What Is Different: SR-71 Blackbird vs. SR-72 Darkstar – Normally at a major air show, it is the planes in the sky that draw all the attention. However, back in October at the Aerospace Valley Open House, Air Show & STEM Expo at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California, there was a ground display that truly impressed many of the attendees. What was notable is that it wasn’t actually capable of flight, and it isn’t known if it is even a mock-up of a real aircraft.
It was a movie prop from Top Gun: Maverick based on the Lockheed Martin SR-72 “Darkstar,” the aircraft that has been dubbed “Son of the Blackbird.” The hypersonic jet seen on the big screen was produced with some key insight from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the defense giant’s not-so-secret department at its aerospace wing where secret aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird was developed.
Lockheed Martin has been working on the very real SR-72 since 2013 and confirmed that it had conducted engine tests in 2017. Few other details had been officially released, and there have even been rumors the project may have been canceled.
Despite the scant amount of information about the Darkstar, there is already a lot of speculation about how the aircraft may compare.
SR-71 vs. SR-72: Role of the Aircraft
As a reconnaissance aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird carried no armaments, and it used its ability to fly high and fast to evade an enemy. By contrast, there is already speculation that the SR-72, which could be operational by 2030, could be more than a spy plane – and that it could actually be a hypersonic bomber.
The Blackbird was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58-1 continuous-bleed, after-burning turbo-ramjets, which could produce 32,500 pounds of thrust with reheat. It could reach 2,274 mph (3,660 km/h), and during its two decades in service managed to set some impressive speed records.
The SR-72 Darkstar could leave the old warbird in the dust – literally. It is reported to be powered with an Aerojet Rocketdyne combined cycle propulsion system with a turbine engine and dual-mode ramjet that utilizes a common inlet and nozzle. That could give the Darkstar a top speed of 4,567 mph (7,350 km/h) – or Mach 6.
There could be some disadvantages with all that speed. Taking spy photos or dropping bombs at Mach 6 would require extraordinary engineering. Moreover, it would require hundreds of miles to make a turn, and it will need powerful guidance computers to line up targets, 80,000 feet below. Opening a bomb bay at 4,000 miles per hour isn’t easy, so that will need to be addressed as well.
Sorry, Maverick – You’re Not Needed
The Blackbird flew with a crew of two, but if the current rumors are true, the SR-72 Darkstar could be an unmanned autonomously operated aircraft. While a hotshot pilot might want to fly in this thing, most of us would probably be happy just seeing it take to the skies.
Bonus: SR-71 Photo Essay
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.