The story of the world’s fastest spy plane: SR-71 Blackbird

It could fly higher and faster than any other aircraft in the world throughout the conflict (1947-1991).

3 mins read
The story of the world's fastest spy plane: SR-71 Blackbird
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

During the Cold War between the United States and Russia (1947-1991), the US Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft could fly higher and faster than any other aircraft in the world.

Fifty-five years after its first takeoff, this plane still outpaces all others in terms of speed.
According to CNN, the Lockheed SR-71, designed in secrecy in the late 1950s, holds the record for the highest altitude and – for a non-rocket-powered aircraft – the highest speed in horizontal flight to date.

The Lockheed SR-71 was part of a spy squadron designed to monitor enemy borders without being detected or shot down in an era before satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

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The Lockheed SR-71, nicknamed the Blackbird for its deep black color, was designed in the 1950s but still looks like something from the future, according to Peter Merlin, a researcher in aviation history and author of Blackbird Design and Development.

In May 1960, a US U-2 spy plane was shot down while taking pictures in Soviet airspace.

The US government initially declared that it was an aerial survey plane, but this story collapsed after the Soviet government released photographs of the captured pilot and the plane’s reconnaissance equipment.

The incident caused a diplomatic backlash during the Cold War. It also reinforced the need for a new reconnaissance aircraft that could fly faster and at higher altitudes.

“The CIA wanted an airplane that could fly at an altitude of 90,000 feet and at high speed as much as possible without being detected by radar,” Merlin commented.

The task of designing such an ambitious aircraft fell to Clarence Kelly Johnson, one of the world’s greatest aircraft designers, and the secretive engineering division at Lockheed known as ‘Skunk Work’.
Johnson died in 1990, the same year he retired from Blackbird service.

The original aircraft in the Blackbird family was designated A-12 and made its first flight on April 30, 1962. In total, 13 A-12 aircraft were built.

Since the aircraft was designed to fly faster than 2,000 miles, the surrounding air friction would have caused the fuselage to overheat and would have melted the fuselage of conventional aircraft.

The Blackbird was therefore made of titanium, a metal that is lighter than steel and can also withstand high temperatures.

The Lockheed SR-71 set a record in 1976, reaching an altitude of 85,69 feet and a speed of 2,193.2 miles per hour.

In 1990, the program was discontinued after spy satellites and UAVs became more viable and provided instant access to surveillance data.

The SR-71 was last flown by NASA in 1999. NASA used two of the aircraft for high-speed and high-altitude flight research.

Since then, the remaining planes from the Blackbird fleet have taken their place in the museum.


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