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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Mach 6: Meet The SR-91 Aurora Spy Plane (That Could Change Everything)

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

Meet the Myth and Legend of the SR-91 Aurora Spy Plane – Watch out for media leaks and uncorroborated sightings, some airplanes can take on mythological status, even when they likely don’t exist.

Such is the case with the mysterious SR-91 Aurora spy plane.

This airplane may have been nothing more than an artist rendering of a concept, even though one witness said he saw it in action. Let’s take a deeper dive into whether the Aurora actually existed.

Why the SR-91 Aurora?

In the 1980s, the Air Force was looking for something that could replace the SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird was considered expensive to maintain as SR-71 flight operations cost a reported $200 to $300 million a year.

The SR-91 Program Was Ultra-Secretive If It Existed

The word “Aurora” came into public consciousness when the moniker appeared in a “black program” spy plane budget request in 1985. Could this expenditure refer to the SR-91 Aurora? This would have been a record-setting airplane – flying at over MACH 5 and streaking by at 90,000 feet. But what if Aurora was instead a different codename for the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber? The B-2 was flying in the late 1980s and was introduced in 1997. The name Aurora thus became an enigma.

SR-91: Better Described as a Hypothesis referred to it as a “hypothesis.” The website cited a British source with the following statement. “A British Ministry of Defence report released in May 2006 refers to U.S. Air Force priority plans to produce a Mach 4-6 highly supersonic vehicle, but no conclusive evidence had emerged to confirm the existence of such a project.”

Only One Alleged Sighting

Was there ever an SR-91 prototype produced?

One eye-witness claimed to have seen a triangular-shaped airplane that could have been a new reconnaissance plane flying in the late 1980s. This sighting happened over the North Sea in 1989. An engineer named Chris Gibson claimed to have seen it. But again, this could have been the B-2 or even an F-117 Nighthawk. The US Air Force was flying the F-117 at the time. But if that was really an Aurora, it would have been difficult to spot since its believed speed was MACH 5.

Did It Produce Those “Sky Quakes?”

Another enigmatic example attributed to the Aurora flight was the so-called “sky quakes” that happened over Los Angeles in the early 1990s. It was hypothesized that an Aurora could have caused these loud booms when it flew out of Groom Lake, Nevada (also known as Area 51). That’s pretty thin evidence that it was actually the Aurora causing sky quakes.

SR-91 Concept That Didn’t Live

If the Aurora was a concept, it probably got canceled.

What deemed the SR-91 redundant was the advancement of spy satellites and reconnaissance drones that made a hypersonic spy plane unnecessary at the time. Even though the SR-72 Son of Blackbird spy plane program is advancing now.

There is just not enough evidence to determine the existence of the SR-91 Aurora. It makes sense to call it a hypothesis because it is only plausible that Lockheed Martin Skunk Works was working on a new spy plane. The technology may have been there to produce a MACH 5 aircraft but that doesn’t mean it survived beyond the drawing board.

Skunk Works Director Denies SR-91 In Memoir

Speaking of Skunk Works, the National Interest cited a book by Ben Rich, who is a former director of Skunk Works and he poured cold water onto the Aurora hypothesis.

“Somehow the name (Aurora) leaked out during congressional appropriations hearings, the media picked up the Aurora item in the budget, and the rumor surfaced that it was a top-secret project assigned to the Skunk Works—to build America’s first hypersonic plane. That story persists to this day, even though Aurora was the codename for the B-2 competition funding,” he wrote.

The SR-91 Likely Never Existed

So, you can see, Aurora was likely no more than a concept. The Department of Defense never acknowledged it. The eyewitnesses were rare and uncorroborated and actual flight likely never happened.

SR-91 Aurora, artist rendition. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

SR-91 Aurora, artist rendition. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

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Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.