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Meet the SR-71C Blackbird: A Real ‘Frankenstein’ Spy Plane

SR-71 Spy Plane. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The SR-71C was a truly strange spy plane for many different reasons. Why did the US Air Force create this? The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” was quite an aircraft – it was designed to enter hostile airspace, take reconnaissance photographs from truly extreme heights and then be on its way before an enemy had a chance to even take a shot at it. Developed in secret in the late 1950s, it was able to cruise at 80,000 feet above the earth and still outfly any missile that could be launched at it.

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While some thirty-two SR-71s were produced, there was the truly one-of-a-kind SR-71C, a hybrid that was composed of the rear fuselage of the first YF-12A, which had been damaged in a landing accident, along with the forward fuselage from an SR-71 engineering prototype. It was a unique aircraft – in part because the forward airframe wasn’t actually meant to fly, and was actually built for static (ground) testing only – and it earned the nickname “The Bastard.”

It wasn’t actually planned either, but the decision to build the “Frankenstein” aircraft came about when one of the only two SR-71B two-seated trainers crashed in early January. Without a backup trainer, Lockheed engineers at the Palmdale “Skunk Works” facility in California were able to mate the static prototype with the damaged FY-12A.

This resulted in the one and only SR-71C, which went on to make its first flight on March 14, 1969, with Blackbird Chief Project Pilot Robert J. Gilliland at the controls and Lockheed test pilot Steve Belgeau as Reconnaissance Systems Officer. It wasn’t exactly what one might call an easy-to-fly aircraft, and the test pilots reported trim and control issues.

A team of Air Force test pilots then conducted a total of sixteen flights over the course of several weeks to determine the issues. Eventually, the Air Force determined that Lockheed would need to install a beta (yaw) indicator because the dynamically variable inlets, as well as the associated bypass doors, were not remaining in sync. Additionally, it was found that the rudders needed to be trimmed as those were out of the normal streamlined positions and that created drag.

After a number of test flights and months spent “tweaking” the airframe, the Bastard was finally delivered to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California, on Sep. 3, 1970.

While it was the only one of its kind, the SR-71C was really operationally different from the B model in that the C variant had one fewer internal fuel tank – and a result refueling procedures were slightly different. The Bastard actually proved to be most useful for taking VIPs on familiarization flights – but as those were proved costly with little actual return; the SR-71C Bastard’s service life was cut short.

The aircraft flew for the final time on April 11, 1976, and at the time the Bastard has just 737.3 hours in the air – and more than 180 of those hours was on the forward YF-12A portion.

The Bastard remained at Beale AFB until 1990 when it was transferred to the Hill AFB Aerospace Museum. Instead of making a ceremonious flight, the aircraft was disassembled and transported in a C-5A Galaxy airlifter.

A team of Air Force Reservists, active-duty United States Air Force personnel, and even volunteers all worked to then reassemble the SR-71C in just two months. On Oct. 16, 1991, the completed and restored aircraft was towed to the museum and placed on display – a truly one-of-a-kind jet that deserved to be saved so that it could be appreciated by future aviation buffs.

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

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, 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.