Making its first flight on December 22, 1964, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird became the fastest and most capable air-breathing jet aircraft. A total of 32 units of the strategic reconnaissance aircraft have been produced over the years, with the type making its last flight on October 9, 1999.


Mach 3 triumphs

The SR-71 set many records after its introduction in January 1966. For example, it broke the absolute altitude record in July 1976, reaching 85,069 feet (25,929 m). It also flew from New York to London in just one hour and 54 minutes, faster than Concorde’s record of two hours and 52 minutes across the Atlantic. The aircraft’s accomplishments are many, but its true capabilities came during its time in active service.

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By the time the 1990s arrived, the type had flown over 17,300 sorties, including 3,500 mission sorties, and logged 53,490 flight hours. However, by this time the SR-71 had become too expensive to operate. It was also becoming obsolete as the military began to favor other reconnaissance methods that presented themselves.

The main operations of the program had stopped at the end of 1989. However, in 1994, the United States Congress voted the allocation of 100 million dollars to reactivate three units, and the first of them returned to the action the following year.

NASA used two units as testbeds for high-speed, high-altitude aerospace research. Photo: NASA

Robust Capabilities

The National Air and Space Museum points out that the Blackbird’s exploits place it “at the pinnacle of developments in aeronautical technology during the Cold War”. There were three main variants – the basic production SR-71A, the SR-71B trainer and the SR-71C hybrid trainer.

Two Pratt & Whitney J58 jet engines helped provide the following for the SR-71A:

  • Maximum speed: 2,200 mph (Mach 3.32)
  • Service ceiling: 85,000 ft (26,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 11,820 ft/min (60.0 m/s)
  • Range (ferry): 2,824 NM (3,250 mi)

There was a lot of power to be had. As Lockheed Martin says:

“Flying the Blackbird was a ruthless undertaking, requiring total concentration. But the pilots were giddy with their complex and adrenaline-filled responsibilities. “At 85,000 feet and Mach 3, it was almost a religious experience,” said Air Force Col. Jim Wadkins. “Nothing had prepared me to fly so fast… My God, even now I get goosebumps remembering.”“At this speed and altitude, even the best air defense systems had no hope of catching the Blackbird. When anti-aircraft weapons were fired, a warning light flashed red on the But this would usually be the last time the pilot would see the attempted attack, as the surface-to-air missiles constantly missed, exploding several miles from the intended target.

The final retirement

Despite being a powerhouse of the United States Air Force (USAF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) flew the last airworthy pair of SR-71s until their end of life in 1999. They were at the Dryden Flight Research Center. in California during this time. Registration AF 61-7980/NASA 844 made its last flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California 23 years ago today.

Several units are currently kept in museums and research centers around the world. Even though it’s been well over two decades, the plane still holds records to its name.

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