The SR-71, a Deep Indigo Blue Bird
The SR-71 Blackbird was the fastest production aircraft of all time. Lockheed’s Skunk Works developed the SR-71. The SR-71’s designation was a Strategic Reconnaissance aircraft. It began as the A-11, a development aircraft. The three A-11s were converted to YF-12A prototypes. These aircraft first flew in 1964. The Air Force initially wanted it as a fighter. The Air Force decided against using it as a fighter but ordered 33 of them as reconnaissance aircraft. The Air Force also bought two SR-71 trainers. Lockheed delivered the first SR-71 to the 42nd Strategic Reconnaissance Wing of Strategic Air Command (SAC). The 42nd was later designated the 9th. This was the only unit to fly the SR-71.[i]
The SR-71 had three features that made it difficult to shoot down. It had a service ceiling of 85,000 feet (25,800 meters).[ii] It had stealth features. It was the first, and for over a decade the only, deployed aircraft to have such features. Its speed far outstripped any aircraft in any military inventory.
The aircraft is mostly made of a titanium alloy. The SR-71 was dubbed the Blackbird because it’s painted a deep indigo blue. This color has a high rate of heat emission. The aircraft’s high cruising speed and altitude meant its surface temperature could reach 1,100ᵒF (590ᵒC) so anything that could slow down overheating was helpful. The paint used absorbed radar energy.[iii]
[i] Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.
[ii] The Complete Reference to the SR-71, https://www.thesr71blackbird.com/, last accessed 2/16/19.
[iii]Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.
The SR-71s Predecessors in Testing and Tragedy
The first A-12 crash happened on May 24, 1963. The pilot, Ken Collins, ejected safely. The press was told it was an F-105 Thunderchief that crashed.[i] On July 9, 1964 an A-12’s flight controls locked up on landing approach and pilot Bill Park ejected at 200 feet in a 45-degree bank angle. A CIA pilot was flying an A-12 on December 28, 1965. The Stability Augmentation System (SAS) was wired incorrectly. He wasn’t able to control the aircraft 100 feet above the runway and ejected safely. M-21s were A-12s modified to launch D-21 reconnaissance drones. A D-21 pitched down and broke an M-21 in half on July 30, 1966. The crew made safe ejections. Pilot Bill Park survived but Launch Control Officer (LCO) Ray Torick drowned in the Pacific Ocean when he opened his helmet visor. This tragedy caused Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the program director, to cancel the M-21/D21 program. A Y-12A was lost in a landing accident on August 14, 1966. The aircraft wasn’t a complete loss since the rear half was used to build the SR-71C, serial number 61-7981. SR-71C (61-7981) made it first flight on March 14, 1969. [ii]
[i] SR-71.org, Blackbird Losses, https://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/losses.php, last accessed 2/17/2019
[ii] SR-71.org, Blackbird Losses, https://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/losses.php, last accessed 2/17/2019
The SR-71 in Testing and Service
In May 1965 an SR-71 set an absolute speed record of 2,070 MPH (Mach 3.14) at 80,000 feet (24,000 meters).[i] The first SR-71 crash occurred during a high-speed, high-altitude test flight on January 25, 1966. The aircraft disintegrated in flight. Pilot Bill Weaver was thrown from the aircraft when the seat belt straps tore. His seat stayed in the cockpit. He landed safely. Reconnaissance System Officer (RSO), Jim Zwayer died from the high-G bailout. [ii] Jim Zwayer was the only person to die in an SR-71 crash.[iii]
SR-71s flew missions as part of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. The USAF lost two SR-71s in Vietnam operations from mishaps. No SR-71 was lost to enemy action in Vietnam or anywhere else. This is not from lack of effort or opportunity. There are reports of over 1,000 attempts to shoot down a Blackbird.[iv]
The first operational sortie of the SR-71 occurred on March 21, 1968. The flight was over North Vietnam.[v] During the Yom Kippur War an SR-71 flew a mission from New York to Egypt. It was an 11-hour mission. Over Egypt Egyptian surface to air missile (SAM) batteries tracked the SR-71. The SR-71 accelerated and was outside of Egyptian airspace before the Egyptian air defenses could launch missiles. Over Israel Israeli SAM batteries fired a barrage of missiles at the intruding aircraft. SR-71s flew 8 additional sorties over the combatant countries before the ceasefire. On August 26, 1981 North Korea fired a missile at an SR-71 over North Korean airspace.[vi] After the U.S. struck Libyan targets in Operation El Dorado Canyon an SR-71 flew over Libya to photograph the damage. Libyan air defenses fired a SAM at the SR-71. The crew had to decide if they should abort the mission. They decided to use the SR-71’s main defense, speed, to outrun the missile. The SR-71 outran the missile and completed its mission.[vii]
In 1982 the USAF based two SR-71s at Royal Air Force Base Mindenhall for reconnaissance missions of Eastern Europe.[viii] In one incident peace activists trespassed onto the base and painted a peace symbol on an SR-71.
On June 29, 1987 an engine on an SR-71, crewed by Lieutenant Colonels Duane Noll and Tom Veltri, exploded while it was flying a mission over the Barents Sea and the Baltic Sea. It was flying Mach 3.0 at 75,000 feet. Lt. Col Noll turned the plane towards Sweden. When the plane violated Swedish airspace the Swedish Air Force redirected two Saab JA 37 Viggens, piloted by Majors Roger Moller and Krister Sjöberg, to intercept the intruding aircraft. The Swedish Air Force scrambled two other Viggens. Moller and Sjöberg escorted the Blackbird until the other Viggens relieved them. As with any mission that involves violating another countries airspace this incident was classified. The USAF awarded the Swedish Viggen pilots Air Medals on November 28, 2018.[ix]
In 1987 SR-71s based in Kadina AB, Japan flew missions to the Persian Gulf. These missions discovered Iranian Silkworm anti-ship missile batteries.[x] The last SR-71 loss occurred on April 21, 1989 over the South China Sea. An engine exploded and damaged hydraulic lines, causing loss of flight control. Pilot Major Daniel E. House and RSO Captain Blair L. Bozek ejected. A native fisherman rescued them. There were 12 SR-71 losses.[xi]
In 1989 the USAF retired the SR-71. The Air Force decided alternate systems could perform its mission at lower cost. The SR-71 was an expensive plane to fly. The SR-71 had many fans, including members of Congress. Congress brought two Blackbirds out of retirement in 1995. In 1996 the Air Force grounded the SR-71 because there were no funds to fly it. Congress authorized the funds and an SR-71 flew a mission. President William Clinton used the line-item veto on the SR-71 funding for Fiscal Year 1998. The Supreme Court ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional in June 1998. That September the Air Force asked the $39 million for the SR-71 be redistributed, permanently retiring the Blackbird.[xii]
In the 1990s the Air Force loaned two SR-71s to NASA for high-speed high-altitude research. The first research flight took place in March 1993. In 1997 and 1998 the SR-71 tested Lockheed Martin Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE). On these flights the SR-71 flew with a scale model of a lifting body on its back. The SR-71 acted as a flying wind tunnel. The last NASA research flight took place on October 9, 1999.[xiii]
The Smithsonian’s SR-71 retired in style. On March 6, 1990 Lt. Col. Ed Yielding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida flew this Blackbird from Los Angeles to Dulles International Airport. The flight was 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds. Its average speed was 2,124 MPH (3,418 kph).[xiv]
[i] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.
[ii] SR-71.org, Blackbird Losses, https://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/losses.php, last accessed 2/17/2019
[iii] The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remember, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRyIGTkcmII, last accessed 2/16/2019.
[iv] Was the SR-71 ever shot down? By Samuel Blasius, https://www.quora.com/Was-the-SR-71-ever-shot-down, lst accessed 2/17/19.
[v] Five Countries Who Fired Missiles At SR-71 Blackbirds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOjEeGY4QCM, last accessed 2/17/19.
[vi] Five Countries Who Fired Missiles At SR-71 Blackbirds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOjEeGY4QCM, last accessed 2/17/19.
[vii] Five Countries Who Fired Missiles At SR-71 Blackbirds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOjEeGY4QCM, last accessed 2/17/19.
[viii] National Air & Space Museum, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/lockheed-sr-71-blackbird, last accessed 2/17/19.
[ix] That Time A Crippled SR-71 Blackbird In Emergency Was Intercepted By Four Swedish Viggens After Violating Sweden’s Airspace, by David Cenciotti, https://www.thesr71blackbird.com/Aircraft/Stories/that-time-a-crippled-sr-71-blackbird-in-emergency-was-intercepted-by-four-swedish-viggens-after-violating-swedens-airspace, accessed 2/17/19.
[x] National Air & Space Museum, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/lockheed-sr-71-blackbird, last accessed 2/20/19.
[xi] SR-71.org, Blackbird Losses, https://www.sr-71.org/blackbird/losses.php, last accessed 2/17/2019. There were 8 losses of SR-71 predecessors, A-12, YF-12, & M-21.
[xii] Blackbird Roars Out of Extinction, by Don Jergler, The Antelope Valley Press, August 17, 1999, https://www.thesr71blackbird.com/Aircraft/History/blackbird-roars-out-of-extinction, last accessed 2/17/19.
[xiii] NASA web site, NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: SR-71 Blackbird, https://www.nasa.gov/centers/armstrong/news/FactSheets/FS-030-DFRC.html, last accessed 2/20/19.
[xiv] National Air & Space Museum, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/lockheed-sr-71-blackbird, last accessed 2/20/19.
Urban Legends and Films
When the Air Force began putting the SR-71 on public display in the mid-1970s rumors began that the Air Force did this because they had a hypersonic jet. These urban legends have persisted. The U.S. military has carried out some experiments with hypersonic aircraft. No such jet is operational.[i]
In Queen Amidala’s spaceship in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” and the X-Jet in the “X-Men” movies resemble the SR-71. One of the Autobots in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was the Smithsonian’s SR-71. The character was a geriatric Autobot. In the episode “Sighting 4005: The Medicine Bow Incident” of the television series Project U.F.O. the investigative team concluded the U.F.O. an airline pilot report was an SR-71.[ii]
[i] US Military’s Hypersonic Jet Could Fly 5 Times the Speed of Sound, by Elizabeth Howell, June 30, 2015, https://www.livescience.com/51388-hypersonic-jet-could-fly-mach-5.html, last accessed 2/24/19.
[ii] This episode was loosely based on a 1948 incident. The television series was set in the 1960s so some U.F.O. incidents were changed to fit the period’s setting.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi