Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

Overview

The SR-71 Blackbird was one of the most spectacular aircraft to come out of the Cold War and provided a vital reconnaissance asset for the Americans for 35 years. Flying at 80,000ft it could survey 100,000 square miles of Soviet territory per hour.

The Lockheed U-2 was an outstanding success but the American CIA and USAF realised that Soviet air defences would eventually make it’s overflights impossible. They decided that any replacement should be able to fly much higher and faster than anything then in existence. After a competition, which Lockheed won, Project Archangel got underway. On 26 January 1960 a contract for twelve A-12 aircraft was placed. In May of that year Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union, vindicating the foresight of the SR-71’s planners.

The first flight of the A-12 took place on the 25 April 1962. This aircraft was primarily an overflight platform designed to fly over the target at very high speed and extreme altitude. By the time of its introduction into service the United States and Soviet Union had signed an agreement precluding flights over each other’s country. Something more sophisticated was needed. This was the SR-71 Blackbird which was configured to use cameras that were for peripheral coverage. The aircraft did not need to go into enemy airspace.

While the SR-71 was being developed A-12 aircraft were used operationally over North Vietnam and North Korea. In November 1967, the A-12 and the SR-71 conducted a reconnaissance fly-off to decide which aircraft was superior and worthy to keep. The SR-71 won: the A-12s were retired.

The SR-71 was the fastest and highest flying production aircraft in the world. The Anglo-French Concorde was the only aircraft besides the SR-71 that can fly at supersonic speeds for hours at a time. On 28 July 1976, the ‘Blackbird’ set the absolute air speed record of 2,193.167mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997ft. These records still stand. The maximum recorded speed of the SR-71 is thought to be higher than this, but remains a secret.

By January 1982 the SR-71 had flown its 1000th mission and it continued to provide vital service until 1989 when the programme was ended due to budgetary problems. This was realised to be a mistake and after the Cold War had ended in April 1995 three SR-71s were brought out of retirement. The SR-71 was finally retired in October 1999.

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