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Former Blackbird pilot to speak at FUMC

When the finance committee of First United Methodist Church Russellville was trying to come up with an idea to raise money for its annex, one person seemed just the right guest speaker for the job: retired Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding.

“His name came up because it’s a very interesting story,” explained finance committee member Watts Cole. “We wanted the people of Russellville and First Methodist Church to hear a person who is very religious and is a member of the Methodist church over in Florence and cares about America – deeply cares about America.”

Yeilding’s story is one few can rival. During his 23 years of service in the Air Force, Yeilding flew the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft during the Cold War. He is perhaps most famous, however, for a flight he made several years later: March 6, 1990, Yeilding and J.T. Vida broke the speed record for a transcontinental, coast-to-coast flight across the United States as they flew the Blackbird to its final home at the Smithsonian – making the trip in a mere 67 minutes and 54 seconds.

Yeilding will speak about the speed record, the Blackbird and his military career as part of the benefit dinner at FUMC Aug. 4, with dinner at 6 p.m. and Yeilding’s presentation following.

“A lot of people are interested in the Blackbird. Civic groups often will ask me to share my story with them, and other groups – school groups, engineers, other pilots,” Yeilding said. “I’ve given the program quite a number of times now, so I’m pretty comfortable with it.”

Yeilding said he feels he “was really fortunate to fly the airplane for six years,” and particularly to break the speed record – “I was just in the right place at the right time to be asked to be the pilot of that coast-to-cost flight.”

Yeilding was born in the infirmary at Auburn University, where his mother was a nurse, and was raised in Florence. He later graduated from Auburn University with his electrical engineering degree and, having joined the ROTC and having the legacy of a father who served in the military, Yeilding enlisted in the Air Force in January 1973.

“The commitment was six years, and I thought that sounded like forever, but it passed by pretty quickly,” he said. Thus he decided to continue his Air Force career. “I really treasure those 23 years serving with the Air Force. I feel like we’re doing something important for our country.”

Yeilding was 15 years old when he first heard of the Blackbird. “I thought, ‘Man, I’d like to fly that airplane someday,” he said. “Even before that, I always wanted to fly … I thought the best way to be a pilot was through the military.”

Yeilding and Cole said they hope for a large turnout for the fundraiser dinner, which will be catered by Sarah and Howard Beal at Twin Pines. Cole said the meal will include choice of meats and vegetables plus salad, dessert and drink. Money raised will assist the church in “taking care of the payments on the annex that we have a very large commitment on,” Cole said. “It’s a very integral part of the First Methodist church.” The annex is often opened for use by community groups, in addition to serving myriad purposes for the church membership.

Tickets for the event are $25. Cole encouraged people to purchase their tickets as earlier as possible to enable the church to plan appropriately. To purchase tickets, call the church office at 256-332-2955. Tickets are also available at Wells Fargo, 201 N. Court St., in Florence.