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 much more hostile airspace or with such comprehensive impunity than the SR-71, the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft. The Blackbird’s efficiency and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technologies developments in the course of the Cold War.
This Blackbird accrued about two,800 hours of flight time during 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, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging three,418 kilometers (2,124 miles) per hour. At the flight’s conclusion, they landed at Washington-Dulles International Airport and turned the airplane more than to the Smithsonian.
Transferred from the United States Air Force.
Lockheed Aircraft Corporation
Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson
Nation of Origin:
United States of America
All round: 18ft five 15/16in. x 55ft 7in. x 107ft 5in., 169998.5lb. (five.638m x 16.942m x 32.741m, 77110.8kg)
Other: 18ft 5 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-kind material) to lessen radar cross-section Pratt and Whitney J58 (JT11D-20B) turbojet engines feature big inlet shock cones.
No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated in far more hostile airspace or with such full 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 technologies developments during the Cold War. The airplane was conceived when tensions with communist Eastern Europe reached levels approaching a full-blown crisis in the mid-1950s. U.S. military commanders desperately necessary accurate assessments of Soviet worldwide military deployments, particularly near the Iron Curtain. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s subsonic U-2 (see NASM collection) reconnaissance aircraft was an able 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 place U-2 pilots at grave danger. 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 first proposal for a new higher speed, higher altitude, reconnaissance aircraft, to be capable of avoiding interceptors and missiles, centered on a style propelled by liquid hydrogen. This proved to be impracticable simply because of considerable fuel consumption. Lockheed then reconfigured the design for standard fuels. This was feasible and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), already flying the Lockheed U-2, 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) created the A-12 to cruise at Mach three.two and fly well above 18,288 m (60,000 feet). To meet these challenging specifications, Lockheed engineers overcame several daunting technical challenges. Flying far more than 3 occasions the speed of sound generates 316° C (600° F) temperatures on external aircraft surfaces, which are adequate to melt traditional aluminum airframes. The design group chose to make the jet’s external skin of titanium alloy to which shielded the internal aluminum airframe. Two traditional, but extremely effective, afterburning turbine engines propelled this outstanding aircraft. These energy plants had to operate across a huge speed envelope in flight, from a takeoff speed of 334 kph (207 mph) to a lot more than three,540 kph (two,200 mph). To stop supersonic shock waves from moving inside the engine intake causing flameouts, Johnson’s group had to design a complex air intake and bypass method for the engines.
Skunk Functions engineers also optimized the A-12 cross-section design and style to exhibit a low radar profile. Lockheed hoped to achieve this by meticulously shaping the airframe to reflect as small transmitted radar energy (radio waves) as feasible, and by application of specific paint developed to absorb, rather than reflect, those waves. This treatment became one particular of the initial applications of stealth technology, but it in no way completely met the style ambitions.
Test pilot Lou Schalk flew the single-seat A-12 on April 24, 1962, after he became airborne accidentally during high-speed taxi trials. The airplane showed wonderful guarantee but it needed considerable technical refinement before the CIA could fly the initial 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" plan. Although 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 Performs, nevertheless, proposed a "specific mission" version configured to conduct post-nuclear strike reconnaissance. This technique evolved into the USAF’s familiar SR-71.
Lockheed built fifteen A-12s, including a special two-seat trainer version. Two A-12s were modified to carry a particular reconnaissance drone, designated D-21. The modified A-12s were redesignated M-21s. These have been made to take off with the D-21 drone, powered by a Marquart ramjet engine mounted on a pylon among the rudders. The M-21 then hauled the drone aloft and launched it at speeds high sufficient to ignite the drone’s ramjet motor. Lockheed also built three YF-12As but this kind never ever went into production. Two of the YF-12As crashed for the duration of testing. Only a single survives and is on display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The aft section of a single of the "written off" YF-12As which was later utilised along with an SR-71A static test airframe to manufacture the sole SR-71C trainer. 1 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 very first SR-71 flew on December 22, 1964. Because of intense operational expenses, military strategists decided that the more capable USAF SR-71s ought to replace the CIA’s A-12s. These have been retired in 1968 after only a single year of operational missions, largely more than southeast Asia. The Air Force’s 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (portion of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing) took more than the missions, flying the SR-71 starting in the spring of 1968.
Right after the Air Force started to operate the SR-71, it acquired the official name Blackbird– for the special 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.
Encounter gained from the A-12 plan 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 equipment included a sophisticated Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) technique that could jam most acquisition and targeting radar. In addition to an array of advanced, high-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 developed to fly deep into hostile territory, avoiding interception with its tremendous speed and high altitude. It could operate safely at a maximum speed of Mach 3.3 at an altitude much more than sixteen miles, or 25,908 m (85,000 ft), above the earth. The crew had to put on pressure suits comparable to these worn by astronauts. These suits were essential to safeguard the crew in the event of sudden cabin stress loss while at operating altitudes.
To climb and cruise at supersonic speeds, the Blackbird’s Pratt & Whitney J-58 engines were made to operate constantly in afterburner. Whilst this would appear to dictate high fuel flows, the Blackbird truly accomplished its very best "gas mileage," in terms of air nautical miles per pound of fuel burned, in the course of the Mach 3+ cruise. A typical Blackbird reconnaissance flight may possibly require many aerial refueling operations from an airborne tanker. Each time the SR-71 refueled, the crew had to descend to the tanker’s altitude, usually 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 impact triggered the aircraft’s skin panels to shrink significantly, and those covering the fuel tanks contracted so significantly that fuel leaked, forming a distinctive vapor trail as the tanker topped off the Blackbird. As quickly as the tanks have been filled, the jet’s crew disconnected from the tanker, relit the afterburners, and once again climbed to high altitude.
Air Force pilots flew the SR-71 from Kadena AB, Japan, throughout its operational career but other bases hosted Blackbird operations, too. The 9th SRW sometimes deployed from Beale AFB, California, to other areas to carryout operational missions. Cuban missions were flown directly from Beale. The SR-71 did not start to operate in Europe till 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 currently replaced manned aircraft to gather intelligence from internet sites deep within Soviet territory. Satellites could not cover each and every geopolitical hotspot so the Blackbird remained a vital tool for international intelligence gathering. On several occasions, pilots and RSOs flying the SR-71 offered data that proved important in formulating effective U. S. foreign policy. Blackbird crews provided 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 conducted by American air forces on Libya. In 1987, Kadena-based SR-71 crews flew a number of missions more than the Persian Gulf, revealing Iranian Silkworm missile batteries that threatened industrial shipping and American escort vessels.
As the functionality of space-primarily based surveillance systems grew, along with the effectiveness of ground-primarily based air defense networks, the Air Force started to drop enthusiasm for the pricey system and the 9th SRW ceased SR-71 operations in January 1990. Despite protests by military leaders, Congress revived the plan in 1995. Continued wrangling more than operating budgets, however, quickly led to final termination. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration retained two SR-71As and the a single SR-71B for higher-speed research projects and flew these airplanes till 1999.
On March 6, 1990, the service profession of one particular Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird ended with a record-setting flight. This unique airplane bore Air Force serial quantity 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, four minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging a speed of three,418 kph (2,124 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 far 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: A lot more Than My Share of It All. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
Miller, Jay. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Functions. Leicester, U.K.: Midland Counties Publishing Ltd., 1995.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird curatorial file, Aeronautics Division, National Air and Space Museum.
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