Introducing the SR-71 Blackbird: The Plan to Fly the Fastest Airplane Ever

On April 2-3, the March Field Air Museum in Riverside, Calif., hosted its “SR-71 Weekend,” which brought together 20 former pilots of the legendary SR-71 “Blackbird” as well as security system operators. reconnaissance (RSO), maintainers and engineers. The “cockpit talks” were led by retired SR-71 pilot Lt. Col. Jerry Glasser and retired RSO Col. John Manzi. They shared their experiences piloting the most impressive aircraft of the Cold War era.

Informally known as the “Blackbird” for its black paint job, which was developed to dissipate heat, the SR-71 featured clean lines that could have looked “futuristic” when flying top secret missions years before. American astronauts head for the moon. . The plane was able to reach a record top speed of 2,193 mph – and while other planes could reach such extreme speeds in theory – and could melt due to atmospheric friction and heat – the Blackbird could maintain it for long periods. He still holds the record for a cross-country flight, traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, DC in just 64 minutes and 20 seconds.

In addition to flying fast, the SR-71 also set an altitude record – reaching 25,929 meters. Developed in secret in the late 1950s, the SR-71 cruised 80,000 feet above the earth, near the edge of space, and flew past any missile launched at it.

Enter the SR-71

The aircraft grew out of Lockheed “Skunk Works”, which had proven itself during the Cold War to deliver “impossible” technologies in an incredibly short, but strategically critical timeframe. The purpose of this project was really to stop a potential war and to protect the United States by allowing it to determine what our potential adversaries might do.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US Air Force have requested a new aircraft capable of operating at extreme altitudes, speeds and temperatures. However, this meant that everything from tires, oil, fuel and even paint had to be created from scratch. The SR-71 project was led by Kelly Johnson, one of the leading aircraft designers of the 20th century, who suggested, “Everything had to be invented. All.”

And he meant it all.

The aircraft was the first to use a titanium alloy – which offered the strength of steel but at relatively light weight – for the airframe. Besides its light weight, titanium was the only material capable of providing the durability of stainless steel at excessive temperatures.

However, at the time, the United States had no major source of the metal, nor any American allies. The titanium used in the plane ended up coming from the same country the plane was used to spy on – namely the Soviet Union! Raw materials were purchased from third world countries and fake companies.

“The plane is 92% titanium inside and out. At the time they were building the plane, the United States had no supply of ore – an ore called ore. of rutile. It is a very sandy soil and it is only found in very few parts of the world. The main supplier of the ore was the USSR. By working through Third World countries and false operations, they were able to get the rutile ore shipped to the United States to build the SR-71,” former SR-71 pilot Colonel Rich Graham told the BBC.

It wasn’t just about getting the titanium. It was also feared that the use of cadmium-plated steel tools would weaken the body of the aircraft if mishandled, which meant that even new tools had to be designed and manufactured. These too were made of titanium.

fly high

The Blackbird, which first took to the skies in 1964, could enter hostile airspace, snap photos of those extreme heights like a vacationing tourist, and continue on its way before an enemy even had a chance. to shoot him. Although it could cross continents in just a few hours, the aircraft also flew so high that pilots navigating by sight could not rely on ground features such as roads and instead had to look at mountains, rivers and the main coasts for orientation. .

During its operational life, the SR-71 provided intelligence on the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the United States Air Force raid on Libya in 1986, and the revelation of Iranian Silkworm missile batteries in 1987.

Thanks to its speed and other abilities, not a single SR-71 was ever shot down, but a dozen were lost in accidents.

However, it wasn’t exactly a joy to fly. Pilots had to wear special suits to protect them from extreme temperatures, and it was reported that cockpit glass got so hot that meals could be heated on it.

Unlike combat aircraft, which could be “scrambled” and in the air in minutes, the SR-71 – “Strategic Reconnaissance” – was more like a space launch of the time. Getting the Blackbird off the ground took hours of preparation and a large crew to make sure everything was in order.

The plane was also known to leak fuel, but was actually designed to do so. The SR-71 did not use standard aviation fuel, but a special military specification fuel called MIL-T 38219, or Jet Propellant 7. Shell Oil was called upon to invent a compound blend to meet the requirements of the army, and the result was three times more expensive than the type of fuel used by airliners of the time.

Additionally, the titanium fuselage panels were also loosely attached to the aircraft frame to allow for thermal expansion, while the fuel system was also unsealed as there were insufficient joints. flexible and durable to deal with kind of temperatures and shrinkage. expansion cycles. As a result, the plane would leak fuel while on the runway, but it would stop leaking once the plane reached temperature!

The SR-71 had to be refueled right after takeoff, and it wasn’t just because of the leaks. The JP-7 reached temperatures in excess of 300 degrees F during Mach 3 cruise, which made the vapors from each of the six fuel tanks highly volatile and potentially explosive. Taking off with less fuel was safer.

Today, some surviving Blackbirds in museums are still leaking fuel, as noted by visitors who can see wetlands – and possibly smell JP-7.

Today’s editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He writes regularly on military hardware and is the author of several books on military headgear, including A gallery of military hairstyles, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing author for Forbes.