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SR-71 Blackbird Spy Plane: The Fastest Plane On Earth (But How Fast Is That?)

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

The SR-71 Blackbird, created by Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” experimental division, represented the pinnacle of Cold War aircraft design. Springing from the earlier Lockheed A-12 designed in “Project Oxcart,” the SR-71 was sleek, aerodynamic, and, consequently, fast. The aircraft was designed to cruise at speeds exceeding Mach 3.0, and could go even faster when needed. For instance, it could pick up speed when it was trying to outrun missiles, which it could do with minimal difficulty.

The Soviet Union never developed anything remotely analogous to the SR-71, and no other nation has come close. Nor is it likely that they ever will. With the development of satellite photography, the need that the SR-71 filled no longer exists as it did during the 1970s and 1980s, and the immense resources poured into the development and maintenance of the Blackbird are now better used elsewhere. For this reason, the Blackbird was retired from the Air Force in 1988. During the turmoil of the 1990s, the plane was briefly brought out of retirement, but it was shelved for good in 1998.

How fast could the Blackbird actually go, though? The official airspeed record shows that it took place at Beale Air Force Base on July 28, 1976, by pilot Capt. Eldon Joersz and Maj. George Morgan, Jr. The two men clocked an impressive speed of 2193 miles per hour, a speed that has yet to be matched by any other manned aircraft.

However, this is certainly not the fastest that the SR-71 has ever gone. Numerous SR-71 pilots have anecdotally reported higher speeds during missions and other unrecorded flights, and there is no way to be certain who was truly the fastest of all time. If anyone has a good claim to the record, though, it is Jim Eastman, a former Air Force test pilot, who claimed to have clocked in at Mach 3.56, or just under twenty-four hundred miles per hour.

Eastman’s record is described in Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Goodall’s 2018 book, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated History of America’s Legendary Mach 3 Spy Plane. It reads as follows: 

“All manned Blackbirds from the A-12 through to the last SR-71 built were and designed to all fly at the same top speed… but during early flight testing at Area 51 with the A-12s, Jim Eastham told me that A-12 #128 flew as fast as any A-12 during testing. On the particular day that the A-12 red lined everything.”

“Jim said he dropped the nose down a bit to see if he could at least reach Mach 3.0. Out of nowhere, Jim hit good air and in the dive with good air he red lined everything. He went into his descent profile and headed back to the test site.”

This speed was only maintained for around fifteen seconds but it was long enough for Eastman to make history.

Written By

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest. 

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