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‘I Get Goosebumps’: SR-71 Blackbird Was A Mach 3 Monster

SR-71 Blackbird
Image: Creative Commons.

The SR-71 Blackbird, a Cold War workhorse that flew at record speeds, was the top dog in reconnaissance airplanes from its inception in the 1960s until its retirement in 1999. Engineers can still learn a lot from the SR-71, which was supreme in the skies during its reign. The bird was maintenance-heavy and expensive to fly leading to its eventual mothballing, but it was still an engineering marvel and ahead of its time.

Russian air defenses got better and that hastened the SR-71’s decline. Also, the growth of strategic drones, such as the U.S. Global Hawk, new enemy surface to air missiles, spy satellites, and advanced Russian fighters made the Blackbird expendable.

But what an airplane.

Able to reach speeds of MACH 3.2 for 90 minutes, it is still considered the fastest aircraft in U.S. history and has the record for the highest altitude at 85,000 feet.

What Made the SR-71 Unique?

The product of a super-secret project from Lockheed’s uber-successful Skunk Works in the Nevada desert, it could outfly the old Soviet SAMs and travel at the edge of space. The design was extremely innovative. The black paint dispersed heat and lowered the temperature. The fuselage and windshield heated up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, the long fuselage could bend while the wings curved and twisted in flight to improve the aerodynamics. The SR-71 increased its size to four-inches during flight. The airplane was made of titanium, then considered a whiz-bang material.

But it cost an estimated $200,000 an hour to fly. The fuel was difficult to ignite and so the SR-71 had to invent a new chemical ignition system for the engines. Advanced side-looking radar and two cameras did the spying. The SR-71 could also snoop for electronic signals from the Soviets. It had a smaller radar cross-section that made observability lower and the iron ferrite paint absorbed radar signals. Moreover, it had excellent electronic countermeasures.

What Modern Engineers Can Learn from the SR-71

Looking back to the early development of the airplane, history can provide many lessons learned. It is possible to create something that required numerous new inventions. Thinking outside the box is a cliché nowadays, but the Skunk Works designers were fearless when it came to pushing out innovative solutions to flight problems. The engineers originally had only 20 months to develop the first A-12 prototype – the precursor to the SR-71.

Manufacturers had to learn about titanium on the fly. The metal was brittle and could shatter on the assembly line. So, they had to invent new tools – also out of titanium. Piloting the plane was an art. According to an SR-71 history from Lockheed Martin, one pilot was astounded during flights. “At 85,000 feet and Mach 3, it was almost a religious experience,” said Air Force Colonel Jim Wadkins. “Nothing had prepared me to fly that fast… My God, even now, I get goosebumps remembering.”

SR-71

SR-71. Image: Creative Commons.

A-12

SR-71 and A-12 side by side for comparison.

1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Mark Lowe

    September 30, 2021 at 8:46 am

    One of my favorite planes. I spent time at my grandparents house during the summer in Quartz Hill, CA, near Palmdale and Lancaster in the late ’70’s. Every Tuesday morning around 9 AM, a SR-71 with two F-5 chase planes would take off from Lockheed’s site in Palmdale. The flight path brought the planes directly over my grandparents house. It was almost as if their house was the starting line for the planes to accelerate. Those F-5’s tried to keep up, but the SR-71 would be gone in a flash. Within seconds the sonic booms could be heard and felt. Great memory of the plane.

  2. Jim Bard

    September 30, 2021 at 10:00 am

    I get goosebumps too. I was in the SR-71 cadre at Beale AFB; got there about 9 months prior to the first bird. Wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

  3. Steve O'Flarity

    September 30, 2021 at 10:29 am

    In the last image, the aircraft on the right is a YF-12A, not an A-12. The YF-12A was a proposed fighter / interceptor version. The CIA’s A-12 was a single seater, lighter and potentially faster than the later and similar two-seater SR-71 operated by the USAF.

  4. Jim H

    September 30, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    Kadena AB Okinawa early 80s, in the evening twilight, as we taxiied our C-12 down the parallel taxiway headed for a departure on 05R, Kadena Ground Control directs that we “expedite your taxi and taxi to the far edge, need to move a priority departure past you to the runway.”

    So we dutifully did all that and turned back to finish our pre-departure checklist, expecting to see a C-5 or 141 or maybe a pair of F-15s, but instead screaming downhill at very high speed is an SR-71.

    As he slows and makes the turn onto the runway, having already switched to the tower freq, we hear him say “Thanks Army.”

    Once he’s lined-up on the runway, we watched in amazement as purple doughnuts start coming out of the engines, the huge roar washes over our C-12 making it rattle and shake, and then, he’s gone!

    WOW! One of those “Worth the price of admission!” events. Except for one senior officer Marine Aviator, our passengers were amazed. Later, our senior officer pax came forward and said “Pretty impressive huh? Just so you know, they don’t do that every time I visit….”

  5. Gabe Bennett

    September 30, 2021 at 3:54 pm

    Steve O’Flarity beat me to it, but I was about to say, the plane on the right in the comparison photo is not an A-12, it’s my Grandpa’s (Victor W. Horton) YF-12A, 60-6935. I have that same photo hanging on my wall; it was photographed by the another NASA-operated YF-12A (I want to say 6936) near Mt. Whitney, CA. He flew as backseat / RSO on it from 1969 to 1979 after the prototypes were transferred to NASA, usually with Fitz Fulton in the front cockpit, although he also flew with Don Mallick, William Dana (the X-15 pilot), Tom McMurtry and others. Having flown on both, actually liked the YF-12A better and considered it a better aircraft than the more famous SR-71A.

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