Hurley said his wife, Jeanne, was remarkably understanding about.She'd take me to the airport and only know that I was heading east or west, he said. You tell your kids you were spending time in Ecuador or Samoa or wherever, anywhere except where you really were.By 1964, Hurley and the Blackbird team were at Edwards Air Force Base, test flying the plane out over the Mojave Desert. The pilots and navigators wore pressurized space suits during the flights because above 60,000 feet, loss of cockpit pressure would literally cause their blood to boil. Again, any details of the tests were kept secret. But it was at Edwards that Jeanne Hurley developed her own method of checking on her husband's secret work.If Hurley told his wife he didn't want any cauliflower or beans for dinner on a particular night, Jeanne eventually realized he'd be spending the next day in a pressurized space suit, flying in the Blackbird. After Ken left for work, she'd spring into action. She'd jump on her horse, ride to a nearby hill and watch to see the Blackbird take off, to know if I was in it, Ken said.EXCITING RIDESTesting the Blackbird was often less sublime. As the Air Force's first Reconnaissance Systems Officer in the SR-71, Hurley was responsible for flying the bugs out of it, finding and fixing design mistakes..You're thinking, 'We've got to make this thing work,' but lots of things didn't work.Like on one day in November 1965.Hurley and test pilot Fox Stephens were test flying the Blackbird at 80,000 above Oregon's Crater Lake. Midway through a turn, the left engine conked out and the plane started an uncontrolled roll to the left - at Mach 3.1, or about 2,150 miles per hour.When things go wrong at that speed, they go wrong very quickly, Hurley said.Hurley started furiously writing in his logbook, trying to leave an explanation of what happened in case the log was ever discovered in the wreckage. But somehow, Stephens was able to get the pane under control and land it.None of us could figure out why we didn't die that day, Hurley said.Eventually, Hurley would log about 200 hours flight time in the Blackbird, and more than 3,500 hours during his 25-year career in the Air Force. He would earn a second Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and the Legion of Merit.HIDDEN HEROStowbridge says he finally realized Hurley's stature in the aviation community last summer, when he accompanied Hurley and Jeanne to a reunion of Air Force flyers at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson.Turned out that Hurley had helped develop, and had flown in, five of the planes in the museum. Air Force generals, crewmen and civilians surrounded Hurley, pumping his hand and hanging on to his words.Later, at a museum symposium, Hurley was one of the featured speakers on the dais. The next day, Stowbridge watched a long line of autograph seekers queue up at a table where Hurley signed copies of Blackbird Rising, Birth of an Aviation Legend, written by Hurley and Donn A. Byrnes.I came home and I couldn't believe what happened to me, Stowbridge said. I'd never realized what a famous person he was; never been around someone like that.Actually however, Stowbridge had. Ever since 1981, when Hurley moved in next door.I loved the military, loved the job and I was fortunate, Hurley said of his career. You just take it as it comes and when you get a chance to do something, you do it. There's not much point in making a lot of noise about it."