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The Futuristic Black Planes of Lockheed's Top Secret Skunk Works

Updated on July 28, 2019
Mark Caruthers profile image

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

The Hammers of Hell : The World's First Mach 3.5 Stealth Plane

The SR-71 Blackbird was the only aircraft ever to have the distinction of being the fastest operational aircraft in the world from the day it entered service until it was retired three decades later. The Blackbird was capable of flying at speeds greater than Mach 3 in the top one percent of the earth's atmosphere. CIA Director Richard Helms was so taken by a night- time launch of the Blackbird that he called this famous spy plane " The Hammers of Hell." President Lyndon Johnston played a vital role in revealing the SR-71 Blackbird to the world. At a press conference on February 29,1964, he leaked that the United States had developed an experimental jet aircraft which flew at a sustained speed of Mach 3 (2,200mph), and at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet. Because pilots of the SR-71 Blackbird flew at such extreme altitudes they were required to wear pressurized suits, to protect them from the dramatic heat and pressure as the spy plane flew on the edge of space. On some missions pilots would see the sun rise and set as many as three times, as the Blackbird flew faster than the earth's rotation. This amazing plane was literally faster than a speeding bullet. One Blackbird pilot would remark about the plane's performance on a reconnaissance mission by paraphrasing Psalm 23, "though I fly through the valley of Death, I shall fear no evil for I am at 90,000 feet and climbing." The Blackbird's speed and countermeasures, enabled it to out run and out climb any surface-to-air missile used against it. No Blackbird was ever shot down during its entire thirty years of operational life, no plane in aviation history can make this claim.

On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set the world record for absolute altitude in horizontal flight (by an aircraft taking off under its own power) of 85,069 feet. The SR-71's full potential of speeds greater than Mach 3.3, with an operational altitude above 100,000 feet was repeatedly rumored but never made part of an official record. During the 1970's, the Blackbird would come out of the shadows to give the world a sense of its capabilities. On September 1,1974, the SR-71 set the world speed record while flying 3,508 miles from New York to London in just under two hours at an average speed of 1,435.6 mph.

The SR-71 Blackbird in Flight

Coated with radar absorbent black ferrite paint this Mach 3 spy plane looked its name.
Coated with radar absorbent black ferrite paint this Mach 3 spy plane looked its name. | Source

The Blackbird's Engines

The Blackbird was designed by the genius of Lockheed Skunk Works, Kelly Johnston who would lead its development team for over four decades. It was built under complete secrecy at the Lockheed Skunk Works plant in Burbank California, and flight tested at Area 51 throughout the 1960s. The J58 turbo-ramjets on the Blackbird were revolutionary in theory, basically it combined the functionality of a turbojet and a ramjet. Below Mach 2 the SR-71's massive engines sucked air into the J-58's front inlets, slowed down and then compressed by its turbine-driven multistage compressor. Then as the air is mixed with fuel in the burners, more fuel is added to reach the afterburner stage. At speeds greater than Mach 2.2, six bypass tubes opened up to feed more air directly from the engine to the afterburner giving the engine greater fuel efficiency at extreme speeds.

The SR-71 During Air Refueling

Source

The World's First Stealth Airplane

In order to remain a stealth aircraft Lockheed engineers needed to find a way to hide the exhaust that flowed out of the Blackbirds massive J58 turbo-ramjets. Like everything else on the Blackbird the answer was something new and futuristic. By mixing the chemical compound cesium in the Blackbird's fuel it would cause the airplanes exhaust to ionize making it invisible to radar. This complicated ionization process still remains a key component of stealth and is still classified today. The Blackbird's technology though built in the 1960s is still leading edge in the twenty-first century.

The Blackbird was a flying fuel tank. Its tanks held over eleven thousand gallons of fuel. For long range missions the Blackbird would require air refueling. The Blackbird's fuel had requirements unlike any other airplane. During air refueling the Blackbird would be forced to lower altitudes and lower airspeeds. The temperature of the airplane's fuel would drop to -90 degrees Fahrenheit flying at speeds less than Mach 2, cruising at Mach 3, it would heat up to 285 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which most fuels boil and explode. To allow for such great temperature fluctuations, a new fuel was designed to maintain such a low vapor pressure that a person couldn't light it with a match.

The SR-71 Blackbird Possibly Over Nevada

Source
A SR-71 pilot in his pressurized suit whose helmet's visor captures the inky blackness of near space as the plane reached altitudes of over 80,000.
A SR-71 pilot in his pressurized suit whose helmet's visor captures the inky blackness of near space as the plane reached altitudes of over 80,000. | Source

The SR-71 in North Vietnam

In May 1967, the Blackbird would be used for the first time for reconnaissance missions over enemy territory in Operation Black Shield, above the skies of Honoi in North Vietnam. By the end of 1967, Blackbirds would fly twenty missions over North Vietnam and on several occasions they were fired on by SAMs (surface-to-air-missiles). Usually the Blackbird would be out of range before the enemy's radars could lock on to their targets, and if they did fire their missiles the Blackbird would increase its altitude and speed out-running whatever potential threat that existed. In the inky dark blue skies over North Vietnam the SR-71 Blackbird was invincible to the well defended city of Hanoi. During its entire service life not a single SR-71 would be brought down by a surface-to-missile.

The End of the Blackbird Era

The Blackbird's full potential has never been revealed to the world, but it has long been rumored that it could fly at speeds greater than Mach 3.3 and cruise at altitudes greater than 100,000 feet. The truth is the actual top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird remains a mystery and is still classified. Though the Blackbird was never been seriously threatened by enemy counter-measures, technology and politics would be its ultimate undoing, by the 1980s photo-reconnaissance had improved to the point that satellites would become more cost effective. In October 1997, using a line-item veto, President Bill Clinton stopped the funding for the Blackbird.

In total 2,850 Blackbird flights would be flown out of Area 51 over a period of six years. In the mid-1960s, during the Blackbird's testing, sightings of unidentified flying objects around Area 51 reached unprecedented heights, as the Blackbird flying out from Groom Lake was constantly mistaken for a UFO. Most Blackbird sightings came right after sunset, when the lower atmosphere was at the point of near darkness. With its strange silhouette the Blackbird looked other worldly to airline pilots cruising 6 miles below as the sun reflected off its titanium body. The question now is if there is a replacement for the Blackbird and rumor has it, that its the Aurora and it flies out of Groom Lake too. Only time will tell if the Aurora is a reality, someday the truth will be known.

Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson joined Lockheed in 1933 would lead the research at Skunk Works for over 42 years. Kelly Johnson and Gary Powers in front of a U-2 a high altitude spy plane designed to overfly the Soviet Union.
Kelly Johnson joined Lockheed in 1933 would lead the research at Skunk Works for over 42 years. Kelly Johnson and Gary Powers in front of a U-2 a high altitude spy plane designed to overfly the Soviet Union. | Source
Entrance plaza at the Skunk Works near Burbank California
Entrance plaza at the Skunk Works near Burbank California | Source

Kelly Johnson Skunk Works Legend

In plain view of the main runway at Burbank's Municipal Airport sits Lockheed's Skunk Works. Named Skunk Works because located next door to this famous factory was a plastics factory which filled the air with an unpleasant odor, which resembles a concrete blockhouse. During the Cold War Russian satellites regularly flew over Lockheed's massive five-square-mile production complex to monitor the secret activity at this mysterious factory. Most Skunk Workers are hand picked and pledged to keep their work a secret from the general public. Early in its evolution Skunk Works was led by Kelly Johnson, who first joined Lockheed in 1933 after he completed his masters degree as a tool designer on a salary of eighty-three dollars a month. By the time he retired forty-two years later, he would become recognized as the pre-eminent aerodynamics engineer of his time, who would create the fastest and highest-flying military airplanes in history. Principal customers of his creations were the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force such as the U2, SR71 and the F117 Nighthawk Stealth fighter.

Kelly Johnson's History in Planes

A view of earth from the cockpit of a U-2 flying at an altitiude of over 70,000 ft.
A view of earth from the cockpit of a U-2 flying at an altitiude of over 70,000 ft. | Source
A U-2 Dragon Lady painted black to help hide it from radar guided missiles. The U-2 was the first reconnaissance plane built to fly at extreme altitudes over the Soviet Union. It was an ultra light plane that was difficult to fly.
A U-2 Dragon Lady painted black to help hide it from radar guided missiles. The U-2 was the first reconnaissance plane built to fly at extreme altitudes over the Soviet Union. It was an ultra light plane that was difficult to fly. | Source
The F-104 Starfighter was the first combat aircraft capable of a sustained air speed of Mach 2 . The F-104 was the first aircraft to simultaneously hold the world speed (1,404 mph) and altitude records (103,3089 ft.).
The F-104 Starfighter was the first combat aircraft capable of a sustained air speed of Mach 2 . The F-104 was the first aircraft to simultaneously hold the world speed (1,404 mph) and altitude records (103,3089 ft.). | Source
Chuck Yeager in the cockpit of an NF-104, December 4, 1963.
Chuck Yeager in the cockpit of an NF-104, December 4, 1963. | Source
Perhaps his most liked plane the SR-71 Blackbird which was painted black to reduce the impact on the plane as it traveled at over Mach 3. The Blackbird's fuselage would heat up to temperatures of over 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Perhaps his most liked plane the SR-71 Blackbird which was painted black to reduce the impact on the plane as it traveled at over Mach 3. The Blackbird's fuselage would heat up to temperatures of over 500 degrees Fahrenheit. | Source
 A view from the cockpit of a SR-71 at 83,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean pilots could see the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth.
A view from the cockpit of a SR-71 at 83,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean pilots could see the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth. | Source
The P-38 Lightning one of the best fighters in WWII chosen for "Operation Vengeance" the shooting down of Admiral  Yamamoto's Mitsubishi "Betty" bomber over the Island of Bougainville April 18, 1943, the man who led the attack on Pear Harbor.
The P-38 Lightning one of the best fighters in WWII chosen for "Operation Vengeance" the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto's Mitsubishi "Betty" bomber over the Island of Bougainville April 18, 1943, the man who led the attack on Pear Harbor. | Source

SR-72 Aurora Black Project Aircraft

Aurora SR-72
Aurora SR-72 | Source
Aurora SR-72 in flight.
Aurora SR-72 in flight. | Source
The Aurora SR-72 on the ground.
The Aurora SR-72 on the ground. | Source

The Golden Age of Skunk Works

The man who did the most to put Area 51 on the map was a relatively unknown self described engineer named Bob Lazar. His vivid stories of having worked in Sector 4 (known as S-4) at Area 51 would created an international sensation around what was going on at this super military airbase. He disclosed that the U.S. Air Force was test flying alien spacecraft at this isolated desert airbase, and that he himself had worked with other scientist to attempt to back-engineer the propulsion systems on these spacecraft. In the 1950s, well before it had taken on the aurora of extraterrestrial mystery, the air base was known as the Watertown landing strip. In the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, after Bob Lazar went public a booming interest in Area 51 brought many people to this desert hideout to witness the mysterious lights in the sky above the base.

The first official acknowledgement of Area 51 took place on June 25,2013, almost fifty years after the U.S. Air Force began testing it first planes at the base. The base was a product of the Cold War and the paranoia surrounding the nuclear arms race between the United Stated and the Soviet Union before the use of satellites. It was determined by the American leadership a plane was needed to over-fly the Soviet Union to keep track of Soviet missile deployment.

Area 51 at Groom Lake

Groom Lake and the airbase at Area 51.
Groom Lake and the airbase at Area 51. | Source
Diagram of the airbase on Groom Lake inside Area 51.
Diagram of the airbase on Groom Lake inside Area 51. | Source
An A-12 (SR-71) takes off from Groom Lake during one of the first test flights, piloted by Louis Schalk, April 26, 1962.
An A-12 (SR-71) takes off from Groom Lake during one of the first test flights, piloted by Louis Schalk, April 26, 1962. | Source

Robert "Ben" Rich the Father of Stealth Technology

Robert "Ben" Rich joined Lockheed Skunk Works in 1954 and served as Kelly Johnson's chief engineer on the U-2 and the SR-71. In 1975, he succeeded Kelly Johnson as head of the Skunk Works, where he created the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter.
Robert "Ben" Rich joined Lockheed Skunk Works in 1954 and served as Kelly Johnson's chief engineer on the U-2 and the SR-71. In 1975, he succeeded Kelly Johnson as head of the Skunk Works, where he created the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter. | Source

The F117 Nighthawk

22 F117 Nighthawk Stealth fighters lined up and ready for deployment in the first Gulf War over 42 were sent to Saudi Arabia.
22 F117 Nighthawk Stealth fighters lined up and ready for deployment in the first Gulf War over 42 were sent to Saudi Arabia. | Source
Two F117s on the way to an airshow with the American flag painted on the bottom of the aircraft.
Two F117s on the way to an airshow with the American flag painted on the bottom of the aircraft. | Source
The F117 Nighthawk stealth fighter with its stealthy black surface.
The F117 Nighthawk stealth fighter with its stealthy black surface. | Source
An F-117 on a live exercise dropping a GBU-27 laser-guided bomb.
An F-117 on a live exercise dropping a GBU-27 laser-guided bomb. | Source

Nazi Technology at Area 51

The idea flying saucers were real and they were created in Nazi Germany, is the type of sensational story that creates conspiracies, but there is no real evidence to confirm these extraordinary rumors. But it could be another high security project not known outside Area 51. One area where interests of the black airplane and flying saucer enthusiasts has crossed paths is a suggestion that the flying saucers actually were black airplanes, disc-shaped aircraft manufactured here on earth. One avenue of thought suggests secret German advanced aeronautical projects, whose files and hardware were collected by the American military during Operation Paperclip after the end of the Second World War are now being tested at Area 51. Germany had built the world's first operational jet fighter, the Me262. Also, the world's first operational jet bomber, the German Arado AR234 which was only used on a limited basis before the end of the war.

America also captured Wernher von Braun's V-2 ballistic missile the foundation of technology which would put Neil Armstrong on the moon in July 1969. Among the many secret projects in wartime Germany was the Horten IX, a tailless flying wing, created by the brothers Walter and Reimer Horten which made its first powered flight in February 1945. Among the most unusual questions about German aircraft designed during the Second World War were those of various disc-shaped aircraft. In his book German Jet Genesis, David Masters mentions a disc-shaped aircraft created by Schreiver and Meithe with a diameter of 138 feet, which climbed to nearly 40,000 feet in three minutes during a February 1945 test flight.

Horton Brothers Stealth Aircraft

The Horton brothers Ho 299 stealth plane made of a wood composite. The Ho 299 was the world's first jet powered flying wing.
The Horton brothers Ho 299 stealth plane made of a wood composite. The Ho 299 was the world's first jet powered flying wing. | Source
Cross-section of the Horten Ho 229 composite wood laminate
Cross-section of the Horten Ho 229 composite wood laminate | Source
Blue print of the Ho299.
Blue print of the Ho299. | Source
The Horten brothers: Walter (left) and Reimar (right) note the SS uniforms.
The Horten brothers: Walter (left) and Reimar (right) note the SS uniforms. | Source
Impression of Die Glocke the German flying Bell. The Nazis attempt at anti-gravity propulsion.
Impression of Die Glocke the German flying Bell. The Nazis attempt at anti-gravity propulsion. | Source
A copy of the HO 299 made for the discovery Channel.
A copy of the HO 299 made for the discovery Channel. | Source
The TR-3B Black Manta. Reports that were officially denied by the U.S. Air Force suggests that the Black Manta was secretly used during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, possibly to laser designate targets for F117A Nighthawk air strikes.
The TR-3B Black Manta. Reports that were officially denied by the U.S. Air Force suggests that the Black Manta was secretly used during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, possibly to laser designate targets for F117A Nighthawk air strikes. | Source
The RQ-170 drone used over Afghanistan today.
The RQ-170 drone used over Afghanistan today. | Source

Dreamland : Area 51

The restricted airspace over Groom Lake and the Nevada Test Range called Dreamland by many is a place where during the 1950s ,1960s and 1970s nuclear weapons were comprehensively tested in the atmosphere. Area 51 was chosen because of the mysterious surroundings related to the fear of radiation associated to these atmospheric tests. At that time in history little was know about the deadly after effects of a nuclear detonation. The United States Army would use it own troops as guinea pigs to determine the chances of surviving a nuclear war. It is no wonder that Skunk Works would chose such a site to test its most secret aircraft. Bob Lazar had reported that he had seen the Arora aircraft while was working inside Area 51. In southern California and elsewhere, numerous reports of unusual pulsing sounds in the sky were recorded, as well as many sightings of contrails described as resembling "doughnuts on a rope." The secret is out about the Arora aircraft, but that is the tip of the iceberg when I comes to what is going on at Area 51. Few will ever know the true story about Area 51, but many searching for the truth will continue to attempt to part the curtains hiding on what is going on at the base.

Dreamland in the Nevada Desert

Radioactive materials were accidentally released from the 1970 Baneberry nuclear detonation.
Radioactive materials were accidentally released from the 1970 Baneberry nuclear detonation. | Source
Nuclear explosions in various areas of Nevada Test Site.
Nuclear explosions in various areas of Nevada Test Site. | Source
North end of Yucca Flat, where most atomic bomb tests have been conducted, Area 51 is just over the mountains in the background.
North end of Yucca Flat, where most atomic bomb tests have been conducted, Area 51 is just over the mountains in the background. | Source
During the 1960s American troops were used as test subjects to determine the effects of radiation on humans.
During the 1960s American troops were used as test subjects to determine the effects of radiation on humans. | Source
Mushroom cloud seen from downtown Las Vegas from the Nevada Test Site.
Mushroom cloud seen from downtown Las Vegas from the Nevada Test Site. | Source

Sources

Annie Jacobsen, Area 51 An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base., Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company., Hachette Book Group 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

Rich Ben. Skunk Works Little, Brown and Company . Hachette Book Group Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

Bill Yenne. Black Jets: A History Of The Aircraft Development At Groom Lake, America's Secret Aviation Base., Zenith Press, A member of Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc., 400 First Avenue North, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55401 USA.


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