The aviation industry has felt the need for more speed since its inception. Some pursued speed for mere thrills or to set records. However, in many cases, faster airplanes have practical uses. On the commercial side, airlines and cargo carriers are able to advertise decreased trip times. On the military side, speed often equates to survival. No aircraft better exemplifies this than the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aircraft ever built.
SR-71: Design and Development
The Lockheed Martin Corporation has played a leading role as both a designer and manufacturer in America’s aviation industry. From the Constellation, the first pressurized airliner to enter service, to the F-35 Lightning II, the most advanced fighter jet in the world, this company knows how to build airplanes. That was clear as far back as the 1950s, when the team at the secretive Skunk Works came up with the U-2 spy plane, a high-flying reconnaissance aircraft that was supposed to be undetectable to Soviet radars. Although the U-2 failed to live up to that promise, the team at Skunk Works swiftly turned to the challenge of building a plane that could not be shot down.
During the Blackbird’s development, designers had to contend with several unique challenges. Learning from the failures of the U-2, the SR-71 incorporated some of the earliest stealth technology. Its unique shape, with a sharp edge — or hard chine — running along the fuselage was designed to reduce its radar return. This, combined with the placement of the engines and some of the first ever radar-absorbing paint, allowed the engineers to reduce the radar cross section of the aircraft by 90%.
While the stealthy aspects of the Blackbird helped it evade detection, its real defenses against aggressors were much simpler: speed and altitude, specifically Mach-3.2 and 85,000 feet. In order to achieve these awe-inspiring stats, the SR-71 incorporated several radical features. Its engine intakes included sophisticated mechanisms to slow the air below the speed of sound before it entered the engines, and many of its components were made from titanium or a titanium alloy to withstand the intense heat generated by its high speeds.
The U.S. Air Force took its first delivery of the SR-71 in 1966, and two years later it was at work flying reconnaissance missions over Vietnam. By the end of American involvement in the war, Blackbirds were flying over North Vietnam and Laos nearly every day. After the conflict’s end, the Blackbird supplemented the U-2, gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union. Operating out of RAF Mildenhall in England, pilots flew the SR-71 north to Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula.
As the Cold War drew to a close, the U.S. Congress began re-examining many expensive Department of Defense programs. One program on the chopping block was the SR-71. Detractors, many within the Air Force itself, argued that the Blackbird was expensive to operate and that its capabilities could easily be covered by existing assets such as the U-2, as well as by emerging technologies such as drones, sophisticated satellites, and a rumored replacement.
All this led to the retirement of the SR-71 in 1990, but the Blackbird’s story was not quite over. In 1993, following Operation Desert Storm and with rising tensions in the Middle East and the Balkans, Congress reactivated part of the SR-71 fleet. Ultimately, however, the Air Force dragged its feet on reactivation and then-President Bill Clinton used a line-item veto to strike SR-71 funding in 1997.
While the Blackbird is no longer flying, its legacy as the King of Speed will live on for years to come.
As strange as it is, the SR-71 is still the fastest plane on Earth – and it sits in a museum.
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Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.