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The SR-71 Blackbird Supersonic Spy Plane

Updated on August 19, 2015

Fastest Plane In The Sky

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest plane to ever dominate the sky. Capable of capturing speeds in excess of 2200 mph, over three times the speed of sound! To illustrate how fast, imagine traveling faster than a 30-06 bullet. If not for its specially designed frame and ingenious cooling system, sustained flight at these speeds would literally melt the plane. The body temperature got so hot traveling over Mach 3 it would glow red.

And it could exceed altitudes above 80,000 feet. It is the fastest, highest-flying plane on record. At the time it was built, each SR-71 cost 33 million.

Although several Lockheed crewmembers were killed during the testing stages of the Blackbird the Air Force never lost a man. The SR-71 flew for 17 years without a loss of plane or crew.

Only 32 Made

It was a long-range, delta-wing strategic reconnaissance aircraft, made to evade incoming surface -to-air missiles. Only 32 blackbirds were ever made between 1964 and 1998. Twelve were lost in accidents…but none were ever shot down in over 4,000 attempts. The SR-71 had no use for any armament. It was so fast it simply outran any threat.

The planes’ demise was its’ enormous maintenance costs. It required over 450 hours of repair for every hour flown. Mechanics would sigh in exasperation every time one returned from a typical 8 hour mission.

Extreme Altitudes

Because of the extreme altitudes the SR-71 flew at, pilots had to wear a full pressure suit. However, at the tremendous speeds it flew at the plane consumed so much fuel it could only operate at top speed for an hour and needed to be refueled. The Blackbird's airframe is constructed almost entirely of titanium and covered by a special heat emitting black paint which helps cool the aircraft.

The SR-71 was in service from 1964 to 1998 and was unofficially named the Blackbird. The crews referred to it as the Habu, a small, extremely poisonous Okinawan pit viper. Mechanics and crewmembers for the sleek aircraft were also nicknamed “Habu’s.” Since 1976, it still holds the world record for the fastest air breathing manned aircraft.

There have been a total of 478 people to have piloted this craft. In fact, more people have climbed Mount Everest than have flown in it. Those lucky enough to have ridden in the 2 seated trainer model each received a Mach 3 pin and patch stating "I flew three times the speed of sound".

The Blackbird’s supersonic speeds presented special problems for its designers. Traveling at over Mach 3, air in front of the aircraft is compressed resulting in a supersonic shock wave, developing heat which is transferred to the frame. Therefore, the frame was constructed mainly of titanium. Titanium is very expensive and scarce.

The titanium for the Blackbird was obtained from the USSR…during the Cold War. Lockheed had to come up with many innovative strategies to keep the Soviets from knowing what it was really being used for. Making the Blackbird's structure using 85% titanium was a first in the aircraft industry. Studies on the Blackbird’s super heated titanium covering showed it actually grew stronger over time. The SR-71 also had special features incorporated into the design which made it difficult to track its’ radar signature (Stealth technology.)

Pilots flying at extreme altitudes had two main problems. Maintaining consciousness at high altitude and being able to survive an emergency ejection. Standard pressure demand masks aren’t sufficient for human lungs to absorb oxygen quickly enough above 43,000 feet. The cockpit pressure on the chest also makes exhalation very difficult. Additionally, ejection at Mach 3.2 would immediately expose the pilot to approximately 450 °F of heat. Thus, the need for special pressure suits which were later used on the space shuttle.

Out of the total of 32 SR-71's built, 21 still exist and are in museums or are waiting to find a home in one. However, they are missing several key parts. Their cameras and sensors have been removed because they are still classified. The Blackbird was equipped with a wide variety of cameras and sensors, many unique to only the SR-71.

How good were the cameras on the aircraft?They could photograph a golf ball on the green from 80,000 feet and could survey 110,000 square miles of the Earth's surface per hour.


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