Seeing the friendly, smiling face of longtime Canby resident and Rotary Club member Bob “Cash” McCall, spy missions and global intrigue are not likely to be the first thing you think of.
But don’t be fooled: During his time in the United States Air Force, McCall worked with the highly classified Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird,” one of the most technologically advanced spy planes ever built or operated by the U.S. government.
Indeed, his lifelong nickname derives from a very different genre of fiction: the 1960 romantic drama Cash McCall starring James Garner and Natalie Wood, which he and a group of fellow aviation cadets went to see together when he was in his first year of service.
“When we came out of the movie theater, one of them said, ‘Your nickname now is going to be ‘Cash McCall,'” Cash recalls. “And it stuck with me through 24 years of service. Even today, most people don’t know my real name.”
He had enlisted at the recommendation of a cousin who was in the Air Force.
“It turned out to be a pretty good decision,” McCall said.
For more than 10 years, McCall served as an aircrew navigator on missions that primarily concerned reconnaissance in North Vietnam during the war. It was a straightforward but extremely important job.
“The purpose of the navigator is to keep the aircraft on track, detect emergencies if anything comes up,” McCall said. “It’s going from point A to point B, you know. I used to tell everybody, ‘I tell the pilots where to go.’ But it’s all based on trust. They trusted me because I never got them lost.”
He flew 5,500 hours for the military, including 110 missions gathering intelligence in and around Haiphong in North Vietnam. On several occasions, their recon planes were spotted and even pursued by the enemy, but the American fighter jets supporting their mission encouraged them to stay away.
“They tried maybe a half dozen times to come after us, but eventually, they forgot about it because they were at risk of getting shot themselves,” McCall said. “It was dangerous, but we had the advantage because our technology was vastly superior.”
After the war, he returned stateside, where he was assigned to the SR-71, a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3-plus aircraft designed to conduct strategic reconnaissance.
First entering service nearly 60 years ago in 1966, the Blackbird remains a marvel of engineering and aircraft design, still holding the record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft — despite being retired more than two decades ago.
One story McCall likes to tell is how the plane got its name. It was originally designated the RS-71, but it was forever renamed when President Lyndon B. Johnson in July 1964 officially acknowledged the existence of the United States’ new, top-of-the-line reconnaissance aircraft: the “SR-71.”
“No one wants to correct the president,” McCall said with a laugh. Skunk Works, the official pseudonym of Lockhead Martin’s Advance Development Projects division in Palmdale, California, was forced to change an estimated 29,000 blueprints to coincide with the plane’s “new name.”
The plane’s design featured numerous elements intended to enhance, or compensate for, its high speeds and the intense gravitational forces it would place upon the craft and its crew.
Engineers also had to grapple with the unique problem of how to keep their pilots from being cooked alive.
“When it flew, the friction from the air was so bad that it would cause the airplane to get really hot,” McCall explained.
The designers plated the Blackbird’s engines in gold — not because it looked cool (though it probably did) — but rather, to aid in heat disbursement. The Air Force also developed a special fuel, JP-7, which served double duty as a coolant.
“It would circulate and cool the airplane,” McCall said. “It had a very high flash point. You could take a blowtorch to it and it wouldn’t ignite.”
The plane was not equipped with weapons — with a top speed of more than 2,200 miles per hour, it didn’t really need them — but instead, side-looking airborne radar and high-resolution cameras so advanced they could you if your shoe was untied at 80,000 feet.
“The resolution was six inches at 80,000 feet,” McCall said. “In Haiphong Harbor, the side-looking radar made it so they could identify different ships just by the way they set in the water. Back in those days, it was so state-of-the-art. It was amazing. It was so ahead of the time.”
One of his final assignments was serving as a security coordinator for the Department of Defense at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, where he witnessed the United States hockey team’s shocking victory over the heavily favored Soviet Union — later immortalized as the “Miracle on Ice.”
“It was something,” he recalled. “It was incredible, it really was. Then, I saw them win the gold medal by beating Finland.”
McCall retired from the service in 1981 and began a second career in business and as a financial adviser. He and his wife, Betty, moved to the West Coast in 2002 to be closer to family, and settled in Canby in 2005.
“I had a good career,” McCall said. “I can’t really say anything negative about my service. You showed up, you worked hard and when you and did a good job, you got the appreciation of your superior: Mission accomplished.”
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