Recently saw this Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in person at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Gorgeous lines on it. More photos/details and a video.
Struck me how it looks like something from the 1940s (in a Tucker kinda way) or modern (like a recent version of the Batmobile) but not like what I think of as a design typical of 1962, the year the plane first flew.
Former Air Force pilot Brian Shul calls it “the most remarkable airplane of the 20th century.” It remains the fastest and highest flying air-breathing production aircraft ever built. if a surface-to-air missile launch was detected, standard evasive action was simply to accelerate. On March 6, 1990, it made its final flight and set a record — Los Angeles to D.C. in 1 hour, 4 minutes.
Interesting story to how it was built too. Flying at over Mach 3 generates some high temperatures. So the plane was made from titanium. But it turns out titanium is a real pain.
Titanium was difficult to work with, expensive, and scarce. Initially, 80% of the titanium delivered to Lockheed was rejected due to metallurgical contamination. One example of the difficulties of working with titanium is that welds made at certain times of the year were more durable than welds made at other times. It was found that the manufacturing plant’s water came from one reservoir in the summer and another in the winter; the slight differences in the impurities in the water from these sources led to differences in the durability of the welds, since water was used to cool the titanium welds.
The titanium being manufactured in the United States in those days lacked the required purity. The only source of purer titanium available was located in the Soviet Union. So, according to the tour guide at the museum, the CIA set up dummy corporations in Europe and bought titanium from the Soviet Union. The Soviets had no idea they were helping the US build an aircraft that would be used to spy on them.
(Fyi, the plane was also the basis for the character Jetfire in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”)
Eric Carrollon 03 May 10
The Blackbird truly was and still is a marvel especially considering that it’s first flight was in 1964.
I was actually talking with my son about the SR-71 last night. It was always one of my favorite planes to study.
He was amazed when I told him it didn’t have any guns, but it was used to spy on enemies. He was curious as to having a camera and thought it was funny to ask if it had a flash.
Danielon 03 May 10
It is an maginificent aircraft. And it’s development is the stuff of legend: A real Skunkworks project.
And not to start a big discussion, but I personally find the plane so much more interesting because it’s a reconnaissance aircraft and not a weapons platform. So much military hardware is awe-inspiring, but it’s tempered – in my case – by the knowledge that its expressly built to kill people.
Flying it must have been an other-wordly experience. Gizmodo recently featured an excerpt from Brian Shul’s book about the plane. It’s a great read.
I especially like how Shul and his RSO once heard other planes call an air traffic controller to get a check on their ground speeds. An F-18 pilot decided to stick it to the slow propeller planes by asking – on the same frequency – for his ground speed: 620 knots. Of course Shul and his RSO just had to come on the line and ask for their speed in the SR-71: 1,982 knots.
Go read the whole thing though: Lots of great stuff there!
Alex Kilpatrickon 03 May 10
It is truly an other-worldly looking aircraft. To me, it looks more futuristic than anything built in the last 20 years, including the stealth fighter and bomber.
Interesting tidbit—the SR-71 leaks fuel while it is sitting on the ground, by design. They have to have room for the skin to heat up and expand at its extreme temperatures when flying, sealing up the joints.
Standard operating procedure is for it to take off and then immediately go to air-to-air refueling.
DLon 03 May 10
That last trip it took turns into about 42 miles per second. A speed that fast is almost hard to imagine being real.
Adamon 03 May 10
I was at the museum the day Dreamworks filmed in the Udvar-Hazy. They paid for all the parking, but blocked off a bunch of the museum.
Didn’t see any Transformers that day. Just Michael Bay’s gulfstream parked outside the hanger.
GeeIWonderon 03 May 10
The Soviets had no idea they were helping the US build an aircraft that would be used to spy on them.
Interesting sources (I particularly like the page that’s dated January 1st, 1970), and nice story. Given the state of secrets in this era though, it might be factually wrong.
Gizmodo recently featured an excerpt from Brian Shul’s book about the plane.
Shhh… don’t make the FBI confiscate that SR-71 they found at Starbucks!
Dave!on 03 May 10
”...not like what I think of as a design typical of 1962, the year the plane first flew.”
That’s because it’s not just design for the sake of design—it’s a stunning example of form follows function.
Joe Blockon 03 May 10
It isn’t an M-21, it’s an SR-71.
Sean McCambridgeon 03 May 10
Awesome. Beautiful plane. I recently saw the Zephyr train by the parking deck at the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park during a visit to Chicago. It’s a little older, but the lines of the train are similar. Those beautiful curves were supposed to be fast. And they looked fast. But turns out the most aerodynamic designs aren’t always the prettiest—see every modern sedan on the road.
David Andersenon 03 May 10
@DL – I believe that is miles per minute.
Bil Klebon 03 May 10
Kelly Johnson is the man behind the Blackbird, and I feel you’d really enjoy his management style, probably best described in Ben Rich’s Skunk Works book.
BTW: As a measure of how highly regarded Kelly is in the aerospace world: Kelly Johnson is one of Burt Rutan’s heroes.
Braulio Carrenoon 03 May 10
Last year I visited the Air and Space Museum in San Diego and they had a motion flight simulator of the A-12 (precursor to the SR-71). Pretty cool, you could do loops, inverted flight, etc. worth checking out.
Chadon 03 May 10
Awesome plane. I think the most interesting thing about it is that since retirement there has been nothing known to have taking it’s place. Drones and satellites work well enough in Afghanistan, but against a stronger foe might not be sufficient.
Either something secret and exotic has replaced the SR-71 or will some day soon.
Gil Crequeon 03 May 10
This is my favorite plane of all time. I remember studying it as a child like it was from another world. It is also the basis of the Cobra Night Raven from the 80’s GI Joe cartoon. http://gijoe.wikia.com/wiki/Night_Raven
Mikeon 03 May 10
American ingenuity at its best. It is amazing to think the plane was built by enemy materials. There is so much we do not know that the CIA does everyday. Glad they are on our side.
Martinon 03 May 10
Actually the final SR-71 flight was made 9 October 1999 by #61-7980/NASA 844. By this time the planes(2) were operated by NASA but also took part in research for the US Air Force.
Jeff Putzon 03 May 10
While not intentional, I’ve been able to see three (and a half) of these planes, and the variations. I’ve seen the one in Dayton at the Air Force Museum, the one in Richmond, VA and here in Seattle at the Museum of Flight they have the drone carrying variation, as well as the nose and cockpit of one that was decommissioned. Always been fascinated by them because of their unique shape. It was my favorite model rocket growing up, too. :)
Leeon 03 May 10
@Matt – Awesome to see you take notice of the design and technology that goes into an accomplishment of this magnitude.
Our firm, AV Web Designs, is located in Lancaster, California. We are about 4 miles from skunk works and the Blackbird Airpark. I happened to drive by there yesterday and was pondering bringing the rest of my design team to view the planes up close.
We hear (and feel) sonic booms on a regular basis. Sometimes more then once a day. It rattles the windows of our offices.
Our area is also home to the Space Ship 1.
Just this morning we saw two fighters flying about 700 yards above our office. It’s quite a site. Are you a fan of other planes such as the stealth?
Dean Thrasheron 03 May 10
One of the things you appreciate seeing the SR-71 in person is how large it is. At the Udvar-Hazy Center, you can see its size in comparison to other planes in the collection.
Here’s a picture of the SR-71A at the Udvar Hazy Center. In the background, you can see some human figures and the nose of a Space Shuttle. It gives you some idea of the size of the plane.
Given how broad the wing surface is when seen in person, its razor-thin profile is even more impressive.
Chuckon 03 May 10
@DL42 miles per second151200 miles per hourmach 198.6
The fastest object ever made by man, the Helios 2 probe, headed screaming toward the sun through space
So while this was NOT the speed of this plane, it is a real speed that we have achieved.
Chuckon 03 May 10
It killed all my equals signs. I hate when standard symbols are wiped out like that without warning.
Markuson 03 May 10
The blackbird was designed with a tight focus. Speed was the only goal. Such a tight focus always leads to remarkable designs. Compare to other examples from avionics: the B2 (stealth), airbus beluga (payload volume) or A10 (manoeuvrability at low altitudes). The excessive focus on a single attribute puts unusable focus on single components (blackbird: engine, b2: 90-degree angles, beluga: fuselage, A10: wings). It makes it look off-putting to the common man and irresistible to fans.
steve hiraharaon 03 May 10
They had a Blackbird that you could sit in in Merced, CA at the Air Museum at the former Castle Air Force Base. It’s always been a desktop favorite of mine, its lines and purpose are so distinctive, yet functional. you’re never surprised when someone mentions that it is the fastest air-breathing flyer. it looks it from most angles of perspective.
Gordon R. Vaughanon 04 May 10
Kelly Johnson: Aircraft Designer Extraordinaire
for more on the story & some good links.
Dave Pinsenon 04 May 10
Interesting post. They used to have a Blackbird parked on the Intrepid carrier/museum in NYC.“The blackbird was designed with a tight focus. Speed was the only goal. Such a tight focus always leads to remarkable designs. Compare to other examples from avionics: the B2 (stealth), airbus beluga (payload volume) or A10 (manoeuvrability at low altitudes).”
Actually, the A-10 was also designed with a focus on survivability against anti-aircraft fire. So it has ‘titanium bathtub’, redundant systems, dual tail rudders, etc.
Darrenon 04 May 10
Cool factoid/rumor I heard in flight school about the A-10
Firing the main guns for extended periods can cause a stall. Never looked it up but that always stuck with me.
Henningon 04 May 10
Dave Nicolette recently published an interesting article about development of the Blackbird and how it relates to software projects in large enterprises.
Leeon 04 May 10
It’s designed to help kill people. Remarkable!
Danielon 04 May 10
@Lee: Indirectly, yes, it’s designed to help kill people, because it’s a military aircraft. But the plane itself carries no ordnance (no guns, no bombs). Its payload is cameras and surveillance gear. As I said in my previous comment, I personally find the SR-71 that much more appealing because it isn’t a weapon itself.
@Darren: I heard that too somewhere, but I haven’t checked it either. I wouldn’t be surprised though. According to Wikipedia, earlier A-10s could fire the main gun at either 2,100 or 4,200 rounds per minute, but that was changed to a fixed 3,900 rounds per minute. I’m guessing that besides issues with over-heating the barrels, the 4,200 rounds per minute might often have threatned to stall the aircraft. It’s a 30mm gun, so at thousands of rounds per minute I’m sure it’ll push back like hell.
Stalling-issues or not, it’s a scary, scary weapon, and in so many ways the opposite of the SR-71. It’s also funny to note that the A-10, which is built around its oversized gatling gun, isn’t generally considered pretty or cool-looking (it’s nicknamed the “Warthog”, after all). Meanwhile, the comparably harmless, but no less purpose-built, SR-71 looks really awesome. I’m an engineer, so I can’t help but find the metrics of the A-10 impressive, but again it’s tempered by its destructive purpose.
You can take the A-10 out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the A-10. Not so with the SR-71.
Matthew Mooreon 04 May 10
@Lee Who knows how many lives it saved if its Soviet reconnaissance helped avoid a nuclear war.
Danielon 04 May 10
Oh, one other cool story I once heard about the SR-71:
Much like the buffeting that earlier pilots had experienced when almost at Mach 1, the SR-71 too experienced very severe turbulance albeit at closer to Mach 3 (if I recall correctly). The issue turned out to be, that the engines couldn’t breathe the air fast enough. Like a cup flowing over, air was rammed into the engine, but couldn’t get through fast enough and instead spilled out in front of the engine. The solution was to install little doors or louvers on the sides of the engines to bleed the pressure in the front of the engine.
In other words, the plane was so fast it was outrunning its own engines, and to make it faster they actually had to make it breathe less air.
At least, that’s how I remember it. But I’m not entirely sure it’s correct. Even if it isn’t it doesn’t detract from the SR-71’s awesomeness.
Robon 04 May 10
The 50s and 60s were the golden age of aircraft design: the Blackbird, Concorde, 707 – 747, B-52 (it it’s own way), the XB70, X15…
Modern aircraft are more fuel efficient and cheaper to maintain but for beauty and style – the old planes have it.
Michael H Andersonon 04 May 10
@Lee: you mean, wars involve the killing of people? Oh dear, we mustn’t let that happen – let’s all just pass the bong and try to get along, shall we?
Welcome to the world outside your mommy’s basment suite, Lee.
Lee Egstromon 04 May 10
@Matt @Daniel @michael @everyone
I am the Lee who posts frequently on this board and has a firm near skunkworks, lockheed and boing… I mistakenly thought I could get away with not using my last name. You can tell my posts as I always link to my site…
I realize this is a recon aircraft built for surveillance.
@fakeLee use your last name or link to your email. Especially when using the svn blog to post your world views. Thx.
Benjamin Koshkinon 05 May 10
Why haven’t the designers come up with more designs like the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird?
Don Schenckon 05 May 10
@Benjamin Koshkin—ha ha … if you knew about the TR-3 … 5,300 miles per hour, pulse rocket. Been around since the early 90’s, but totally Top Secret.
Oops … Not sure I was supposed to say that.
r.ton 06 May 10
guys you are losing it, i dont see how this is relevant to anything.. i like your blog but i found this piece kinda boring and off-topic.
jaafaron 06 May 10
I like the titanium story. Pretty cool reversal on capitalism selling communists the rope they will need to hang them. :)
Josh Ulmeron 09 May 10
My very close uncle worked as a mechanic on the SR-71. I’d like to add in something he said, though even I find it hard to believe.
He said, “The top speed while listed as Mach 3 in most books, and that’s what the Airforce released, is really closer to Mach 7 and while it couldn’t sustain that, it couldn’t definitely burst that high.”
Many of you may already know, but he said it was cooled by pure liquid nitrogen. He also said that the plane would leak while on the ground except that while heat expansion would play a part in it sealing up. Some of the plane was designed to stretch at high speeds.
Wonderful plane that grabs at the imagination of all!
This discussion is closed.