Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Photomontage of SR-71 on the port side
Image by Chris Devers
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No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated globally in far more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71, the world’s quickest jet-propelled aircraft. The Blackbird’s performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments for the duration of the Cold War.
This Blackbird accrued about two,800 hours of flight time for the duration of 24 years of active service with the U.S. Air Force. On its last flight, March six, 1990, Lt. Col. Ed Yielding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida set a speed record by flying from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 1 hour, four minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging three,418 kilometers (two,124 miles) per hour. At the flight’s conclusion, they landed at Washington-Dulles International Airport and turned the airplane over to the Smithsonian.
Transferred from the United States Air Force.
Lockheed Aircraft Corporation
Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson
Country of Origin:
United States of America
All round: 18ft 5 15/16in. x 55ft 7in. x 107ft 5in., 169998.5lb. (five.638m x 16.942m x 32.741m, 77110.8kg)
Other: 18ft five 15/16in. x 107ft 5in. x 55ft 7in. (5.638m x 32.741m x 16.942m)
Twin-engine, two-seat, supersonic strategic reconnaissance aircraft airframe constructed largley of titanium and its alloys vertical tail fins are constructed of a composite (laminated plastic-sort material) to decrease radar cross-section Pratt and Whitney J58 (JT11D-20B) turbojet engines function large inlet shock cones.
No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated in much more hostile airspace or with such total impunity than the SR-71 Blackbird. It is the fastest aircraft propelled by air-breathing engines. The Blackbird’s functionality and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War. The airplane was conceived when tensions with communist Eastern Europe reached levels approaching a complete-blown crisis in the mid-1950s. U.S. military commanders desperately needed accurate assessments of Soviet worldwide military deployments, especially close to the Iron Curtain. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s subsonic U-two (see NASM collection) reconnaissance aircraft was an capable platform but the U. S. Air Force recognized that this fairly slow aircraft was currently vulnerable to Soviet interceptors. They also understood that the rapid improvement of surface-to-air missile systems could put U-two pilots at grave risk. The danger proved reality when a U-2 was shot down by a surface to air missile over the Soviet Union in 1960.
Lockheed’s very first proposal for a new higher speed, higher altitude, reconnaissance aircraft, to be capable of avoiding interceptors and missiles, centered on a design and style propelled by liquid hydrogen. This proved to be impracticable simply because of considerable fuel consumption. Lockheed then reconfigured the design for conventional fuels. This was feasible and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), already flying the Lockheed U-two, issued a production contract for an aircraft designated the A-12. Lockheed’s clandestine ‘Skunk Works’ division (headed by the gifted design engineer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson) developed the A-12 to cruise at Mach three.two and fly nicely above 18,288 m (60,000 feet). To meet these difficult specifications, Lockheed engineers overcame a lot of daunting technical challenges. Flying much more than 3 instances the speed of sound generates 316° C (600° F) temperatures on external aircraft surfaces, which are adequate to melt traditional aluminum airframes. The style group chose to make the jet’s external skin of titanium alloy to which shielded the internal aluminum airframe. Two traditional, but really powerful, afterburning turbine engines propelled this remarkable aircraft. These power plants had to operate across a massive speed envelope in flight, from a takeoff speed of 334 kph (207 mph) to more than three,540 kph (2,200 mph). To prevent supersonic shock waves from moving inside the engine intake causing flameouts, Johnson’s group had to style a complex air intake and bypass technique for the engines.
Skunk Functions engineers also optimized the A-12 cross-section style to exhibit a low radar profile. Lockheed hoped to accomplish this by meticulously shaping the airframe to reflect as little transmitted radar energy (radio waves) as attainable, and by application of particular paint created to absorb, rather than reflect, these waves. This therapy became one of the first applications of stealth technologies, but it by no means completely met the design and style targets.
Test pilot Lou Schalk flew the single-seat A-12 on April 24, 1962, right after he became airborne accidentally for the duration of higher-speed taxi trials. The airplane showed fantastic guarantee but it needed considerable technical refinement prior to the CIA could fly the very first operational sortie on Might 31, 1967 – a surveillance flight over North Vietnam. A-12s, flown by CIA pilots, operated as element of the Air Force’s 1129th Special Activities Squadron below the "Oxcart" system. Whilst Lockheed continued to refine the A-12, the U. S. Air Force ordered an interceptor version of the aircraft designated the YF-12A. The Skunk Works, however, proposed a "specific mission" version configured to conduct post-nuclear strike reconnaissance. This system evolved into the USAF’s familiar SR-71.
Lockheed constructed fifteen A-12s, including a unique two-seat trainer version. Two A-12s had been modified to carry a unique reconnaissance drone, designated D-21. The modified A-12s have been redesignated M-21s. These were developed to take off with the D-21 drone, powered by a Marquart ramjet engine mounted on a pylon amongst the rudders. The M-21 then hauled the drone aloft and launched it at speeds high adequate to ignite the drone’s ramjet motor. Lockheed also built 3 YF-12As but this variety by no means went into production. Two of the YF-12As crashed in the course of testing. Only one survives and is on show at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The aft section of one particular of the "written off" YF-12As which was later employed along with an SR-71A static test airframe to manufacture the sole SR-71C trainer. One SR-71 was lent to NASA and designated YF-12C. Like the SR-71C and two SR-71B pilot trainers, Lockheed constructed thirty-two Blackbirds. The first SR-71 flew on December 22, 1964. Due to the fact of extreme operational fees, military strategists decided that the far more capable USAF SR-71s should replace the CIA’s A-12s. These have been retired in 1968 right after only one year of operational missions, largely more than southeast Asia. The Air Force’s 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (part of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing) took over the missions, flying the SR-71 starting in the spring of 1968.
After the Air Force began to operate the SR-71, it acquired the official name Blackbird– for the specific black paint that covered the airplane. This paint was formulated to absorb radar signals, to radiate some of the tremendous airframe heat generated by air friction, and to camouflage the aircraft against the dark sky at higher altitudes.
Expertise gained from the A-12 system convinced the Air Force that flying the SR-71 safely required two crew members, a pilot and a Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO). The RSO operated with the wide array of monitoring and defensive systems installed on the airplane. This gear incorporated a sophisticated Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) technique that could jam most acquisition and targeting radar. In addition to an array of sophisticated, higher-resolution cameras, the aircraft could also carry equipment created to record the strength, frequency, and wavelength of signals emitted by communications and sensor devices such as radar. The SR-71 was made to fly deep into hostile territory, avoiding interception with its tremendous speed and higher altitude. It could operate safely at a maximum speed of Mach 3.three at an altitude a lot more than sixteen miles, or 25,908 m (85,000 ft), above the earth. The crew had to wear pressure suits comparable to these worn by astronauts. These suits were essential to shield the crew in the occasion of sudden cabin stress loss even though at operating altitudes.
To climb and cruise at supersonic speeds, the Blackbird’s Pratt & Whitney J-58 engines were created to operate continuously in afterburner. Even though this would appear to dictate higher fuel flows, the Blackbird in fact achieved its greatest "gas mileage," in terms of air nautical miles per pound of fuel burned, throughout the Mach 3+ cruise. A common Blackbird reconnaissance flight might need many aerial refueling operations from an airborne tanker. Each and every time the SR-71 refueled, the crew had to descend to the tanker’s altitude, typically about six,000 m to 9,000 m (20,000 to 30,000 ft), and slow the airplane to subsonic speeds. As velocity decreased, so did frictional heat. This cooling effect triggered the aircraft’s skin panels to shrink significantly, and those covering the fuel tanks contracted so a lot that fuel leaked, forming a distinctive vapor trail as the tanker topped off the Blackbird. As soon as the tanks have been filled, the jet’s crew disconnected from the tanker, relit the afterburners, and again climbed to higher altitude.
Air Force pilots flew the SR-71 from Kadena AB, Japan, throughout its operational career but other bases hosted Blackbird operations, as well. The 9th SRW sometimes deployed from Beale AFB, California, to other locations to carryout operational missions. Cuban missions have been flown directly from Beale. The SR-71 did not commence to operate in Europe until 1974, and then only temporarily. In 1982, when the U.S. Air Force based two aircraft at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall to fly monitoring mission in Eastern Europe.
When the SR-71 became operational, orbiting reconnaissance satellites had already replaced manned aircraft to gather intelligence from sites deep inside Soviet territory. Satellites could not cover each and every geopolitical hotspot so the Blackbird remained a essential tool for international intelligence gathering. On many occasions, pilots and RSOs flying the SR-71 provided information that proved vital in formulating profitable U. S. foreign policy. Blackbird crews supplied crucial intelligence about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its aftermath, and pre- and post-strike imagery of the 1986 raid performed by American air forces on Libya. In 1987, Kadena-primarily based SR-71 crews flew a quantity of missions over the Persian Gulf, revealing Iranian Silkworm missile batteries that threatened industrial shipping and American escort vessels.
As the efficiency of space-primarily based surveillance systems grew, along with the effectiveness of ground-primarily based air defense networks, the Air Force began to shed enthusiasm for the pricey plan and the 9th SRW ceased SR-71 operations in January 1990. In spite of protests by military leaders, Congress revived the program in 1995. Continued wrangling more than operating budgets, even so, soon led to final termination. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration retained two SR-71As and the 1 SR-71B for higher-speed investigation projects and flew these airplanes till 1999.
On March six, 1990, the service career of 1 Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird ended with a record-setting flight. This unique airplane bore Air Force serial number 64-17972. Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and his RSO, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Vida, flew this aircraft from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging a speed of three,418 kph (two,124 mph). At the conclusion of the flight, ‘972 landed at Dulles International Airport and taxied into the custody of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. At that time, Lt. Col. Vida had logged 1,392.7 hours of flight time in Blackbirds, far more than that of any other crewman.
This particular SR-71 was also flown by Tom Alison, a former National Air and Space Museum’s Chief of Collections Management. Flying with Detachment 1 at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, Alison logged much more than a dozen ‘972 operational sorties. The aircraft spent twenty-four years in active Air Force service and accrued a total of 2,801.1 hours of flight time.
Weight: 170,000 Lbs
Reference and Further Reading:
Crickmore, Paul F. Lockheed SR-71: The Secret Missions Exposed. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996.
Francillon, Rene J. Lockheed Aircraft Because 1913. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1987.
Johnson, Clarence L. Kelly: More Than My Share of It All. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
Miller, Jay. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Operates. Leicester, U.K.: Midland Counties Publishing Ltd., 1995.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird curatorial file, Aeronautics Division, National Air and Space Museum.