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SR-71 Blackbird Spy Plane: Still the Fastest Plane on Earth (And Retired)

SR-71 History
Image: Creative Commons.

The SR-71 Blackbird—perhaps one of the most iconic aircraft of the Cold War—was a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3-plus strategic reconnaissance spy plane developed and manufactured by Lockheed Corporation.

Capable of extremely high-altitude flight and also used by NASA, it first took to the air in 1964 and later introduced in 1966. The U.S. Air Force decided to retire its fleet of SR-71s in 1990, but returned them in 1995 until January 1997, the Air Force notes.

Throughout its nearly twenty-four-year career, the SR-71 was considered the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. Here are five other facts that should intrigue the interest of many aviation enthusiasts.

Could Outrun Surface-to-Air Missiles

The SR-71 was so insanely fast—reaching Mach 3.2 at 85,000 feet—that once it identified incoming missiles, it could just speed up to evade them. According to, “the combination of its high speed, high altitude, and maneuverability meant that no one was able to shoot it down.”

Speed Via Ramjet Engine

The SR-71 continues to hold the speed record for a manned aircraft that was set way back in 1976. The site noted that this “was accomplished with its ramjet engines. Ramjet engines rely on ram pressure to operate. Ramjets are able to fly at speeds far quicker than a typical turbine-driven engine.”

Operational Statistics

Numbers indeed can tell a lot—and the SR-71 was highly proficient in what it was built to do. For the entire Blackbird family, which includes the A-12 and the YF-12, there were a total of 3,551 mission sorties flown along with 17,300 sorties. This meant that there were 53,490 total flight hours, of which 11,675 hours were clocked in at Mach 3.

Bonus fact: the SR-71 is still the fastest plane on Earth, even sitting in a museum nothing has ever beat it.

Small Numbers

The SR-71 was only produced in very small numbers. In fact, there were only a total of thirty-two aircraft ever built. Although some were lost to various accidents, no Blackbird was ever shot down by enemy fire. Also, in the entire history of the SR-71, only one pilot was ever killed in an accident.


SR-71. Image: Creative Commons.

Future Successors

The Lockheed Martin SR-72, also known as the “Son of Blackbird,” is a hypersonic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) concept that is being developed under the company’s Skunk Works or Advanced Development Programs. This next-generation aircraft has been tabbed to be the highly anticipated successor to SR-71 that retired from service in the U.S. Air Force. According to Airforce Technology, the “SR-72 aircraft will have the capability to perform high speed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike operations. The first flight of the SR-72 demonstrator is anticipated in 2023, while the full-scale aircraft is expected to enter into service by 2030.”

SR-72 Darkstar

SR-72 Darkstar. Image: Lockheed Martin.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. The Searchers

    September 24, 2021 at 9:22 pm

    It would be a great runway to space plane, with a SR-71 concept first stage carrying a rocket powered second stage to orbit.
    Quick reaction runway to space platforms will likely be necessary in any future conflicts with peer antagonists, which almost all have developed or potential anti-satellite weapons which will be able to destroy spy and GPS satellites.

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