Top secret project inspiration for book  

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PROSPECT — For John Altson, the path to working on a secret government project started in 1965 when he answered a newspaper ad looking for software developers at the New London-based Airborne Instruments Laboratory.

“I applied and they hired me on the spot, but they could not tell me what I was going to do,” said Altson, a 78-year-old Prospect resident.

It wasn’t until he received security clearance that Alston learned he would be working on writing software for the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a reconnaissance aircraft that was used by the U.S. Air Force from 1966 until 1988 and was officially retired in 1999. At the time, the Blackbird was a highly classified project.

Altson joined the project as the group leader in charge of the software engineers. During his first year, he worked on bringing the Blackbird from an idea to a reality at the Edwards Air Force Base in California.

“It was wild,” Altson said. “Here we are in the middle of the desert in an air-con room working on the code for the plane.”

At the time, when the code was written, directions for the plane would be printed out onto a navigation tape, Altson recalled. That tape would be fed into the plane’s computer, he said.

“We generated the code that flew the plane,” Altson said. “They were using that tape to do the test flights.”

Altson said he never saw the plane on any of its test runs, but would often walk by it in the hangar on his way to his office and “pat it on the nose.”

Once the initial phase of tests were wrapped up at Edwards Air Force Base, Altson said he was moved to Beale Air Force Base in Maryland to begin the second phase. The second phased involved working to implement the best possible flight courses for the Blackbird.

Altson said the work was similar to the theoretical computer science problem known as the “traveling salesman problem.” The problem states that a traveling salesman is going from one side of the country to the other and needs to make a certain number of stops along the way, Altson explained. The key is to find the shortest possible route for the salesman to take.

With the Blackbird, the programmers needed to find the shortest route while also dealing with the fact that there were often missile sites along the way that would shoot the plane down, Altson said.

“Yes, you had to optimize the path to hit as many targets as possible, but you had to avoid any missile sites as well. That level of sophistication was difficult,” Altson said.
Altson said he was at Beale Air Force Base until 1967, when the Air Force took over the software program and he moved on to other jobs.

According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Blackbird broke the world record for sustained altitude in horizontal flight at 85,069 feet and set an absolute speed record of 2,193.2 miles per hour, approximately Mach 3.3, on the same day in 1976.

Even though he worked on the initial phases of the Blackbird, Altson never thought the plane would go on to be a record-breaking project that was used by the Air Force for over 20 years.

“I had no idea that this was going to be as big a project as it was,” Altson said.

In his later years, Altson became an author and his experiences working on the Blackbird are the basis for his latest book, “The Black Line – Developing the Mission-Planning Software for the SR-71.”

“Those were exciting times,” Altson said. “It is something, even now, 50 years later, is exciting to think about.”

While other books have been written about the Blackbird, Altson said he took a different approach by focusing on the team that developed the software, which was used for 22 years.

“Our software was basically unchanged in 22 years,” Altson said. “They did update the programming language and added new sensors, but the basic logic to optimize flight path was there for 22 years.”

Altson said he only has one regret from his time working on the Blackbird — that he never got a chance to ride in the plane he helped program.

“I wish I had,” said Altson, adding with a laugh, “I do sometimes in my dreams.”