The SR-71 Blackbird is, without a doubt, the most advanced aeroplane ever built in relation to the technology available at the time. It broke all aviation records, it flew incredible missions, and it became the stuff of legend. Lockheed Martin published its history in this collection of high resolution scans of old photos.
The SR-71 was a technological marvel. Practically every area of design required new approaches or breakthroughs in technology. To withstand high temperatures generated by friction in the upper atmosphere during sustained Mach 3 flight, the Blackbird required an array of specially developed materials including high temperature fuel, sealants, lubricants, wiring and other components. Ninety-three per cent of the Blackbird’s airframe consisted of titanium alloy that allowed the aircraft to operate in a regime where temperatures range from 450 degrees Fahrenheit at its aft midsection to 950 degrees Fahrenheit near the engine exhaust. The cockpit canopy, made of special heat resistant glass, had to withstand surface temperatures as high as 640 degrees Fahrenheit.
The history of the SR-71 in photos
Two of the leading figures in the U-2 program, the CIA’s Richard Bissell and Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson, had as early as 1955 decided to explore a follow-on reconnaissance aircraft that would seek to remedy the U-2’s unexpected flaw — its easy tracking by Soviet radar.
On 24 July 1964, US President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly announced the existence of the classified Lockheed SR-71 program. The first flight of the SR-71 would come on 22 December 1964. Operational aircraft deliveries began in 1966. Throughout its career, the SR-71, unofficially, universally known as Blackbird, remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft.
The A-12 was a radical aircraft, with two large Pratt & Whitney J58 engines mid-mounted on the modified delta wing. Distinctive all-moving vertical tail surfaces were placed above the engine nacelles and canted inward. It was to be able to fly at Mach 3.2 at altitudes approaching 100,000 feet over a range of 3,800 miles. The most unusual element of the design was the elongated nose with its speedboat-like chines that gave it the appearance of a hooded cobra.
A-12, YF-12, and the initial SR-71 aircraft were built by Lockheed in Burbank, California, and then transported overland to Area 51 for flight testing.
The official first flight for CIA and USAF representatives took place on 30 April 1962, and went off smoothly. Eight days later, Lockheed test pilot Lou Schalk took the A-12 supersonic for the first time.
The A-12, which was operated by the CIA, was produced from 1962 to 1964. I performed operational missions from 1963 until 1968. The aircraft was the precursor to the twin-seat YF-12 prototype interceptor and the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft. The A-12’s final mission was flown in May 1968. The program and aircraft retired that June.
The initial SR-71s were built in Burbank, California. The first prototype (Serial Number 61-7950) was delivered to Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale, California, on 29 October 1964.
Ben Rich, who would later be in charge of the design team for the F-117 Nighthawk, led a small six-man engineering team through the endless iterations to arrive at the final configuration of the A-12. They worked on a door stretched between two desks, laying out the information that was derived from the intensive wind-tunnel tests. From the data, the shape of the A-12 was derived.
The YF-12A was a proposed interceptor version of the A-12, which was first flown 7 August 1963. It was similar in most respects to the A-12.
The YF-12 was developed as a high-altitude Mach 3 interceptor for defence against supersonic bombers. The YF-12A was the forerunner of the highly sophisticated SR-71 high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft.
The ramjet-powered D-21 drone was developed as a high-speed, unmanned strategic reconnaissance platform. Originally designed to be air-launched from atop specially equipped A-12s, designated M-21, they were later modified for underwing carriage and rocket-assisted launch by B-52 bombers.
On 24 July 1964, US President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly announced the existence of the classified Lockheed SR-71 program. First flight of the SR-71 would come on 22 December 1964. Operational aircraft deliveries began in 1966.
The first operational SR-71 was a trainer version known as the SR-71B, which was delivered to Beale AFB, California, on 7 January 1966. The SR-71B had an elevated second cockpit for an instructor pilot.
SR-71B (Serial Number 17956) celebrated 1,000 missions at Beale AFB, California, in January 1982. The aircraft served under the USAF until the program was initially cancelled in 1990. It was then operated by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, CA from 1991 to 1997 and was used jointly by NASA and Detachment 2 at Edwards AFB when the USAF program was reactivated in 1995. This SR-71 had more flight hours than any other SR-71, 3,967.5 hrs. The last flight of this aircraft was on 19 October 1997 at an airshow at Edwards AFB.
Because they were powered by a uniquely formulated jet fuel, SR-71 Blackbirds were refueled exclusively by KC-135Q tankers.
The J58 engine, developed in the 1950s by Pratt & Whitney, was designed to operate for extended speeds of Mach 3+ and at altitudes of more than 80,000 feet. The J58 was the first engine designed to operate for extended periods using its afterburner, and it was the first engine to be flight-qualified at Mach 3 for the Air Force. The SR-71 as well as the YF-12A and most of the A-12s are powered by two J58s.
SR-71s logged a combined total of 53,490 hours of flight time, of which 11,675 had been spent at Mach 3 plus. They flew 3,551 operational sorties for a total of 17,294 hours, during which more than a thousand surface-to-air missiles had been fired at them. All missed.
The first of three reactivated SR-71s returned to the Air Force after extensive refurbishment on 28 June 1995 as Detachment 2 at Edwards AFB, California. The aircraft were being modified with datalinks when the Air Force program was defunded in October 1997.
On 24 July 1964, US President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly announced the existence of the classified Lockheed SR-71 program. First flight of the SR-71 would come on 22 December 1964. Operational aircraft deliveries began in 1966. Throughout its career, the SR-71, unofficially, universally known as Blackbird, remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. The US Air Force terminated the program in January 1990, closing out a twenty-four year operational career. The Blackbird program was briefly revived in 1997 and a small number of training flights were made, but funding was zeroed out. The program officially ended in 1999.
Unusual shot of SR-71 Blackbird (Air Force serial number 61-7974) with one engine in afterburner and the other either shut down or in mil power at Beale AFB, California, circa 1983. Nicknamed Ichi-Ban, this aircraft was destroyed in an April 1989 accident near the Philippines. Both crewmembers ejected and were rescued unharmed. It was the last Blackbird accident before the aircraft was retired.
Three generations of aircraft developed by the Skunk Works, the Lockheed and Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Projects group in Palmdale, California, are shown in this photo from July 2000. At the top, one of the five full-scale development F-117 Nighthawks (Air Force serial number 79-0782), which was still being flown at at the time, is being towed back to the Air Force test squadron, also located at this site. At the bottom, an SR-71 is towed back to the hangar. This aircraft (Air Force serial number 61-7962) was one of the Blackbirds kept in storage at Palmdale after the fleet was retired. In the middle is the X-35A Joint Strike Fighter demonstrator, which at this point was still about four months away from its first flight.
The Advanced Tanker-Cargo Aircraft, or ATCA, was first proposed by officials from the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command in 1967. The competition, originally intended to replace the KC-135 tanker, got underway in the mid 1970s, with a pair of wide-body commercial airliners, the 747 and DC-10, competing for the contract. The 747 prototype was fitted with an aerial refueling boom and a series of dry hook-ups were made with a number of different Air Force aircraft. Here, a crew in an SR-71 (Air Force serial number 61-7955) connects with the 747 while an F-111 crew flies safety chase. The Air Force selected the DC-10 as the ATCA winner and sixty KC-10 Extenders were eventually built.
A high definition panorama shot of the cockpit.
Lockheed was given the official go-ahead on the A-12 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft on 29 August 1959. The A-12’s design was dominated by the aircraft’s propulsion system, which would give it the power needed to set the world speed and absolute records for its class. The single-seat A-12 was the forerunner of the SR-71. This photo shows the YF-12A, a two-seat interceptor variant for the US Air Force, being built in a cordoned-off section of the facility in Burbank, California.
Business goes on as usual at the front of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena (California) Airport while a crowd gathers on the roof to watch as a US Air Force SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ crew performs a high speed pass in this photo from December 1990. The Burbank Airport was the home of Lockheed Aircraft Company from 1928 until the early 1990s. The Blackbird family (A-12, YF-12, SR-71) was designed at the Burbank facility in the late 1950s/early 1960s and the aircraft were built there, so this flyby was a bit of a homecoming. Final assembly of the SR-71s took place at the Lockheed facility in Palmdale, California. The Blackbirds were operationally assigned to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California.
Thirty-five years ago, three US Air Force aircrews, flying the Mach 3+ SR-71 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, set three absolute world aviation records — the maximum performance by any type of aircraft — in two days. Capt. Al Joersz (pilot, right) and Maj. George Morgan (Reconnaissance Systems Operator, left) set the Absolute Speed record over Edwards AFB, California, on 28 July 1976. The officially recorded average speed of the two legs was 2,193.16 mph. The record still stands in 2011. Blackbird 958 is now on display at the Museum of Aviation at Warner Robins, Georgia.
Thirty-five years ago, three US Air Force aircrews, flying the Mach 3+ SR-71 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, set three absolute world aviation records — the maximum performance by any type of aircraft — in two days. This image, taken from the high-speed cameras at Edwards AFB, California, shows Capt. Al Joersz (pilot) and Maj. George Morgan (RSO) setting the Absolute Speed record on 28 July 1976.
This image shows Blackbird 958 on landing after setting one of its two absolute aviation records on 27 and 28 July 1976. To set the Absolute Speed record, Capt. Al Joersz (pilot) and Maj. George Morgan (RSO) had to cross the electronic timing gate, travel the twenty-five meter course, cross a second timing gate, turn around, and repeat the course from the opposite end to negate the effect of winds. The officially recorded average speed of the two legs was 2,193.16 mph.
This image shows Blackbird 958 on landing after setting one of its two absolute aviation records on 27 and 28 July 1976. Maj. Pat Bledsoe (pilot) and Maj. John Fuller (RSO) set the Speed Over a Closed Course record on a 1,000 km (621 mile) circuit. Bledsoe completed the course at a speed of 2,092.29 mph breaking a record set by a Soviet pilot in 1967.
1988 photo shows SR-71 with TR-1 in the background. The TR-1, a larger and considerably upgraded version of the original U-2, was later redisignated as U-2R.
SR-71 in flight over California.
Blackbird and X-35B parked together in a hangar at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. The X-35B now resides at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport.
After a forty-one year career, Lockheed Martin photographer Denny Lombard will retire on 30 January 2011. Since moving behind the camera in 1982, he created some of the most enduring images in aviation history. The Spotlight photo this week is Denny’s seven all-time favourite images. Here’s number four. This image from 23 May 1995 captures the pure power of an SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ high altitude reconnaissance aircraft on takeoff.
Pictures/captions: Lockheed Martin