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The SR-71 Spy Plane Was the Jet Russia Never Could Copy

SR-71 Blackbird aircraft
A direct front view of an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft after landing from its 1,000th sortie.

During the Cold War, the United States Air Force had the Lockheed SR-71 spy plane. Unofficially known as the “Blackbird” for its black paint job, which was developed to dissipate heat, it was the fastest plane in the air and even today it remains the fastest production aircraft ever to take to the skies.

Developed in secret by Lockheed “Skunk Works” in the 1950s, the SR-71 could cruise to 80,000 feet above the earth, near the edge of space, and out fly any missile that was launched at it. With no armament, speed was its only defense, but the Blackbird, which first took flight in 1964, was so fast that it could enter hostile airspace, take a series of reconnaissance photos and be well on its way before an adversary could react.

The Soviets countered with the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25, which became one of the fastest military combat aircraft ever produced. Unlike the SR-71 Blackbird, which relied on speed alone, the MiG-25 Foxbat could reach speeds of Mach 3.2 – albeit with the potential risk to the aircraft and its engine – and still carried four R-40 air-to-air missiles equipped with infrared and radar homing heads to shoot down the Blackbird if necessary.

Where the Soviets succeeded with the MiG-25, they actually failed when it came to developing any reconnaissance aircraft nearly as fast as the Blackbird.

This was the Tsybin RSR – “Reactivnyi Strategicheskii Razvedchik” or Russian for “jet strategic reconnaissance” – a Soviet design for an advanced, long-range Mach 3 strategic reconnaissance aircraft. While it is easy to see that it had similarities with the SR-71, it is actually worth noting that that the RSR was developed before Lockheed undertook its efforts to develop the Blackbird.

In fact, the Soviet design bureau took up its task – under the leadership of aviation designer Pavel Tysbin – to develop a ramjet aircraft in 1954 the concept was for a supersonic strategic bomber that could travel at three times the speed of sound. The aircraft as planned would have a maximum range of 10,000 miles and a service ceiling of 98,000 feet. It could have carried intercontinental nuclear strikes at speeds and altitudes nearly impossible to stop.

However, what looks good on the drawing board isn’t always as easy to transform into a functional aircraft. It should be noted that this was just barely a decade after the first jet combat fighters in the RAF’s Gloster Meteor and German Me262 became the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. Moreover, it was just barely over fifty years since the Wright Brothers’ first flight!

As the design matured it was determined that the aircraft wouldn’t have quite the range Tysbin envisioned, and couldn’t return to base if used in an intercontinental mission. The design was revised into a reconnaissance aircraft where turbofans could be used for take-off, while the ramjets would be employed once in the air. The RSR would then have a cruising speed above Mach 2 and a service ceiling of 73,800 feet but a range of just 2,500 miles.

The RSR underwent a series of redesigns. But the aircraft barely progressed beyond the prototype stage. In April 1961 Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was more focused on missiles and the Soviet space efforts, canceled the program. Soon after the SR-71 would achieve everything that the RSR failed to do

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.

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Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

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