SR-71 Blackbird: the world’s fastest aircraft, the Cold War spy plane

During the Cold War, this plane could fly higher and faster than others – and 55 years after its first flight, it is still flying.

Designed in secrecy in the late 1950s, Lockheed SR-71 was able to launch a missile and a missile at the edge of space. To date, it holds the highest altitude records in horizontal flight and the highest speed for a non-rocket-powered aircraft.

It was part of a family of spy aircraft built to enter enemy territory without being hit or even spotted at a time before satellites and drones.

Designed to dissipate heat, the black paint job earned the Blackbird nickname and matched the sleek lines of the long body, the plane didn’t look like anything before – a design that didn’t lose its luster.

An SR-71 `` Blackbird '' during an educational mission in 1997.

An SR-71 “ Blackbird ” during an educational mission in 1997. Credit: NASA / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“Although it was designed in the 1950s, it still looks like something from the future,” said Peter Merlin, an aviation historian and author.Blackbird Design and Development “ she said in a phone call.

“It looks more organic than mechanics because of the hull’s curvature and wing curves and twists. Most traditional planes seem to have built them up – it almost seems to have grown.”

A CIA spy

In May 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was launched in the Soviet airspace while aerial photographs were taken. Initially, the U.S. government said it was a weather forecast research aircraft, but the story broke up after the Soviet government published photos of the captured pilot and the aircraft’s surveillance equipment.

The incident immediately made diplomatic repercussions for the Cold War and reinforced the need for a new reconnaissance aircraft that could fly faster and higher while protecting from anti-aircraft fire. “The CIA wanted a high-speed aircraft that could fly above or around 90,000 feet, which was invisible to radar as much as possible,” said Merlin.

The task of designing such an ambitious machine fell on Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, one of the world’s largest aircraft designers, and the secret engineer department called Skunk Works in Lockheed. “Everything had to be invented. Everything,” will be remembered Died in 1990, Johnson was retired from service for the first time in the same year.

The original aircraft in the Blackbird family was called A-12 and made its first flight on April 30, 1962. A total of 13 A-12s were produced and the aircraft was a top secret, private access program operated by the CIA.

Titanium skin

Since the aircraft is designed to fly faster than 2,000 mph, friction with the surrounding atmosphere will heat the hull to a point that will melt a conventional aircraft fuselage. Therefore, the plane is made of titanium, a metal that is lighter than steel but can withstand high temperatures.

However, the use of titanium presented other problems. First, a brand-new tooling set made of titanium should have been manufactured because normal steels shattered the fragile titanium in contact. Second, it was difficult to supply the metal itself. “The USSR was the largest supplier of titanium in the world at the time. The US government probably had to buy a lot using fake companies,” Merlin said. Said.

The first plane flew completely unpainted, showing a silver titanium skin. They were first painted black in 1964, after realizing that the black paint that effectively absorbs and radiates heat will help lower the temperature of the entire body. “Blackbird” was born.

The same plane, different names

The A-12 soon turned into a variant designed as a type of combat aircraft – rather than a surveillance aircraft. Effectively, this meant adding air-to-air missiles and a second cockpit for a crew member to use the required radar equipment. This new aircraft, which looks the same as the A-12 outside the nose, was called YF-12.

While the A-12 remained top secret, the existence of the YF-12 was discovered by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and three were built and operated by the U.S. Air Force. During this time, a third variant called M-21 was produced with a pylon on its back to assemble and launch one of the first drone. Two were built, but the program was stopped in 1966 after a drone collided with its mother ship and killed one of the pilots.

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The last variant of the A-12 with twin cockpit and larger fuel capacity was named SR-71 – for “Strategic Discovery” – and first flew on December 22, 1964. For more than 30 years, it has continued to perform intelligence missions for the U.S. Air Force, and a total of 32 have been built, and the last fortunate number for the Blackbird family has increased to 50.

Double cockpit of Lockheed SR-71.

Double cockpit of Lockheed SR-71. Credit: Space Borders / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Secret before secret

The body of the SR-71 contained some of the first composite materials used in an aircraft, making it difficult to spot the aircraft for enemy radar. “Even the word secret was hidden before it was used,” Merlin said. Said.

By flying at a higher altitude than anti-aircraft fire, the Black Bird, which is faster than a missile and barely visible by the radar, can enter the hostile airspace almost without distraction. “The idea was already on the way out when the enemy spotted it and fired its missiles,” Merlin said. Said. “But that was before we had real-time data connections, so they were taking pictures in the movie and bringing it back to the base to be processed and examined.”

As a result, no Blackbird was hit by enemy fire. However, its reliability was a problem, and 12 out of 32 people were lost by accident. It was also a complex aircraft for operation and flying. “An army army was needed to prepare the aircraft. A Blackbird operational mission, like in the space mission, actually had a countdown because it had so much preparation to get both the crew and the vehicle ready, incredible effort and manpower,” said Merlin. .

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Pilots had to comply in a special way due to extreme conditions at high altitude. “They were basically wearing space suits, then you see that the space shuttle crews were hanging,” said Merlin. “The cockpit also got very hot while flying at high speeds, so the pilots pressed and heated their food on the window during long missions.”

No Blackbirds flew in the Soviet airspace – something that the U.S. government stopped doing completely after the 1960 incident – but they still played an important role in the Cold War and performed missions in the Middle East, Vietnam and other critical theaters. North Korea.


SR-71 during test flight by NASA. Credit: NASA

In 1976, SR-71 records it still holds: it flies at a constant altitude of 85,069 feet long and reaches a top speed of 2,193.2 miles per hour or Mach 3.3. The program was discontinued in the 1990s – with a short revival in the mid-1990s – technologies such as spy satellites and UAVs (drones or drones) became more viable and provided instant access to surveillance data.

The SR-71 was recently flown by NASA in 1999 and used two of these aircraft for high speed and high altitude aviation research. Since then, the surviving Karatavs entered museums.

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