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Why this plane was invincible: SR-71 Blackbird Story

Story of the world's fastest supersonic spy legend.

Today in this article (Why this plane was invincible: SR-71 Blackbird Story), you will get the complete story of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird:

The Lockheed “SR-71 Blackbird” is a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed and built by the famous American aerospace company Lockheed Corporation. It was operated by both the United States Air Force (USAF) and NASA.

It’s capable of flying 26 km above the planet’s surface so high that the pilots could see the curvature of the Earth and the Inky black of space from their cockpit. The SR-71 Blackbird is the most Magnificent and striking aircraft ever built and one of the early examples of stealth aircraft. There were only 32 blackbirds ever built. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird price for every unit is $34 million.

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was designed to go up to about Mach 3 and was designed to minimize its radar cross-section. SR-71 has a flight crew of two in tandem cockpits. The pilot in the forward cockpit and the reconnaissance systems officer operating the rear cockpit’s surveillance systems and equipment. The planes were painted in a dark blue, almost black color, to increase internal heat emission and act as camouflage against the night sky. The dark color led to the aircraft’s nickname “Blackbird.”

The SR-71 Blackbird kept no conventional weapons for self-defense. Many of the time for self-defense relied heavily on radar and communications jamming sensors and its covert capabilities. More than 4,000 missiles were fired at it during its 25 years of service, but none ever hit its mark.

The SR-71 did more than take pictures. It could aim it’s radar 45 degrees to the side, it could map the Terrain like a side-scan Sonar, and it could intercept enemy communication and radar signals. It could record its entire flight path with infrared cameras to prove to countries that it didn’t violate their airspace. The camera on the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird could take a photograph clear enough to read the number plate of a car on the ground while the plane flies 80,000 feet above the Earth and the speed of over 2000 mph.

SR-71 Blackbird Specifications:

General characteristics

  • Maximum speed: (Mach 3.32) 1,910 kn (2,200 mph, 3,540 km/h) at 80,000 ft (24,000 m)
  • Ferry range: 2,824 mi (3,250 mi, 5,230 km)
  • Crew: 2; Pilot and reconnaissance systems officer (RSO)
  • Length: 107 ft 5 in (32.74 m)
  • Wingspan: 55 ft 7 in (16.94 m)
  • Height: 18 ft 6 in (5.64 m)
  • Empty weight: 67,500 lb (30,617 kg)
  • Gross weight: 152,000 lb (68,946 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 172,000 lb (78,018 kg)
  • Payload: 3,500 lb (1,588 kg) of mission equipment.
  • Fuel capacity: 12,219.2 US gal (10,174.6 imp gal; 46,255 l) in 6 tank groups (9 tanks)
  • Engines: 2 × Pratt & Whitney J58 (JT11D-20J or JT11D-20K) afterburning turbojets, 25,000 lbf (110 kN) thrust each.

 

SR-71 Blackbird Engine:

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird flew so fast that the engineers had to develop entirely new materials and designs to mitigate and dissipate the heat generated from aerodynamics friction. Unique engines were needed to function from zero up to Mach 3.2, dealing with a myriad of problems like cooling fuel efficiency and Supersonic shock waves interfering with airflow. The maximum flight speed of SR-71 is limited by the air temperature entering the engine compressor, which was not certified for temperatures above 800 °F (430 °C).

The SR-71 was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58 (company designation JT11D-20) axial-flow turbojet engines. Basically, J58 was a considerable innovation of the era, capable of producing a static thrust of 32,500 lbf (145 kN) using a turbojet and a ramjet’s functionality. The engine was most efficient around Mach 3.2, the Blackbird’s typical cruising speed. Below Mach 2.0, the air is pulled into the inlet, slowed down, and then compressed by a turbine-driven multistage compressor.

 

SR-71 Blackbird Engine
Pratt & Whitney J58

Later, the burner’s air is mixed with the fuel and combined with the exhaust in the latter stage with more energy. But when speeds greater than Mach 2.2, six bypass tubes open around the engine, and direct air moves from the fourth stage of the compressor to the afterburner. This gives the engine more fuel efficiency.

At take-off, the afterburner provided 26% of the thrust. This proportion increased progressively with speed until the afterburner provided all the thrust at about Mach 3. These engines could only provide 17.6 percent of the thrust required for Mach 3.2 flight.

SR-71 Blackbird Story:

So, here now begins the main content of the invincible plane, SR-71 Blackbird Story.

The Cold War triggered the need for spy aircraft, which locked the United States and the Soviet Union into a tense conflict for global influence and control. During the Cold War, both the countries wanted to spy on each other from the sky, and for this, they have to build a spy plane that would never fall under the grip of any radar and quickly pass the enemy country fighter plane can fly up to 90,000 feet.

“The CIA wanted a plane that could fly above 90,000 feet or thereabouts, at high speed and as invisible to radar as it was feasible,” said Merlin.

In 1959, the task of designing such an ambitious machine fell on Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, one of the world’s most excellent aircraft designers, and his secret division of engineers at Lockheed, called Skunk Works. Lockheed’s Skunk Works division developed the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird during the 1960s as a black project from a Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance aircraft. The CIA approved a US$96 million contract for Skunk Works to build a dozen spy planes, named “A-12” on February 11, 1960.

The original plan in the Blackbird family was called the A-12 and made its maiden flight on April 30, 1962. In total, 13 A-12s were produced, and the plane was a top-secret, unique access program operated by the CIA. Initially designed for the CIA for reconnaissance, the A-12 was also developed as an interceptor prototype, along with a variant that could launch a UAV reconnaissance drone. The SR-71 Blackbird, a later variant developed for the Air Force, would serve for decades while the other variants were quickly retired.

On December 28, 1962: Lockheed signs a contract to build 6 SR-71 aircraft. The SR-71 designation is a continuation of the pre-1962 bomber series; the last aircraft built using the series was the XB-70 Valkyrie. However, a bomber variant was briefly given to the B-71 designator, which was retained when the type was changed to SR-71.

During the 1964 campaign, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater repeatedly criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration for falling behind the Soviet Union in developing new weapons.

Johnson decided to counter this criticism by revealing the YF-12A USAF interceptor’s existence, which also served as cover for the still-secret A-12 and the USAF reconnaissance model since July 1964. USAF Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay preferred the S.R. (Strategic Reconnaissance) designation and wanted the RS-71 named SR-71.

Before the July speech, LeMay lobbied to modify Johnson’s speech to read “SR-71” instead of “RS-71”. The media transcript was given to the press while still had the earlier RS-71 designation in places, creating the story that the president had misread the aircraft’s title. To conceal the A-12’s existence, Johnson referred only to the A-11, while revealing the presence of high speed, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

The first flight of an SR-71 took place on December 22, 1964, at USAF Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, piloted by Bob Gilliland. But was not in service for nearly 25 years, it is still the fastest aircraft ever. The shape and design of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird were based on the A-12, one of the first aircraft to be designed with reduced radar cross-section.

The SR-71 has reached a top speed of Mach 3.4 during flight testing, with pilot Major Brian Shul reporting Mach 3.5 on an operational sortie while evading a missile over Libya. The first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later, 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California, in January 1966.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird:
SR-71 Blackbird:

In 1968, The Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara canceled the F-12 interceptor program. Special tooling used to manufacture both the YF-12 and SR-71 was also ordered to be dismantled. The SR-71 was produced with 32 aircraft with 29 SR-71As, two SR-71Bs, and a single SR-71C.

Nevertheless, the SR-71 set several air performance records. Like, in July 1976, it reached an unimaginable altitude of 85,068.997 ft. On March 21, 1968: First SR-71 (A.F. Ser. No. 61-7976) operational mission flown from Kadena AB over Vietnam

From 1966 until its last mission in 1989, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird flew thousands of missions worldwide, photographing military installations from China to Egypt, the Arctic Circle to North Korea.

In 1990, During aerial reconnaissance missions, a Blackbird flew from the West Coast of the United States to the East Coast in a little shy of one hour and eight minutes, hitting an average speed of 2,124.51 mph. The SR-71 operated at high speeds and altitudes (Mach 3.2 and 85,000 feet, 25,900 meters) to allow it to outrace threats. If a surface-to-air missile launch was detected, the standard evasive action was to accelerate and outfly the missile.

Retirement of Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird:

Nothing lasts forever, though. For many years, the SR-71 Blackbird had been invincible, with the ability to outfly and out-climb any threat. Still, by the 1980s,  there is an increase in threats capable of countering the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, together with improved enemy air defenses and introducing of the MiG-31 by the Soviet Union, which was armed with the R-33 air-to-air missile might intercept the Blackbird. The U.S. Army turned to spy satellites, which flew excessively above these threats and ended the SR-71 program in 1990.

The greatest threat to the Blackbird was not an enemy missile or jet. It was itself. Not even a single SR-71 Blackbird was lost on any mission, but more than a third of the 50 were destroyed in accidents. One disintegrated around its pilot; they were also enormously expensive to operate—each one siphoning about 300 million dollars a year out of America’s defense budget.

The reactivation met much resistance: the USAF had not budgeted for the aircraft, and UAV developers worried that their programs would suffer if money were shifted to support the SR-71s. Also, with the allocation requiring yearly reaffirmation by Congress, long-term planning for the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was difficult.

In 1996, the USAF claimed that specific funding had not been authorized and moved to ground the program. Congress reauthorized the funds, but, in October 1997, President Bill Clinton attempted to use the line-item veto to cancel the $39 million allocated for the SR-71. In June 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the line-item veto was unconstitutional. All this left the SR-71’s status uncertain until September 1998, when the USAF called for the funds to be redistributed. The SR-71 Blackbirds were finally retired from service in 1998.

On average, each SR-71 could fly once per week due to the extended turn around required after mission recovery. 32 aircraft were built; 12 were lost in accidents with none lost to enemy action. During 1988, the USAF retired the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird mainly due to political reasons; several were briefly reactivated during the 1990s before their second retirement in 1998.

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NASA was the final operator of the type, retiring their examples in 1999. Since its retirement, the SR-71’s role has been taken up by combining reconnaissance satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). All other Blackbirds have been moved to museums except for the two SR-71s and a few D-21 drones retained by the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (later renamed the Armstrong Flight Research Center).

Nearly 60 years after their first flight, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and its A-12 successors remain the fastest air-breathing jets ever to fly. Lockheed’s engineers had to innovate many aspects of the aircraft from unique engine characteristics, stealth features to the extensive use of titanium for the first time in a plane.

Over the years, 32 SR-71 Blackbirds – in addition to 13 similar-looking A-12 Oxcarts (a single-seat CIA precursor plane developed by Lockheed Skunkworks as part of Project Archangel) and three YF-12 prototypes and two drone-launching M-21s – have been constructed. Today, you will find some 30 remaining Blackbirds and Oxcarts scattered in museums and U.S. Air Force bases all through the nation, for instance, at the USAF Museum, in Dayton, Ohio, and the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C.

The successor of Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird:

There have been many rumors of a secret follow-on spy plane known as the Aurora. However, they continue to remain unproven. Ironically, the older U-2 remains to be in service because the high-altitude Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, which was supposed to interchange the aging aircraft, still dwells because of its billing.

The U-2 can even fly higher than the Global Hawk, carry a larger payload, and its sensors have extra of a slant range. The Global Hawk also lacks de-icing equipment and countermeasures against Russian SAMs. We may again be entering the age of drones, but old-fashioned piloted planes can still do a thing or two.

As reported in PM, NASA is currently returning to the supersonic spy plane concept. It just lately awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Skunk to test the workability of a proposed UAV successor SR-72. The SR-72 was under development by Lockheed Martin and was scheduled to fly in 2025. This supersonic drone will fly at nearly twice the speed of a blackbird.

The concept is that speed will play the role that stealth once had in beating the enemy’s air defense network. Lockheed says that the developed aircraft could be ready in 2030. As of 2020, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird continued to carry the world record it set in 1976 for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft beforehand held by the related Lockheed YF-12. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird has several nicknames, including “Blackbird” and “Habu.”

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