It’s one of the most instantly recognizable aircraft ever used by the US Air Force, and oddly enough, despite its popularity, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird’s job has always been to fly under the radar, or rather above it.
Serving the US Air Force from 1964 to 1998, the Blackbird was truly ahead of its time. So much so that it holds records for speed and altitude that still stand today. From its first flight on December 22, 1964, the SR-71 became one of the most important pieces of military equipment the United States had in its possession, and for the next 30-plus years it conducted countless intelligence missions with an incredible rate of success.
The SR-71 is a one of a kind marvel of engineering, and its reputation as one of the most badass planes ever constructed is well-deserved. On top of all its remarkable achievements are a number of facts that highlight the various challenges the Air Force went through operating this plane during a time when digital consoles didn’t even exist! Here are 10 remarkable facts about the Lockheed Sr-71 “Blackbird.”
10. It Could Not Be Shot Down
Over the course of the SR-71’s three-and-a-half decades of service, over 1,000 missiles were shot at it and not one made contact. The Blackbird had a very simple method for evading enemy anti-aircraft missiles: outrun them. It was the only plane in operation capable of such high speeds and it could cover and survey entire countries in a matter of minutes.
Of the 32 aircraft that were built, 12 of them were destroyed, but none by enemy fire. Sadly, one pilot died in a crash involving the SR-71, but such a track record is still remarkable for a plane that travelled at mach 3 and at altitudes of more than 80,000 feet.
9. There Were Special Requirements for Workers
It took a special kind of person to be involved with the SR-71. In order to work on the aircraft certain personal criteria had to be met. Workers needed to be married, between the ages of 25 and 40 and had to undergo evaluations to determine that they were “mentally stable.”
Working on such an advanced machine required extreme attention to detail as well as supreme focus and maturity. The slightest of errors in maintaining the aircraft could lead to catastrophe for the pilot as well as anyone else involved in the plane’s operation. Therefore the US Air Force only allowed those who had proven themselves to be worthy to work on the Blackbird.
8. The Flight Suit Looked More Like A Space Suit
Because the SR-71 was capable of such high altitudes, its pilots needed to be protected from the extreme conditions. Their flight suits were pressurized with their own oxygen system because otherwise at 80,000 feet the pilot would suffocate.
The cabin required a heavy-duty cooling system because the plane got extremely hot when flying in excess of 2,000 miles per hour. In case of a high speed ejection, the pilot would be exposed to temperatures as high as 450 degrees Fahrenheit, so he needed to be well protected to avoid burning up.
Likewise, the windows of the cockpit could reach 600 degrees and were covered in quartz to protect the pilot from the intense heat while still allowing him to see clearly through the glass.
7. The Original Cockpit Was Entirely Analog
In its day the SR-71 cost $33 million per unit. Because the plane was so ahead of its time, lots of technology had to be invented specifically for it. One thing that it could have used was digital controls, but when it was first created in the 60s, engineers had to instead fill the cockpit with analog gauges, buttons and switches.
There were other challenges that engineers faced, such as how to keep the plane from burning up at extreme high temperatures. Parts of the plane could reach 1,000 degrees at mach 3, so the entire plane was painted black (that’s 60 lbs worth of paint) in order to keep the plane cooler at high speeds because black dissipates heat more easily than other colors. The plane was also made of 85% titanium to help withstand the extreme heat.
6. It Needed To Be Refuelled Immediately After Takeoff
Because all things tend to contract and expand with variations in temperature, many panels on the SR-71 were made to be very loose fitting when at cool temperatures. Because of this, the plane always leaked fuel when on the ground. It would be filled before takeoff, leak everywhere and then needed to be refuelled once the plane heated up and the fuel cells properly sealed.
The plane’s engines could burn up to 44,000 pounds of fuel every hour, but because of a phenomenon called the “ramjet effect,” the SR-71 became more fuel efficient the faster it flew. The plane used a special kind of fuel that was heat resistant and only used for high altitude flights. Developed by the CIA, together with the Air Force and Shell, JP7 fuel is still used by the most advanced fighter jets in the world.
Fun fact: one of the ingredients in JP7 fuel was also used to make Flit mosquito repellent. There wasn’t enough around to produce both the fuel and the repellent, so the priority went to the SR-71 and farms across America suffered because of it.
5. The SR-71 Isn’t The Only Blackbird
The Lockheed A-12 Blackbird was an early predecessor of the Sr-71 and was followed by the YF-12, a plane which set several speed records before being put into use by NASA. In addition to the YF-12 there was also an M-21 carrier variant which launched the unmanned Lockheed D-21 drone.
President Lyndon Johnson made the first public announcement of the brand new SR-71 on July 25, 1964. It was reported that the craft was originally supposed to be called the RS-71, but that the name was changed when the president misspoke during his announcement.
In addition to the SR-71A (the main model) there also existed the SR-71B (the trainer variant) and the SR-71C (a short-lived hybrid incorporating the rear fuselage of the YF-12 and the front fuselage of the SR-71). This model crashed during a test flight in 1966 and was subsequently abandoned because of instability at high speeds.
4. The SR-71 Was As Powerful As An Ocean Liner
Looking like something you’d see attached to a pod race in Star Wars Episode 1, the Blackbird’s twin Pratt & Whitney J58 jet engines were each capable of producing 34,000 pounds of thrust, roughly equivalent to the power produced by an ocean liner.
There were a few methods of starting up these bad boys. One of the more interesting techniques involved a motorized cart supporting two Buick Wildcat V8 engines which would spin the Blackbird’s J58 to 3200 rpm, at which point the turbojets could self-sustain.
3. It Set a Transcontinental Speed Record, Just For Fun
Just before being retired in 1990, the SR-71 flew across the United States from coast to coast in 67 minutes and 47 seconds. That’s nearly half the time of the previous record.
Among its other records include an absolute speed record (2,193.13 mph), which it set on July 28, 1976…with only one engine. That’s right, in order to set an official record, the plane needed to fly in both directions. One of the Blackbird’s engines stopped working at the beginning of the second run, but according to pilot, Capt. Al Joersz, “By the time we’d gone through the checklist, we’d already passed the second gate [thus officially starting the run]. Still, we exited the gate at Mach 3.2.”
On the same day the SR-71 also set the record for absolute altitude, climbing to an astounding 85,068.997 feet above the earth.
2. It Was First Tested At Area 51
For a plane that became such a publicly recognized American icon, it came from very secretive beginnings. The first A-12 took flight on April 25, 1962 in Groom Lake, Nevada, otherwise known as Area 51. The first SR-71s were also tested there after being brought over by truck from Burbank, California where they were constructed.
While the plane was retired in 1989, because the program was too expensive to maintain, the Blackbird was just too useful to keep on the ground. It came back into service in 1995 and only in 1999 was the last SR-71 grounded for good. Today all but two of the aircraft are available to see in museums. The remaining two were given to NASA.
1. The SR-71 Blackbird Was a Pop Culture Hit
Being perhaps the coolest looking plane ever built, it’s no wonder the SR-71 Blackbird was used to such great effect in the world of cinema and pop culture. Marvel’s X-Men used different versions, both real and fictional, of the popular aircraft. In most cases the X-Men’s Blackbird was modified to carry multiple passengers and capable of vertical takeoffs.
The SR-71 also played the role of the washed-up Decepticon Jetfire in Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. It was also the centerpiece of the 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L. in which the protagonist steals one in an attempt to escape from government agents.
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