Ursini, who has logged over 4,500 hours of flight time in more than 20 different aircraft types, was honored at a gala at the Air Zoo in Portage, Michigan on April 21.
One of the proudest accomplishments of Ursini’s aviation career was being involved in the testing of YF-12, the prototype for the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance vehicle—the aircraft is still the world’s fastest airplane, flying 500 miles per hour faster than anything else. The YF-12 set a speed record of more than 2,070 miles per hour and sustained an altitude record of nearly 80,258 feet, later surpassed by the SR-71.
“No one had ever flown at those speeds and those altitudes,” said Ursini, 84, who traveled back to Michigan for the gala and awards ceremony at the Air Zoo, where there is a Blackbird on display.
He said he was “stunned” and humbled by the Hall of Fame honor, nominated by one of his college friends.
Ursini’s first forays into flight began as a child, flying model airplanes in his dad’s grocery store in his native Detroit.
After high school he attended the University of Detroit where he graduated in 1955 as a ROTC Air Force second lieutenant. He was drawn to the sky for the excitement and the “glamour” of aviation.
Ursini was awarded Air Force navigator wings in 1956 at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas and assigned as a radar intercept officer to the 84th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Hamilton Air Force Base in California. He graduated from Ground Weapons Controller training in 1961 and served as Weapons Director for the San Francisco Air Defense Sector at Beale Air Force Base.
In 1963, he was selected for top-secret experimental flight testing of the YF-12, a fighter-inceptor and prototype of the SR-71 Blackbird. The testing was conducted at Area 51, the highly classified military base in Nevada.
Ursini traces the origins of the experimental aircraft back to the 1960s when the U.S. was flying U-2 reconnaissance aircrafts over the Soviet Union.
“The U-2 flew at a very high altitude of 75,000 feet but it was very slow, like an airliner,” Ursini said. “We knew back then that it was vulnerable to Russian missiles…we needed something better.”
The CIA was tasked to develop an airplane that would fly very fast and very high, leading to the development of the YF-12. Ursini and his fellow aviators at Area 51 participated in initial tests of the vehicles, flying at speeds that had never been done before. They flew faster than the speed of sound, more than 761 miles per hour, also known as Mach 1. Sometimes they flew more than three times that, or Mach 3 plus.
“You could fly from California to Florida in an hour,” Ursini marveled.
As flight control officer with pilot Jim Eastham, he was aboard the first flight that hit Mach 3.2 in a YF-12. He was the third aviator in the Air Force to exceed Mach 3.
“The unique part about flying so high is it is very hot up there,” Ursini said. He wore an astronaut suit while flying to protect him because the cockpit could reach over 500 degrees at those 75,000- to-80,000-foot altitudes.
He and pilot Vern Henderson were the first to launch an AIM-47 missile from the YF-12, scoring a direct hit on a target drone 60,000 feet below. Ursini was also the first to test the YF-12 pulse Doppler radar system against an SR-71 flying at Mach 3.5 at 80,000 square feet.
“It was a phenomenal experience to be involved with such a unique design,” Ursini said.
In 1964, President Lyndon
“We weren’t there,” Ursini said of the surprise timing of the President’s announcement. “Because of his announcement, we rushed to get the airplane there.”
The operation was so rushed that when they got the aircraft into the hangar, the plane was so hot that it set off the overhead sprinklers, Ursini recalled with a laugh.
The Y-12 test project provided a lot of valuable information that led to the development of the SR-71 Blackbird in 1964.
In 1970, Ursini was transferred to Vietnam as an intelligence officer. He flew 190 combat missions in the F-4E Phantom, many of them at night. “It was exciting and dangerous,” Urisini said of that time.
From 1972-74 he was stationed at Air Defense Headquarters in Colorado Springs and did his last tour in Ankara, Turkey. During his time in the Air Force he was promoted to Colonel and awarded Master Navigator Wings, the Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 12 Air Medals.
Ursini retired from the Air Force in 1976 and joined Grumman Aerospace in Long Island, New York. In 1980, he joined Fairchild Republic Corporation and then formed a new company, Global Analytics in San Diego, developing stealth technologies. He sold the company to Lockheed and retired in 1986.
Ursini moved to Rancho Santa Fe after he retired, building his home overlooking the reservoir with his wife Joanne. One of his three children, his son John, became a pilot.
Only one YF-12 remains in existence—displayed at the US Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Ursini has a model that he keeps on his desk, alongside a model of a SR-71. He looks back fondly on his role in such a unique piece of aviation history.
“It was an absolutely extraordinary vehicle and it allowed ordinary guys like me to fly in it and do fabulous things,” Ursini said.