During the Cold War, this aircraft was able to fly taller and faster than any other – and 55 years after the first flight, it is still operating.
The Lockheed SR-71, designed in secret in the late 1950s, could cruise near the edge of space and outsmart the rocket. To date, it holds records for the highest altitude in horizontal flight and the highest speed for aircraft without missiles.
He was part of a family of spy planes built to enter enemy territory without being shot or even discovered, in the days before satellites and drones.
The black job, designed to dissipate heat, was nicknamed the Blackbird, and paired with the sleek lines of the long fuselage, made the plane look like nothing before – a design that has lost nothing of its luster,
SR-71 “Blackbird” during the 1997 training mission. Credit: NASA / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
“Because of the way the fuselage bends and the wings and wing curves look more organic than mechanical. Most conventional planes look like they were built by someone – this one almost looks like it was bred.”
In May 1960, an American spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace while taking aerial photographs. Initially, the U.S. government said it was a stray time-exploring plane, but the story fell apart after the Soviet government released photos of the captured pilot and aircraft surveillance equipment.
The incident had immediate diplomatic consequences during the Cold War and heightened the need for a new type of reconnaissance aircraft that could fly faster and higher, safe from anti-aircraft fire. “The CIA wanted an aircraft that could fly above 90,000 feet or beyond, at high speed and invisible to radar as far as feasible,” Merlin said.
The original aircraft in the Blackbird family was called the A-12, and the virgin flight was performed on April 30, 1962. A total of 13 A-12s were produced, and the aircraft was a secret, special access program operated by the CIA.
Blackbird still holds many aviation records. In 1990, he flew from coast to coastal flight, from Los Angeles to Washington, in 67 minutes. Credit: OUR
Because the spacecraft was designed to fly faster than 2,000 mph, friction around the surrounding atmosphere would heat the fuselage to a point that would melt the normal air frame. The aircraft was, therefore, made of titanium, a metal that could withstand high temperatures, and at the same time was lighter than steel.
The use of titanium posed other problems as well. First, a whole new set of tools had to be made – which is also made of titanium because the regular steel parts shattered the brittle titanium when touched. Second, the metal source itself proved to be ticklish. “The USSR was the largest supplier of titanium in the world at the time. The US government had to buy a lot, probably using fake companies,” Merlin said.
The initial planes flew completely unpainted, showing silver titanium skin. They were first painted black in 1964, after realizing that black – which effectively absorbs and emits heat – will help lower the temperature of the entire air frame. The “Black Bird” was born.
Same plane, different names
The A-12 soon grew into a variant conceived as an interceptor – a type of fighter aircraft – rather than as a surveillance aircraft. This actually meant adding an air-to-air missile and a second cockpit, so that the crew member could operate the necessary radar equipment. This new spacecraft, which looked identical to the A-12 except for the nose, was called the YF-12.
Although the A-12 remained a secret, the existence of the YF-12 was discovered by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and three were built and operated by the U.S. Air Force. Around that time, a third variant, called the M-21, was produced, which had a pole on its back to set up and launch one of the first unmanned aerial vehicles. Two were built, but the program was halted in 1966, after a drone collided with the mothership, killing one of the pilots.
The final derivative of the A-12, with a double cockpit and higher fuel capacity, was named SR-71 – for “Strategic Reconstruction” – and the first flew on December 22, 1964. This is the version that should go on conducting US Air Force intelligence missions more of 30 years, and a total of 32 were built, bringing the final number for the Blackbird family to 50.
Double cockpit Lockheed SR-71. Credit: Space Borders / Photo Archive / Getty Images
Stealth before stealth
The SR-71 fuselage included some of the first composite materials ever used in the aircraft, making the aircraft harder to spot by enemy radar. “It was essentially inappropriate before the word stealth was used at all,” Merlin said.
Flying at higher altitudes than anti-aircraft fire, faster than a rocket and barely visible to radar, Blackbird was able to enter enemy airspace virtually undisturbed. “The idea was that when the enemy discovered him and fired their rocket, he was already leaving,” Merlin explained. “But that was before we made real-time connections, so they made movies and put the movie back in the base for processing and study.”
As a result, no Blackbird was ever shot down by enemy fire. However, its reliability was important and 12 out of 32 lost accidents. It was also a complicated aircraft to steer and fly. “It took an army of people to prepare the plane. Blackbird’s operational mission basically had a countdown, like a space mission, because there was so much preparation for both the crew and the vehicle, an incredible amount of effort and manpower,” he said. merlin.
Pilots also had to dress in a special way, due to the extreme conditions found at high altitude. “They basically wore a space suit, the same kind of things as if you would see the crews of a space shuttle later,” Merlin said. “The cockpit also warmed up when it flew at high speed, so much so that the pilots warmed up their meal on long missions by pressing it against the glass.”
Black birds never flew over Soviet airspace – something the US government completely stopped doing after the 1960 incident – but they continued to play an important role in the Cold War and carry out missions in other critical theaters such as the Middle East, Vietnam and the North. Korea.
SR-71 during a test flight operated by NASA. Credit: OUR
The SR-71 was last flown by NASA in 1999, which used two aircraft for high-altitude and high-altitude aviation research. Since then, the surviving Black Pigeons have found themselves in museums.