The Insane Engineering of the SR-71 Blackbird

It shows a Blackbird with a Skunk Works tail-flash maneuvering relatively low over a populated area at twilight with full afterburner selected. The only way to capture such a shot was with high-speed, grainy film, but that quality actually adds to the photo’s mystique, in my opinion.

Multiple SR-71’s wore the Skunk Works tail flash, so it is near impossible to understand what aircraft this was. Best guess was it was a test bird out of Palmdale towards the end of the SR-71’s career, but that is just a wild guess.

The Blackbird’s Pratt & Whitney J58 turbojet engines were one of the biggest triumphs of aerospace development in the history of manned flight. Their thrust wasn’t extreme by today’s standards—they put about the same amount in afterburner and in military power on the test stand as an F119 engine in an F-22—but they were specially designed to retain high thrust at extreme speeds beyond Mach 3 and very high altitudes, double that of what a fighter typically flew at.

They also ran on special JP-7 fuel and were capable of burning special additives to create a stealthy cloud of plasma behind them to hide from enemy radars. All of this happened internally, of course, but one of the coolest byproducts of the J58’s operation was its huge afterburner plume that included a string of shock diamonds measuring dozens of feet trailing from behind the Blackbird’s barrel-like exhaust.

Faster than a speeding bullet” may bring to mind a certain superhero from the planet Krypton, but it was literally true of the SR-71 Blackbird, the sleek, stealthy Air Force spy plane taken up for its first test flight 50 years ago on December 22, 1964.

Created by Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works team—a top-secret crew of techno wizards—at the height of the cold war, the Blackbird cruised at more than three times the speed of sound. That translates to better than 2,000 miles per hour—at altitudes between 75,000 and 85,000 feet, too high and too fast to be shot down by an enemy fighter or a surface-to-air missile.

Expensive to maintain and fly, the SR-71 was retired from the Air Force in 1990. Blackbird number 972, which set four international speed records that year, now is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Standing before the aircraft, it’s not hard to understand the feelings of Air Force test pilot Terry Pappas, who says that of all the planes he flew, the SR-71 “is at the pinnacle. When you walk up and look at it for the first time, it’s kind of hard to believe they built something like that.”

The speeds at which the Blackbird hurtled along resulted in extremely punishing conditions. Even though the SR-71 flew at altitudes higher than 96 percent of the atmosphere, there was still enough friction with air molecules to raise temperatures on the aircraft’s hull as high as 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Anticipating this, designers chose to build the SR-71 almost entirely out of titanium, a metal that is heat resistant and relatively lightweight but difficult to work with.

In the early 1960s, it was also hard to find. One of the best sources was the Soviet Union, so the CIA, which also oversaw development of Blackbird’s predecessor, the A-12 Oxcart, set up shell companies abroad to purchase the metal from the very nation it was spying on.

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