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Deathmatch: SR-71 Blackbird vs. 4,000 Missiles (Who Wins?)

SR-71
Image: Creative Commons.

The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane is getting a ton of attention again due to an appearance by the supposed SR-72 in Top Gun: Maverick. While the SR-71 sits in a museum, it had an amazing career and is still somehow the fastest plane on Earth. Here is what you need to know: The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” was a true speed demon. No interceptor ever really had a chance of catching it. During the aircraft’s nearly 25 years in service, the Blackbird set numerous speed records, and on July 28, 1976, a Blackbird reached an amazing 2,193.167 miles per hour. Flying at roughly 36.55 miles per minute, or 3,216.4 feet per second, it was faster than a bullet fired from the World War II-era M1 Garand rifle, which had a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second.

The SR-71 earned its reputation for incomparable speed. While no aircraft could catch it, neither could missiles. A dozen Blackbirds were lost to accidents during its service history, but not a single aircraft was shot down by an enemy. It reportedly evaded some 4,000 missiles fired its way.

‘For Them, We Didn’t Exist’

Only one aircraft even has the distinction of achieving a radar lock on this fast-flying U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane. It wasn’t a Soviet interceptor such as the MiG-25, but rather the Swedish-made Saab J37 Viggen fighter that achieved a missile lock and visual contact with the speedy spy plane.

U.S. Air Force pilots also trained against the Blackbird.

As TheAvaitionGeekClub reported, “Former Blackbird driver Col. Richard H. Graham, USAF (Ret.), tells in his book The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated Profile of Every Aircraft, Crew, and Breakthrough of the World’s Fastest Stealth Jet, there were two fighters that could achieve (simulated) SR-71 kills, but only under certain conditions.”

Apparently, American fighter pilots were only able to lock on the SR-71 after the Blackbird’s own crew switched off the aircraft’s defensive countermeasures.

Former SR-71 pilot Dave Peters further explained, “One of the interesting discoveries from those missions, especially the Eagle Bait, was that they couldn’t even find us when everything was shut down and we told them exactly where we were. It was then realized that the F-15 had a speed gate on their radar at 1500 kts. We were casually warping along from 1850 to 2000. So, for them, we didn’t exist.”

The SR-71 Was Too Expensive to Fly

The one thing the SR-71 could not outrun was costs.

Everything about the aircraft was expensive. The CIA had taken extreme measures to acquire highly prized Soviet titanium for the aircraft’s skin and landing gear. BF Goodrich developed special aluminum-reinforced tires specifically for the Blackbird. The tires had a lifespan of only about 20 landings.

The aircraft cost about $200,000 an hour to operate. While it was more capable than the Lockheed U-2, the Blackbird’s costs were seen as a significant problem. In 1989, the Blackbird was retired. Many SR-71s were sent to museums, while a few were kept in reserve.

In the early 1990s, the SR-71 program was reactivated, in part because a successor had yet to be developed. The aircraft was part of a contentious political debate about U.S. intelligence policy that pitted members of Congress against the Pentagon: Supporters in Congress questioned the Department of Defense’s refusal to use the Blackbird over Bosnia and other global hotspots of the era.

The Air Force argued the old warbird was not integrated with the rest of its modern equipment, and that its cameras took still photos that it could not relay by video to the ground. Instead, the CIA and Department of Defense relied on drones to provide an eye in the sky, along with satellites. Supporters of the SR-71 countered that drones could be (and were) shot down, while foreign militaries could determine when satellites were due to fly overhead.

The SR-71 made its return in part because the aircraft were already bought and paid for, and there were a lot of spare parts. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, which had developed the aircraft, was able to bring the Blackbird out of retirement under a budget of $72 million.

However, the reactivation met more resistance than the plane had faced from America’s adversaries. Air Force leaders simply did not want it, and bringing the Blackbird back into service meant shifting money from other programs. The issue was so contentious that when Congress reauthorized funding, then-President Bill Clinton tried to line-item veto the funding, a maneuver the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional.

In 1998, the program was permanently retired. NASA operated the last two airworthy Blackbirds until 1999. It was an inauspicious end to an aircraft that could do things no other reconnaissance plane could do. While no SR-71 was ever shot down, political infighting and funding issues finally grounded the speedy Blackbird.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

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. Suciu is also a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Sam Waite

    June 6, 2022 at 5:43 pm

    I am one of eight engineer PMO’s who brought the SR-71 back from the dead for $72m. That was not all we were doing. That was the least classified thing we did.
    The USAF brass lied about the flying hour cost. In fact they lied to congress massively and at every turn. We brought the SR-71 back in operation because the USAF brass are parochial rabid rats and ALL strategic reconnaissance did not fit in with their vision of fighters, tankers, ICBMs and bombers.
    The original A-12 Archangel and the SR-72 were flight tested for an air-interceptor and strategic bombing role in the event of war. The communist lawfaring lawyers infesting the State Dept and the Pentagon pitched a bed-wetting tizzy. The USAF brass realized that an air-to-air SR-72 interceptor negated all of their budget and empire building plans for fighters and bombers.
    The radar velocity gate pulloff (‘Vigpo’) for low speed and high speed objects is a radar screen decluttering feature for operators. Yes, we can exploit that and did.
    The Swedish AF Saab J37 Viggen fighter was able to achieve the lock only because the SR-71 was broken, reducing speed and descending into friendly airspace. The Swedes knew it was coming and that was why they were out there and could get out in front to face the plane as it descended to merge with them for fighter wing escort protection. They got the lock in the most advantageous manner on a bird with some non-critical onboard failure.
    The SR-72 in the current Top Gun Maverick film. Was not built by the Skunkworks for the film. Lockheed pulled a the very real full-scale mockup SR-72 out of storage and dressed it up for the movie. I was very happy to see its public debut. It was 5 years behind schedule and Bill Clinton canceled it, like he canceled pretty much every other black bird we had at that time. Congress forced funding on some of them, but the Air Force is and has always been last to the table for anything high and fast. They were also last to the table for drones. George Bush Jr, forced them to buy the Predators.
    I know a lot more and I am retired.

    • Everett

      June 7, 2022 at 8:43 pm

      Awesome sir!!! I said the same thing in comments previously about the “legendary” Viggen interception stories. I’ve met Sled Drivers through the years. The stories are so awesome. We all know it was political why the SR was retired. It wasn’t vulnerable and it could still do what satellites still can’t do. I always ask people if the SR was retired because of vulnerability and satellites why the heck is the U 2 still flying???

  2. Steve Wander

    June 11, 2022 at 7:12 pm

    I read the north Koreans actually were able to scratch an SR71 with a SA missile. A piece of shrapnel caught the Blackbird with enough force to cause a physical scar in the titanium skin. Maybe even piercing a fuel tank? It was not enough damage to cause the plane to abort the mission but it (a very small part) did hit the Blackbird. That was the only time it was physically touched by a enemy missile.

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