On July 28, 1976, Al Joersz, a North Dakota native and North Dakota State University graduate, stepped into the cockpit of his SR-71 Blackbird, strapped himself in and started his jet engines. Minutes later, at the Edwards Air Force Base in California, his plane climbed to 80,000 feet and then zoomed southward at a speed of 2,193 miles per hour — establishing a new speed record that still stands more than 40 years later.
After graduating from NDSU in 1966, Joersz became a pilot for the U.S. Air Force and was sent to Southeast Asia, where he flew 158 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos. Following his combat service, he returned stateside and became a jet pilot instructor in Texas.
Joersz later became involved in the top-secret “Skunk Works” Lockheed Martin Air Force projects. The project that he was actively involved in was teaching pilots to fly the SR-71 on reconnaissance and spy missions. It was during this time that officials at Skunk Works made the decision to have Joersz pursue the speed record.
Eldon “Al” Wayne Joersz was born Feb. 5, 1944, to Henry and Kathryn (Weber) Joersz in New Salem, N.D. Henry was a baker who in 1951 purchased his cousin’s bakery in Almont and moved the equipment to Hazen, N.D., where he established the Hazen Bakery.
The Joersz family resided in Hazen, and all of Al’s education there, grades two through 12, took place in one brick building. When Al was old enough, he helped his father in the bakery and, during the summer months, he assisted Vic Kargis, “an area wheat farmer” who had lost an arm in a threshing machine accident.
Al graduated in 1962 and enrolled at NDSU in Fargo with the intention of becoming a math teacher. Because of his deep and abiding faith, Joersz became an active member of the Inter-Religious Council, and served as chaplain of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.
At the time he enrolled at NDSU, all freshman males were required to take ROTC training classes, and Joersz became an exceptional cadet. He received the General Dynamics Award "presented to the Military Science cadet who has demonstrated both outstanding scholastic achievement and superb leadership ability and who shows great potential for a distinguished military career."
After graduating from NDSU in 1966, Joersz was also commissioned as a lieutenant in the Air Force and sent to the Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, for pilot training. He began his 53-week training program in October, operating a Cessna T-41 Mescalero for 30 hours, and then the Cessna T-37 Tweet small twin-engine jet trainer for 90 hours.
After that, Joersz spent 120 hours piloting the Northrop T-38 Talon twinjet supersonic trainer. Joersz was assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron, and in June 1968, he was sent to the Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in central Thailand to participate in the final phases of the “Rolling Thunder” operation to destroy North Vietnam’s logistics.
After flying 158 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos in a F-105 Thunderchief, a supersonic fighter-bomber, Joersz returned stateside in 1969 to become a T-38 pilot instructor and flight examiner at the Laredo Air Force Base in Texas.
In September 1972, Joersz was transferred to the 7th Reconnaissance Wing at the Beale Air Force Base in north-central California to instruct pilots on the SR-71 Blackbird. The SR-71 was a long-range reconnaissance aircraft that was designed and developed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division, and it could fly over three times the speed of sound. The aircraft’s shape made it difficult to be picked up by radar, but if it was picked up, its high speed allowed it to outrun oncoming missiles.
In 1976, Joersz’s squadron and wing commanders suggested that he try to break the existing world speed record. He appreciated the challenge, and on July 28, Joersz and Roger Morgan, his systems officer, flew the SR-71 at a speed faster than a fired bullet, breaking the speed record. When Joersz was reminded of the significance of that flight, four decades later, his reply was simply, “It was just a fun thing to do.”
In August 1977, Joersz was able to get transferred to the Air Command and Staff College at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. Maxwell is “the postgraduate academic center of the U.S. Air Force,” and it hosts a branch of Auburn University on its grounds, which is where Joersz received his master's degree in business administration in 1978.
Joersz spent three years with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., and two years as commander of the Beale Air Force Base. In 1983-84, he attended the National War College and, for the next five years, served as a bombardment wing officer at three different air force bases (AFB): assistant deputy commander at the Fairchild AFB in Washington from August 1984 to May 1986; vice commander at the Minot (N.D.) AFB from May 1986 to May 1987; and commander at the Sawyer AFB in Michigan from May 1987 to May 1989.
In 1989, Joersz returned to the Pentagon, working for three years on Air Force planning, space studies and MIA-POW affairs, and then spent a year as a wing commander at the Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.
When a war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO became involved, and Joersz was named chief of staff of the Allied Air Force of Southern Europe in July 1993. After peace was established, Joersz returned to the U.S. in September 1995 to serve in the Department of Energy, where his duty was “to maintain and sustain the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, manufacturing capacity, and national laboratory system.”
In April 1997, Joersz became the director of business and strategy development at the Skunk Works division of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, and he retired in January 2011 to spend time working for charitable organizations. Joersz retired from the Air Force in September 1997.
During his 30 years of service, he rose to the rank of major general and earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and 13 Air Medals.
On July 6, 2013, Joersz was recognized by his hometown of Hazen when the name of the Mercer County Regional Airport was changed to Al Joersz Field.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.