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Lockheed Blackbird SR-71

By , 9 Oct 2012

You may never have seen a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, but the chances are that it's seen you.

The Blackbird was designed to be the ultimate reconnaissance aircraft. Flying at 85,000 feet and at three times the speed of sound, the Blackbird is still the world’s fastest and highest-flying manned aircraft, nearly 50 years after its first flight.




The fastest plane ever

Flying one metre every thousandth of a second, the Blackbird could fly from the east to west coast of the United States in 67 minutes.

Everything about the SR-71 is incredible. In flight, parts of its surface reach a temperature of 510 degrees. This 100 foot plane grows by a foot because of the heat. The crew wear pressure suits identical to those worn by astronauts on space shuttle missions. Its twin turbojet engines have diameters larger than the fuselage itself. On 1st September 1974, an SR-71 flew from New York to London in 1 hour, 54 minutes, 56 seconds, smashing the previous trans-Atlantic speed record by nearly three hours!

But perhaps the most astonishing fact about the Blackbird is that it was designed and built almost half a century ago in 1964. That can't be right. It looks like something straight out of the future.

The ultimate recognisance aircraft

The inspiration for the Blackbird came from a surface-to-air missile attack on a U2 recognisance plane in 1960. Then in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a second U2 was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air strike.

The brief for the Blackbird was clear: to fly higher and faster than any enemy, and to minimise the radar cross-section. In short, to build a plane that couldn't be shot down.

An impossible aircraft

This specification was for an impossible aircraft. No plane before (or since) had flown at more than 2,000 mph. At such a speed, atmospheric friction generates temperatures that would melt a normal aircraft. The solution was titanium alloy - lightweight, with the strength of stainless steel and capable of enduring the high temperatures generated. Special high-temperature fuel was developed. The plane was painted black, as black is the perfect emitter of heat. From its colour came its name.

To minimise the radar profile, the engines were moved to mid-wing and a radar-absorbing component was added to the paint. Surfaces were carefully contoured to reduce the radar cross-section further. The end result is that the radar cross-section is less than 10% of the plane's true size, making it the first attempt at a stealth aircraft, although it could still be detected due to its high-temperature exhaust stream.

No Blackbird was ever shot down by enemy fire, despite several attempts from Soviet MIGs and surface-to-air missile systems. When anti-aircraft weapons were fired, a warning light glowed red on the control panel. But that would typically be the last the pilot would see of the attempted attack, as surface-to-air missiles consistently missed wildly, exploding many miles from the intended target.

End of an era

The Blackbird fulfilled its recognisance mission from 1966 to 1990. A total of 32 aircraft were built in that time. With a range of 3,000 miles it could remain in the air for five to eight hour missions, making it possible to photograph any part of the surface of the earth.

In 1994, the US government approved funding for two Blackbirds to be returned to active service. They were delivered to the US Air Force in 1995, but were permanently retired in 1998, leaving NASA with the two surviving planes. The last flight of an SR-71 took place in 1999.

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