Higher, Faster, Farther

22 12 2011

By Stewart Bailey, Curator

As one stands before the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and looks at its sleek lines and dark continence, it’s hard to believe that the aircraft is both the world’s fastest, highest-flying production aircraft, and forty seven years old.  Even more amazing is the fact that this record setting aircraft has been retired for the last twelve of those forty seven years.  In an age that seems to strive for the biggest, fastest, and best, it seems strange that such a superlative aircraft can now only be found in museums.  However, the Blackbird, like its speedy commercial sister, the Concorde are now only relics of the past, able to out run sound (and the Sun), but not the budget cutter’s pen.

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The SR-71 first took to the skies on December 22, 1964 and its flight was the culmination of an eight year effort to initially create an aircraft that could penetrate Soviet air space and be hard to detect on radar.  While it didn’t do the former, it certainly was the latter, which made it one of the first practical stealth aircraft.  The Blackbird’s genesis came about because of growing complaints from the Soviet Union about over-flights by CIA operated U-2 spy planes.   In 1956, the CIA approached Lockheed and Convair about designing an aircraft that had a lower radar profile than the U-2, which could operate 2 miles higher and four times faster.   The Lockheed design, dubbed A-12 was selected.  Radically different from the U-2, the A-12 was a twin-engine, single seat machine with a shallow fuselage that blended into a large delta shaped wing.  The A-12, which first flew in 1962 looked almost identical to the later SR-71, the main visible difference being that the A-12 only had one crewman.  Under the code name of “Oxcart” a total of 18 A-12s were built including 3 YF-12s to be high altitude interceptors, and 2 M-21s that were used to carry the Lockheed D-21 drone.

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Although the A-12s did fly operationally, they were quickly replaced when the much more capable SR-71 Blackbird began operations in 1968.  The reconnaissance mission was taken over by the Air Force, and for the next three decades, the Blackbird would rule the skies as the highest flying, fastest production, manned aircraft ever built.  Other manned aircraft like the rocket-powered X-15 would fly higher, and unmanned aircraft like the X-43 have flown faster, but none of these were more than experimental machines that pushed the envelope of height and speed.  Only the SR-71, built in a production run of 32 machines, worked in the sky above 80,000 feet and at speeds approaching Mach 3.3, on a regular basis.

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While the story of the SR-71 can only be told in superlatives when it comes to performance and the engineering challenges that had to be overcome, it is important to remember that the SR-71 remained un-challenged during its career; not by other aircraft or by the defenses arrayed against it.  It is estimated that over 1000 missiles were fired at Blackbirds from both the ground and Soviet interceptors, and not one ever came close.  All the Blackbird pilot had to do was push the throttles a little farther forward and just accelerate away from them.  And too, while 12 SR-71s were lost in accidents, only one man; Jim Zwayer from Lockheed ever lost his life in a Blackbird accident.  All other crews were able to eject or walk away from the wreck.

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Thus it leaves one to wonder, if there is nothing before or since that has been able to come close to the Blackbird’s performance, why isn’t the aircraft still flying?  Sadly, the answer is the politics of money.  Despite being retired in 1989, and reactivated in 1995, groups within the Air Force wanted to ground the aircraft so that funds could be directed into programs including the B-1 Lancer, the B-2 Spirit and a variety of unmanned reconnaissance platforms.  The argument given was that satellites could do the job just as well, and UAVs would soon be able to take over to take over the rapid response aspect of the Blackbird’s mission.  Unfortunately, satellites were not the answer as they are both predictable in their orbits, giving the opposition time to hide what they wanted to keep hidden before the satellite passed by, and the cannot change orbit without enormous cost in fuel.  They simply cannot respond fast enough for a “surprise” inspection.  And UAVs, while they have proven themselves to be extremely effective, they can be shot down, or captured as shown by the recent incident in Iran.  But, in 1997, President Clinton used a line-item veto to cut funds for the SR-71 and its mission was over.  With the exception of three SR-71s that flew for NASA through the end of 1999, the story of the superlative aircraft was done.

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Today, twenty of the these magnificent aircraft survive in museums around the US and England.  The Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum is pleased to be able to display an SR-71A Blackbird, #61-7971, along with its engines, many of the reconnaissance and defensive electronics systems that were integral to the aircraft’s mission and some of its ground support equipment.  Together, they tell the story of this unique machine that remains the highest, fastest, manned production aircraft ever built.Image

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