“Many people believe we refueled after takeoff because the aircraft leaked fuel so profusely that we needed to fuel up quickly,” says Col. Richard H. Graham. “We had to refuel right after takeoff for only one reason, and it wasn’t because we leaked JP-7 fuel on the ground. Yes, the plane does leak fuel, but not enough to require refueling after takeoff.
“The JP-7 fuel reaches temperatures well over 300 degrees F. during Mach 3 cruise. , making the fumes in each of the six fuel tanks very volatile and potentially explosive. The metal skin of the aircraft approaches 400 degrees F., adding to the volatility of the fuel inside the tanks. One of our aircraft limitations was a maximum speed of Mach 2.6 without an inert atmosphere inside the fuel tanks.
“The aircraft had three liquid nitrogen Dewar flasks containing 260 liters of liquid nitrogen, located in the nose wheel well. The only way to ensure 100 percent inert atmosphere in each fuel tank was to refuel the plane inflight completely full of JP-7, allowing ambient air in each fuel tank to vent overboard. Once full of fuel, gaseous nitrogen would now dominate each fuel tank’s empty space above as it burned off JP-7. The nitrogen gas pressurized each fuel tank to 1.5 psi above ambient pressure and inerts the space above the heated fuel to prevent autogenous ignition. This is why we refueled after takeoff."
"Then we could safely accelerate beyond Mach 2.6.” “There was one other way of achieving tank inerting, called a Yo-Yo. but this was a maintenance nightmare. A few of our missions required the SR-71 to accelerate to Mach 3+ right after takeoff with a 65,000-pound fuel load. The Yo-Yo procedure had the crew chief completely refuel the plane to full tanks of 80,000 pounds of fuel. Then, with the nitrogen pressurization system working, they de-fueled 15,000 pounds of JP-7, ending up with a 65,000 pound fuel load and a plane that was capable of going immediately to Mach 3+.”