The SR-71 Blackbird was a strategic reconnaissance (SR) aircraft built by Lockheed Martin and designed by Clarence Johnson. It took flight in 1964 and kept going until being retired by NASA in 1999. Although this next-gen-looking aircraft never made it to the new millennium, it remains one of the most famous, fastest, and fascinating planes ever flown. Here are some incredible facts you probably never knew about this amazing aircraft.
The SR-71 Blackbird
As you can see, the SR-71 was one of the early examples of a stealth aircraft, featuring a dark black/blue paint that earned it the name "Blackbird." There were only 32 Blackbirds ever built. Pictured is pilot Buzz Carpenter.
Not So Fast, Missiles!
The Blackbird didn't just look cool; it was FAST. The Blackbird was built to go up to about Mach 3.4 speeds, which is a land speed of about 2,500 mph! Over 4,000 missiles were fired at it during its 25-year service, but none ever hit its mark. The standard evasive maneuver was just to accelerate until the missile couldn't keep up.
All of these photos don't quite do justice to the experience of being in an SR-71 Blackbird. According to pilot Richard Graham, "First of all, it is extremely quiet in the cockpit. You could hear a pin drop. The view is spectacular, being able to see the curvature of the Earth and the black space above filled with stars."
The SR-71 did more than just take pictures. It could aim its radar 45 degrees to the side, it could map the terrain like a side-scanning sonar, it could intercept enemy communication and radar signals, and it could record its entire flight path with infrared cameras to prove to countries that it didn't violate their airspace.
The cameras on the Blackbird could take a photograph clear enough to read the license plate on a car on the ground while the plane traveled 80,000 feet above the Earth and at speeds of over 2,000 mph.
I Didn’t Do It!
Despite being a spy plane designed to snoop on countries such as Russia and China, an SR-71 has actually never been over the land mass of Russia or China. The planes simply flew around the outskirts, and used their angled cameras and sensors to gather all the info they needed.
Spy Plane Made From Spy Games
The raw materials used to make the Blackbirds was earned through subterfuge. In order to obtain the vast amounts of titanium needed for construction of the planes, the CIA created fake companies throughout the world to purchase the metal from the biggest supplier (and the United State's enemy at the time), the USSR.
To The Stars
The SR-71 had extremely accurate navigation systems, too. It was able to maintain its heading within 1,000 feet while at Mach 3 by using a celestial navigation system nicknamed "R2-D2" that tracked a series of 61 stars. The sensor was so powerful that it was capable of detecting the stars in broad daylight while on the ground.
Slipped Through The Cracks
The Blackbird would actually constantly leak fuel while not in flight due to the contraction of its titanium skin. It was designed to expand as it heated up due to air friction. The SR-71 had enough fuel to take off and then get refueled up in the air by an air tanker (sometimes multiple times per flight).
You Can’t Light It Up
How bad was the fuel leakage on that beast? Not as bad as a lot of people say (it is often over exaggerated according to pilot Col. Richard Graham) but it did leak *some* fuel. A cool fact is that the fuel (JT-7) had such a high flash point it would not ignite even if struck by a flame.
A Danger To Yourself
None of the 12 Blackbirds lost during service came by way of enemy fire. They were all lost due to accidents.
One of the unfortunate times an SR-71 crashed was all because of a two inch piece of duct tape. Someone left it in a small component possibly as a dust cover, yet at such high speeds it caused a lag in the pilot's meters and the plane broke into pieces in mid air. Yikes. These planes were so precisely designed that it's incredible they flew so many missions over so many years without a problem.
The SR-71 Blackbird had to deal with a somewhat unique problem for planes going at such high speeds. The engines needed air going slower than the speed of sound in order to function properly, so when the Blackbird was going over Mach 1, there was actually a shockwave permanently inside the engine as the air slowed down. Sometimes, the shockwave could make it outside the engine in front, and this caused major problems that any normal person would be terrified at, but these pilots trained to fix calmly.
Better Go Beforehand
The average Blackbird mission lasted about four hours, but the could go on for twice that long. A urine collection device (UCD) allowed pilots to do use the bathroom during flight. There was no such device for going No. 2.
A decade before the SR-71 first flew, the military created another supersonic aircraft, the Ramjet. The man who designed it, Clarence Johnson, would later draft the plans for the SR-71.
They Can Know We’re Coming
Lockheed Martin is actually working on a hypersonic (capable of Mach 5) spy plane to replace the famous SR-71 Blackbird.
The hangar for all of the SR-71 Blackbirds looks just like a scene right out of Star Wars — the rebels could have used a Blackbird or two.
There are two cockpits connected only by radio.
Here's what the cockpit looked like. You can't actually see much of anything when the canopy comes down since the windows are so small and so high. You mostly see space!
Thanks for viewing this slideshow! Hope you learned something about this awesome plane.