The Fastest Air-Breathing Manned Aircraft Ever Built

     In 1960, Francis Gary Powers was flying in a U-2 Dragon Lady while high above the USSR conducting a reconnaissance mission for the United States. Unfortunately for him, he was effectively shot down by the USSR's advanced anti-air systems and was put on a very public trial.


     The U-2's technology was seized and stolen from the crash site. The United States needed a new reconnaissance aircraft, so the pentagon turned to Lockheed Martin. Then, the legend herself was born... the SR-71 Blackbird.


     The SR-71 Blackbird, a mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft, is currently is foreseen to always hold the record of the fastest and highest flying manned aircraft in history. Created by the legendary aircraft designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson from Lockheed Martin's infamous Skunkworks Division using only paper, pencil & protractors; the SR-71 Blackbird was beyond technologically inclined for even today and was a masterpiece of aviation engineering.  

SR-71 poses for a photo with a fan on the runway

     

     Having been built with titanium, the very strong but light metal is notoriously difficult to build with so during the aircraft's production, alot of new tools had to be created just to build it. Titanium had to be used for the airframe because the friction created from cruising at such high speeds for long periods of time would super heat the aircraft. 

SR71 XVII
The cockpit of the SR-71 Blackbird

     

     If you ever looked at the SR-71 Blackbird up close, you'll notice it has very large gaps all over it. That's because the as the airframe heats up, it causes the metal to expand. So the Blackbird would close up and get smaller as it went faster. It also had to refuel in midair as soon as it took off because the gaps would cause it to lose half of her fuel just taking off. It's actually strange, because the faster the Blackbird went the better it performed all-around. 

     The fastest the Blackbird is officially recorded to have gone is a stunning mach 3.5 (2685.44 Mp/H or 4321.8 Kp/H) and it was achieved when SR-71 pilot Brian Shul was evading a missile over Libya on April 15th, 1986 while locating targets for the US to bomb.

       To give you a sense of how truly fast this plane is, it set a world record of flying coast to coast across the United States in a time of 1 hour, 4 minutes and 20 seconds and if you do the math, the SR-71 could fly across the entire world once in 9 hours and 2 minutes.


     The Blackbird would go on to enjoy much success. Most Blackbirds were not armed (The YF-12 Blackbird was) as any room on-board was used for all of her reconnaissance equipment. So in order to defend itself when being chased and fired at, she would simply just go faster.

SR-71 evades missiles fired at it

     

      Blackbird has had over 1,000 missiles fired at it by several countries including North Korea, USSR/ Russia & Vietnam. Not a single missile has ever hit, in fact the closest a missile ever got to her was just over a mile away. The USSR would go on to create the MiG-25 Foxbat specifically to shoot the SR-71 Blackbird down but it was never successful.

     Now, the SR-71 Blackbird did have a very lethal enemy that did successfully bring it down more than once. Itself. The SR-71 has had many accidents. It has crashed a few times, there was an incident where two Blackbirds accidentally crashed into each other mid-flight and there was even an incident where a Blackbird disintegrated around a pilot into dust. You may click here to view an archive of Blackbird loss statistics and information.

     There were quite a few variants of the SR-71. There's an armed variant, the CIA's variant, a double-seater trainer variant, the US Air Force's variant, NASA's variant that was used for testing all kinds of stuff and there was even a variant of the Blackbird that had it's own drone! (The D-21)

     The SR-71 Blackbird entered service on December 22nd 1966 but sadly due to politics, was forced into retirement in 1990. It was still kept in operation however and reactivated in 1995 and remained in service until 1998. NASA's own SR-71 was retired on October 9th of 1999, having been bought and used by NASA since 1991. 

M-21 Blackbird (Variant of the CIA's A-12 Oxcart) carries a D-21 drone on her back. This could be launched mid-flight

     

      Many organizations would come to benefit greatly from the SR-71. NASA, the US Air Force & the CIA all had their own versions and many other versions were created and tested. All versions hold world records in every aspect to this day and there is no other manned aircraft that can take these records as we now enter the age of the drones.

      Enjoying a total of 32.8 years of honorable military and civilian service, 53,490 flight hours, 11,675 Mach 3 flight hours, having been all around the world and never losing in action, the SR-71 Blackbird is truly a special aircraft that we all have come to love and respect. May she enjoy her retirement in peace, cheers.