SR-71 Blackbird: Cold War spy plane, still the fastest plane in the world

SR-71 Blackbird: Cold War spy plane, still the fastest plane in the world

During the Cold War, this plane could fly higher and faster than any other – and 55 years after its first flight, it still does.

Lockheed SR-71, designed in secret in the late 50s of last century, is able to float near the end of space and launch a rocket. To this day, it holds the record for the highest altitude in horizontal flight and the fastest speed for an aircraft without a rocket.

It was part of a family of spy planes built to enter enemy territory without being shot down or even detected, in the days before satellites and drones.

Working with black paint designed to dissipate heat earned the nickname Black Bird and, combined with the sleek lines of the long fuselage, made the aircraft look like something that had come before – a design that has not lost any luster,

SR-71 “Blackbird” during a training mission in 1997. Credit: NASA / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“It still looks like something from the future, even though it was designed back in the 1950s,” Peter Merlin, aviation historian and author of “Blackbird design and development, “ said in a telephone interview.

“Because of the way the fuselage bends and the curves and curves of the wing look more organic than mechanical. Most conventional planes look like someone who built them – this one almost looks like it was grown.”

A CIA spy

In May 1960, a US U-2 spy plane shot down a duo in Soviet airspace while taking aerial photographs. The U.S. government initially said it was a homeless time-study aircraft, but the story fell apart after the Soviet government released photos of the captured pilot and aircraft surveillance equipment.

The incident had immediate diplomatic consequences for the Cold War and heightened the need for a new type of reconnaissance aircraft that could fly faster and higher, safe from anti-aircraft fire. “The CIA wanted a plane that could fly over 90,000 feet or beyond, at high speed and as invisible to radar as possible,” Merlin said.

The task of designing such an ambitious machine fell to Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, one of the world’s greatest aircraft designers, and his secret division of Lockheed engineers, called Skunk Works. “Everything had to be invented. Everything.” remember Johnson, who died in 1990, the same year Black Birds retired from service for the first time.

The original aircraft in the Black Birds family was called the A-12 and made its maiden flight on April 30, 1962. A total of 13 A-12s were produced, and the aircraft was a top-secret, special access program run by the CIA.

Titanium leather

Because the aircraft is designed to fly faster than 2,000 km / h, friction with the surrounding atmosphere will heat the fuselage to a point that will melt the conventional air frame. Therefore, the aircraft is made of titanium, a metal that is able to withstand high temperatures while being lighter than steel.

However, the use of titanium presented other problems. First, a completely new set of tools had to be made – also made of titanium, as ordinary steel destroys brittle titanium on contact. Second, the source of the metal itself proved difficult. “The Soviet Union was the largest supplier of titanium in the world at the time. The US government had to buy a lot of it, probably using fake companies,” Merlin said.

The original aircraft was completely uncolored in summer, which shows silver titanium leather. They were first painted black in 1964 after realizing that black paint – which effectively absorbs and emits heat – will help lower the temperature of the entire frame. The Black Bird was born.

Same plane, different names

The A-12 soon became a variant designed as an interceptor, a fighter type, rather than a surveillance aircraft. Effectively, this means adding air-to-air missiles and a second cockpit so that a crew member can operate the necessary radar equipment. This new aircraft, which looked identical to the A-12 except for the nose, was called the YF-12.

While the A-12 remains a top secret, the existence of the YF-12 was revealed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and three of them were built and operated by the US Air Force. A third variant was produced around this time, called the M-21, which had a pylon on its back to mount and launch one of the first unmanned drones. Two were built, but the program was halted in 1966 after a drone collided with its mother, killing one of the pilots.

The final derivative of the A-12, with a cockpit and higher fuel capacity, was named SR-71 – for “Strategic Intelligence” – and first took off on December 22, 1964. This is the version that will continue for carried out reconnaissance missions for the US Air Force for more than 30 years and a total of 32 were built, bringing the final number of the Black Bird family to 50.

The double cockpit of the Lockheed SR-71.

The double cockpit of the Lockheed SR-71. Credit: Space borders / Archive photos / Getty images

Stealth before stealth

The SR-71’s fuselage included some of the first composite materials ever used in an airplane, making the airplane more difficult to detect on enemy radar. “He was essentially a thief before the word stealth was even used,” Merlin said.

Flying at higher altitudes than anti-aircraft fire can reach, faster than a missile and barely visible to radar, the Black Bird can enter hostile airspace virtually undisturbed. “The idea was that by the time the enemy caught him and fired their missile, he was about to come out,” Merlin explained. “But that was before we had real-time data connections, so they took pictures of the film and returned the film to a database to be processed and studied.”

As a result, no Blackbird was shot down by enemy fire. However, its reliability was a problem and 12 out of 32 were lost in accidents. It was also a complex aircraft for operation and flying. “It took an army of people to prepare the plane. Blackbird’s operational mission was essentially a countdown, similar to the space mission, because there was so much training, both for the crew and the vehicle, incredible effort and manpower. “Merlin said.

Pilots also had to respond in a special way due to the extreme conditions found at high altitudes. “They were basically wearing a space suit, the same things you’ll see on space shuttle crews later,” Merlin said. “The cockpit also burned a lot when flying at high speeds, so much so that the pilots heated their food on long missions, pressing it against the cup.”

No black birds ever flew over Soviet airspace – something the US government stopped doing entirely after the 1960 incident – but they still played an important role in the Cold War and performed missions in other critical theaters such as the Middle East. Vietnam and North Korea.


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

In 1976, the SR-71 installed the kit records it still holds: flying at a constant altitude of 85,069 feet and reaching a top speed of 2,193.2 miles per hour or Mach 3.3. The program was halted in 1990 – with a brief resurgence in the mid-1990s – after technologies such as spy satellites and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones) became more feasible and offered immediate access to surveillance data.

The SR-71 was the last flight from NASA in 1999, using two of the aircraft for high-speed and high-altitude aviation research. Since then, the surviving Black Birds have found their way into museums.

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