The SR-71 Blackbird
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The SR-71 Blackbird

The SR-71 Blackbird, one of the technological marvels of the Cold War

                        The SR-71 Blackbird’s emergence was brought about by necessity coupled with the timely post war advancement of jet engines. Probably one of the most extraordinary technological marvels of the Cold War, it evolved as a delicate piece of complex war machinery with the most elaborate engineering design and remarkable operational characteristics imaginable in aviation history. Designed and built by Lockheed Skunk Works as a Black project, the aircraft was shrouded in mystery until the fall of communism in Russia in 1991 for which most Black project aircraft were initially introduced to the public like the way another Lockheed aircraft, the F-117 stealth fighter was presented to the world in 1988.            

Image by Wikimedia Commons

                         Operationally, the Blackbird is an advanced, long range strategic reconnaissance (giving rise to its model type designation, SR for Strategic Reconnaissance) platform developed from the early Lockheed aircraft, the A-12 and the YF-12A. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was responsible for most of its design’s special features giving rise to its high speed and high operating altitude capability allowing it to achieve evasive action by merely flying fast enough out of the reach of most surface to air missiles (SAMs) if detected. Powered by two Pratt and Whitney J58-1 continuous-bleed afterburning turbojets rated at 35,000 lbf (145 kN) each, this type of aircraft still holds the world’s fastest air breathing manned aircraft record which still stands to date. By the numbers, it has the maximum speed of Mach 3.2 + (2,200+ mph, 3,530+ km/h) at 80,000 ft and a range of 2,900 nmi (5,400 km). Due to the immense heat generated at high speeds as the fuselage reacts with the atmosphere, 85% of the aircraft structure was titanium and 15 % of it made of composite materials, pioneering its first use in aviation. Compared to the Concorde with a maximum speed of Mach 2.2 (≈1,450 mph, 2,330 km/h), the SR-71 is more than a mach faster and if you ever compare it to the velocity of a speeding bullet, taking the muzzle velocity of an M-16 rifle at 3,510 km/h this bird still leads at 20-22 km/h faster. With a crew of 2 pilots wearing specialized full protective pressure suits, this aircraft was no ordinary machine indeed. It was later told that NASA astronauts actually adopted the protective pressure suits for use on the Space Shuttle during ascent, suits originally made for the SR-71 by the company David Clark. 

Image by Wikimedia Commons

                           With an issue centered on the budget to keep it operational in the 1970s and onwards, the fleet of Blackbirds was placed on retirement in 1989. Another issue concerning the Blackbird’s advantage against satellite data in 1993 allowed it to be reactivated years later but lobbyists in the prospering military applications of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) like the Global Hawk succeeded to oppose the continuous presence of the SR-71 in order to have the main advantage on the defense budget. The Blackbird was finally retired in 1998. During its operational lifespan, 32 Blackbirds have gone into production starting with its maiden flight in 22 December 1964. 12 of the type were lost in undisclosed circumstances, 19 were left preserved at various aviation museums within the United States and one in the American Air Museum in the United Kingdom (Cambridgeshire, England) .


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Comments (5)

A very impressive aircraft and a very detailed article. Thank you Will for the info here.

Wow! That was an exciting read!

Very informative and detailed article Will.Excellent job as per!Beautiful plane, I would like to see one!

It's amazing how fast these types of airplanes can fly. Good work, kabayan.

I love the design of this plane.