On what was to be its last ever flight at the time, the United States Air Force’s mysterious SR-71 Blackbird spy plane demonstrated its impressive technical capabilities in a truly glorious fashion.
The Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird came into being in the 1960s, with the United States government looking to find a stealthy alternative to the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which had shown itself to be vulnerable to Soviet countermeasures. The Blackbird proved to be up to the task, with the legendary spy plane going its entire operational lifespan without being shot down – or even hit – by enemy fire, avoiding an impressive number of enemy missiles that were fired at it while flying reconnaissance missions.
The Blackbird was eventually retired by the Air Force in 1990 (although the place would be unretired and then NASA would continue to operate the aircraft for a few more years) following debates about the cost of operating the spy plane as well as about its continued usefulness in light of other available reconnaissance platforms such as drones and satellites.
The SR-71 Blackbird would, however, go out with a bang.
With the end of its operational career, the Blackbird was scheduled to make one last flight, moving from its base in Palmdale, California to its permanent resting home Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. On this flight, the Blackbird and its two pilots, Lt. Col. Raymond E. Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph T. Vida, would set four new flight speed records.
The Blackbird set the new record for a flight from the West Coast to the East Coast, making the trip in just 68 minutes and 17 seconds; the old record, by comparison, was 3 hours and 38 minutes. In addition, the Blackbird set new records for three other flights, traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 64 minutes and 20 seconds; from Kansas City, Missouri to D.C. in just under 26 minutes; and reaching Cincinnati, Ohio from St. Louis, Missouri in only 8 minutes and 32 seconds.
The Blackbird reached some very impressive speeds on these flights, flying at 2,153.24 mph, 2,242.48 mph, and 2,200.94 mph, respectively.
The Blackbird was well known for its speed, designed to fly at Mach 3+, or more than three times the speed of sound, with the fastest recorded Blackbird flight clocking in at Mach 3.43. During a 1986 air show, a Blackbird flying at high speed pulled off a maneuver that caused the aircraft’s unique fuel to ignite, producing an iconic image of the Blackbird flying through the sky while trailed by several large fireballs.
No wonder this plane was so hard to retire.