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SR-71 Blackbird: The Story Of The Fastest Plane Ever to Fly

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

The Lockheed SR-71 spy plane was – and still is – the fastest plane on the planet.

The Goal

Known unofficially as the “Blackbird” for its black paint job, which was developed to dissipate heat, the jet featured sleek lines that certainly were “futuristic” when it was flying top secret missions years before American astronauts headed to the moon.

It was developed in secret in the late 1950s to cruise to 80,000 feet above the earth, near the edge of space, and out fly any missile that was launched at it.

The Blackbird, which first took flight in 1964, could enter hostile airspace, take photographs from those extreme heights like a tourist on vacation and still be on its way before an enemy had a chance to even take a shot at it. While it could cross continents in just a few hours, the aircraft also flew so high that pilots navigating by sight couldn’t rely on ground features such as roads and instead needed to look at the mountains, rivers, and major coastlines to get their bearings.

The History

The aircraft was born out of the Lockheed “Skunk Works,” which had a proven track record to deliver “impossible” technologies on an incredibly short, but strategically critical deadline. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and United States Air Force called for a new plane that could operate at extreme altitudes, speeds, and temperatures. However, that meant that everything from the tires, oil, fuel, and even paint had to be created from the ground up.

The SR-71 project was headed up by Kelly Johnson, one of the preeminent aircraft designers of the twentieth century, who suggested, “Everything had to be invented. Everything.”

While other aircraft of the era could in theory reach speeds of 2,000 mph only in short, after-burner-driven bursts, the SR-71 needed to maintain the record-setting speed for hours at a time. The designers knew that at such velocity and friction with the atmosphere would generate temperatures that could melt a conventional airframe. As a result, the aircraft received that iconic black paint. The paint could absorb the heat and in the process gave the plane that unofficial nickname, “Blackbird.”

Additionally, titanium alloy – which provided the strength of steel but at a relatively lightweight – was utilized for the airframe. Along with its low weight, titanium was the only material that could provide durability at excessive temperatures. One issue was that the metal could be brittle if mishandled, which meant that even new tools had to be designed and fabricated. And those too were made from titanium.

During its twenty-four-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft in the world. At 80,000 feet, the Blackbird could survey 100,000 square miles of the ground below per hour. In July 1976, an SR-71 even set two world records – one was an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph while the other was an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet.

As the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum noted, no other reconnaissance aircraft in the world operated globally in more hostile airspace or with such impunity as the SR-71. The world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft’s performance and operational achievements also placed it at the very pinnacle of aviation technology.

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.

Written By

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.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Cameron C Chien

    November 15, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    The SR-71 wasn’t the fastest plane to ever fly. That title belongs to the X-15.

  2. Perry Vincent

    November 15, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    The X-15 is a test bed aircraft, it could not take off under it own power, but there was a faster plane than the SR-71, it was called the A-12

  3. Cornelius

    November 15, 2021 at 11:34 pm

    Let me make myself perfectly clear for all the world universe to understand and hear.
    It was an Honorable Tuskegee Airman, Electronics Engineer that designed and budgeted the greatest aircraft of all time, the SR-71. It made the greatest leap into aviationn history and including his many space missions that changed the world universe, saving two billion lives during the Cold War. He is with you every day in your life saving computer. Those who knew him, called him “The Cold War God Man”. He never failed in delivering over 224 government projects on time and on budget.
    This is just a small, small part of a humble 95 year old Genius Tuskegee Airman who always answered the call when the Pentagon needed him. Even when he knew he could die on a mission of his untold 28 year storied career,he never received credited recognition for or a hand shake thank you.Yes all the history books of the world will soon change. Thank You America, God Speed.

  4. Jim Bagge

    November 17, 2021 at 12:02 am

    I wouldn’t be saying with such absolute certainty that the A-12 was faster than the SR-71. For one thing the A-12 was a super secret CIA project, and although today I believe the CIA has released everything once classified about the A-12 and held nothing back, I don’t believe the CIA has ever said what the highest speed ever attained by an A-12 pilot was. I can also say with absolute certainty that the CIA never had the A-12 timed by an official timing agency like the USAF did the SR-71. It was TOP SECRET. But then neither has the Air Force ever released what is the highest speed ever attained by an SR-71. The Air Force has released official timed record speeds for the SR-71 and the YF-12A (very similar to the A-12 since it was an interceptor version of the A-12). These records are speeds certified by official world record timing agencies. But then SR-71’s have achieved speeds higher than the records, but not officially timed, that are way faster than the official records. For example, there is an SR-71 at the Smithsonian in Washington DC that on it’s final flight to DC actually hit 2242 mph. That’s 3.36 Mach. I’m sure every SR-71 pilot has his own highest speed, and everyone is faster than the certified Air Force records.
    The fastest speed I have ever seen claimed for an A-12 is 2207 mph in October 1967 by CIA pilot Dennis Sullivan on a flight over North Vietnam being chased by SAMs. This flight was also the closest ANY Blackbird ever came to being shot down. A SAM blew up about 200 yards behind him and when he returned to base in the Philippines a small piece of shrapnel was discovered in the elevon next to one of the engines (Google and you may find the account). The fastest speed I have ever seen claimed by an SR-71 pilot is 3.5 Mach – 2333.438 mph – evading a SAM over Libya in 1986. The pilot was Brian Shul who has written books about his experiences flying the SR-71 and has appeared at the Evergreen Museum. Google Brian Shul and you’ll find lots of great links.
    Back to the A-12. The A-12 and the SR-71 shared the same P&W J-58 engine, except that SR-71’s eventually got a J-58 with 1500 pounds more thrust – 34,000 pounds SR-71 vs ‘only’ 32,500 for the A-12. What this increase in thrust actually bought the SR-71 I don’t know, except possibly a higher rate of acceleration, because NEITHER plane was thrust limited as far as how fast they could fly. The limit to how fast ANY Blackbird could fly was established by the Compressor Inlet Temperature -CIT. Pilots were forbidden from flying faster than a CIT of 427 degrees C. A pilot could fly a Blackbird as fast as he wanted as long as he did not exceed a CIT of 427 C. If you’ve read the Flight Manual for either an A-12 or SR-71 you have seen this exact same 427 degree CIT limit temperature.
    Also, the SR-71 benefited from years of Air Force and NASA testing which the A-12 could not benefit from because ALL remaining A-12’s that hadn’t been lost were mothballed in June 1968 and never flown again.
    So I really don’t think an A-12 ever flew faster than an SR71, because I sure as hell think Dennis Sullivan would have pushed his A-12 over North Vietnam faster than 2207 mph if he could have.
    One thing A-12’s could lord over SR-71’s though, A-12’s had ceilings thousands of feet higher than ANY SR-71. The ceiling for the A-12 I have seen on the Internet is 95,000 feet (approximately 18 miles high), more than 7000 feet higher than the highest altitude I have ever seen claimed for an SR-71. The higher ceiling was due entirely to the A-12 weighing something like 20,000 pounds less than the SR-71.

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