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SR-71 Blackbird: A History of the Fastest Plane Ever

SR-71 and F-16
SR-71 and F-16. Image: Creative Commons.

The Lockheed SR-71 spy plane was – and still is – the fastest plane on the planet.

The Goal

Known unofficially as the “Blackbird” for its black paint job, which was developed to dissipate heat, the jet featured sleek lines that certainly were “futuristic” when it was flying top secret missions years before American astronauts headed to the moon.

It was developed in secret in the late 1950s to cruise to 80,000 feet above the earth, near the edge of space, and out fly any missile that was launched at it.

The Blackbird, which first took flight in 1964, could enter hostile airspace, take photographs from those extreme heights like a tourist on vacation and still be on its way before an enemy had a chance to even take a shot at it. While it could cross continents in just a few hours, the aircraft also flew so high that pilots navigating by sight couldn’t rely on ground features such as roads and instead needed to look at the mountains, rivers, and major coastlines to get their bearings.

The History

The aircraft was born out of the Lockheed “Skunk Works,” which had a proven track record to deliver “impossible” technologies on an incredibly short, but strategically critical deadline. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and United States Air Force called for a new plane that could operate at extreme altitudes, speeds, and temperatures. However, that meant that everything from the tires, oil, fuel, and even paint had to be created from the ground up.

The SR-71 project was headed up by Kelly Johnson, one of the preeminent aircraft designers of the twentieth century, who suggested, “Everything had to be invented. Everything.”

While other aircraft of the era could in theory reach speeds of 2,000 mph only in short, after-burner-driven bursts, the SR-71 needed to maintain the record-setting speed for hours at a time. The designers knew that at such velocity and friction with the atmosphere would generate temperatures that could melt a conventional airframe. As a result, the aircraft received that iconic black paint. The paint could absorb the heat and in the process gave the plane that unofficial nickname, “Blackbird.”

SR-71 Engine from Pratt & Whitney J58

SR-71 Engine from Pratt & Whitney J58

Additionally, titanium alloy – which provided the strength of steel but at a relatively lightweight – was utilized for the airframe. Along with its low weight, titanium was the only material that could provide durability at excessive temperatures. One issue was that the metal could be brittle if mishandled, which meant that even new tools had to be designed and fabricated. And those too were made from titanium.

During its twenty-four-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft in the world. At 80,000 feet, the Blackbird could survey 100,000 square miles of the ground below per hour. In July 1976, an SR-71 even set two world records – one was an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph while the other was an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet.

As the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum noted, no other reconnaissance aircraft in the world operated globally in more hostile airspace or with such impunity as the SR-71. The world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft’s performance and operational achievements also placed it at the very pinnacle of aviation technology.

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

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.



  1. Dylan

    March 27, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    The title is not right. The Blackbird is not the fastest (manned) plane there is.

    It isn’t confirmed, but there is substantial evidence that the A-12 Oxcart is faster than the SR-71. Sadly, the aircraft is a top-secret CIA aircraft.

    The absolutely fastest manned plane is the North American X-15. It is claimed to be a rocket, but in fact, it IS a plane. The X-15 set an airspeed record of 7,274 km/h. That is twice the speed of the SR-71 Blackbird.

    Yes, the Blackbird is the fastest jet aircraft. But not the fastest of all planes (so the title should be A History Of The Fastest Jet Plane Ever).

    I don’t want to make you upset or something, but as an aviation enthusiast, saying the Blackbird is the fastest manned plane in the world is an insult to me.

  2. Jim

    January 27, 2022 at 11:53 pm

    Technically what you say is correct. The X-15 was a plane powered by a rocket motor, a ‘rocket plane’ and the fastest manned aircraft that ever ‘flew’ in the atmosphere. The author is obviously not an aviation enthusiast, this was just a story to him.
    The SR-71 was developed from the A-12. The A-12 first flew on April 26 1962. The SR-71 first flew on December 22 1964. All the teething problems, of which there were many (mostly with getting the engine inlets to work correctly and which are what propelled the Blackbirds to 3+ Mach – RAM air pressure recovery in the inlets – not the thrust of the J58 jet engines) were discovered and corrected on the A-12.
    Like you I once believed that the A-12 was the fastest of the two, but the fastest claimed speed I have ever seen for an A-12 is 2207 mph by CIA pilot Dennis Sullivan while outrunning six SAMs over North Vietnam on I believe October 30 1967. This is of necessity unofficial because since the A-12’s were top secret and the CIA never officially timed them.
    The fastest ‘official’ speed I have ever seen attributed to an SR-71 is 2242 mph by the SR-71 that now resides in the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian in Washington DC. It was ‘allowed’ to attain this speed for only a brief eight minutes on the flight from Edwards AFB to Washington DC when it was retired. One account I read said that it likely exceeded the maximum allowed CIT (Compressor Inlet Temperature) of 427 degrees C in doing this but since it would never fly again this speed was okayed, but for only eight minutes.
    The absolute fastest speed I have ever seen claimed for an SR-71 is 3.5 plus Mach by Air Force pilot Brian Shul evading a SAM on a recon mission over Libya in 1986 (he did not give the TAS in knots which could have been converted to its equivalent in mph). This is only Shul’s claim with no supporting documentation. I also read some remarks by a mechanic at Shul’s home base Beale AFB who said that if Shul did hit 3.5 Mach he likely exceeded the limit CIT of 427 C also.
    I think the A-12 likely had the potential to fly faster but I don’t think CIA pilots ever pushed it to the speeds reported for SR-71’s. Depending on outside temperature, the 2207 mph in his A-12 for Dennis Sullivan would correspond to 3.35 Mach (the speed of sound in air is a function of air temperature), which is the fastest speed allowed in both the A-12 and SR-71 Flight Manuals.
    In any event, no SR-71 ever flew as high as an A-12, and that is because the A-12’s weighed so much less. Both aircraft shared the same wing and hence generated the same amount of lift force for a given airspeed, so since the A-12 weighed thousands of pounds less than the SR-71 it would fly higher, for the same airspeed. I have seen 94,000 plus feet claimed for an A-12.

  3. Cornelius Polite

    March 26, 2022 at 9:36 am

    The SR-71 was designed and budgeted by a Tuskegee Airman, who was the number one genius, electronis engineer forthe DOD.
    He saved over two billion lives during the cold war with ove 200 inventions
    Lockheed was the manufacturer not the designer. He also designed the greatest machine of all mankind, the space shuttle and his HDD computer put man on the moon and the microprocessor. Those manufacturers that say they designed the computer, only tweeked it and took all the credit.
    Misinformation will never die, including incredulism.

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