It was over twenty years ago the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” was retired by the United States Air Force, and while surveillance satellites can provide that eye in the sky for intelligence gathering there is still a need for such high flying, ultra-fast aircraft.
Such a platform would complement other manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), providing flexibility in how intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) is gathered.
Back in 2013, Lockheed Martin proposed a follow-up to the SR-71. Fittingly, it was the SR-72, which has also become known as the “Son of the Blackbird,” and it was suggested that the vehicle could fly by 2023 – that is unless it has already taken flight.
According to a report from The EurAsian Times, Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise may have become the first person to fly the next-generation hypersonic SR-72 “Darkstar” – even if it was only in the upcoming film Top Gun: Maverick. In the trailer for the film, the sequel to the original 1986 Top Gun, Cruise’s character Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell can be seen in a mystery aircraft that eagle-eyed viewers believe could be the SR-72 (you can see what could be the new plane at 2:11 below).
With the movie delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is still not clear if it was the advanced aircraft in the film or a fictionalized variant.
Yet, a very real version of the Darkstar has been designed and developed at Lockheed Martin’s not-so-secret Advanced Development Programs office or “Skunk Works,” the same one that was responsible for the development of the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s. That original aircraft was noted for flying faster and higher than any other plane in the world – and it set numerous records during its twenty-four years in service.
However, the Son of the Blackbird could leave its predecessor in the dust.
What We Might Know, Maybe
The SR-72 reportedly features a propulsion system that is centered on a turbine-based combined cycle, which merges a modified production fighter turbine engine with a dual-mode ramjet – also called a scramjet. This enables the aircraft to accelerate from a standing start to Mach 6. That could allow the SR-72 Darkstar to reach any destination in an incredibly short amount of time. Moreover, the platform would be capable of carrying weapons that could target remote parts of the world from the very edge of space.
What else is known to date about the SR-72 is that it is a hypersonic aircraft demonstrator – which may or may not lead to a full production vehicle. It was also developed as an optionally piloted flight research vehicle (FRV), and would have the capability to conduct ISR as well as strike operations.
The first flight of the demonstrator isn’t expected until 2023, while a production version won’t likely enter service until at least the 2030s according to Air Force Technology. However, developing a super-fast aircraft could be something that could take a bit of time to perfect.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Editor’s Note: We have updated this piece for greater clarity since publication.