Above the Iron Curtain: High Times with the SR-71 Blackbird

As the Cold War progressed the C.I.A. became more and more involved in aerial recon and specifically met with aircraft designer Lockheed Martin about the nation’s wants and needs.  Dating back to the 1950’s and an unsatisfactory outcome with the Korean Peninsula Conflict, the U.S. was determined to have an edge in information gathering.  Knowledge was power and the C.I.A. wanted to know as much about up to date about  movements of the nations enemies as possible. Including Cold War rival the USSR.

Lockheed Martin developled a unique division that would build aircraft the government would need for spying and intelligence gathering.  This renowned branch would come to be known as the Skunk Works division led by aviation legend Kelly Johnson.  The project would commence under code name “Archangel.”  The first spy plane developed was the U-2 and it would set elevation records and was supposed to fly so high the enemy couldn’t shoot it down.  As most history students know, that plane could in fact be shot down and was on May 1st. 1960.  A U-2 piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over Russia and he taken prisoner for 2 years heating up the Cold War.  While the U-2 could fly very high, it was not very fast. u2 spyplaneU-2

Next up to help with that problem came development on a super fast spy plane.  The road toward achieving the Blackbird began after the U-2 with A-12 aircraft which first dealt with the idea of radar deflective capabilities. Then came the YF-12 and the M-21.  These were stepping stones for the most badass craft to ever launch from any where on this earth.

The Blackbird originally began life in 1962 under the R-12 moniker for testing.  It’s existence became public knowledge thanks to President Lyndon Johnson who was taking harsh criticism in the 1964 Presidential Campaign for falling behind the Soviets in developing new technologies.  LBJ essentially pulled a Samuel Jackson and told them to hang on to their butts and gave a little hint as to what the Skunk Works had been cooking up.   The Air Force wanted the Blackbird to be called the RS-71 but President Johnson got the first two letters backwards.

The SR-71 was designed to fly at over Mach 3.  A flight crew of 2 consisting of a pilot and navigator would handle the machine. The plane had a ceiling of 85,000 feet and speeds above 2,000 miles an hour.  The pilots were required to wear space suits to protect from the temperatures.  The outer hull of the craft was composed 85% of titanium.  Titanium was hard to come by and somewhat humerously most of the ore used for the 32 Blackbirds that were built came from agencies buying out of the USSR.


No computers were used in the crafting and building of the fleet of Blackbirds.  The sleek, cobra like design was all done with a slide rule and mathematics.  12 of the aircraft were lost to accidents but none were ever shot down.  The plane was the ultimate spy, it’s cameras in the nose of the plane carried 2 miles worth of film and could zoom in on a golf ball on a putting green and get license plate numbers.  The plane flew so high, pilots would often see the curve of the earth and would see the sun come up twice in one flight.  In Vietnam as the U.S. was pulling out, in hopes to gather as many P.O.W.’s for escape as possible, low flying Blackbirds would kick in at planned times for a sonics boom from their thrusters as a code that now was the time to escape.  It was called the “Sound of Freedom.”

The Blackbird owns many  records and performed like no other craft ever has.  The aircraft was officially retired from service in 1990 counting cost and a different direction from the Pentagon.  Most intelligence gathering was done with satellites now and the Blackbird was no longer necessary.  However 3 of the craft were given to and used by NASA till 1998.

Amazing SR-71 Facts:

  • Set the world speed record in 1976 of 2,193.13 mph
  • BF Goodrich had to build special tires to hold the weight of the plane.  It was so heavy it only took off halfway full of fuel.
  • The Jetfuel used caused a nationwide shortage of mosquito repellent do to ingredient needs.
  • Pilots had to be 25-40 years of age and be married to show emotional stability.
  • Operation missile avoidance plan was just to put the throttle down.  No missile on earth could catch it.
  • SR-71 could photograph across North Korea entirely in 7 minutes
  • Flew from Cincinnati to St. Louis in 8 minutes.
  • Set the record for continental flight at 67 minutes and 54 seconds in 1990, cutting the previous record in half.
  • Each engine had the same output of an ocean liner.

You can visit the remaining Blackbirds all across the country.  The Airforce Base Museum in Dayton, Ohio has one I’ve had the chance to see twice.  It’s a remarkable achievement of what we as a nation can do.  It was the most powerful spy weapon for 30 years and didn’t have a single gun.  Thanks for reading here’s a great video from Jeremey Clarkson  about the SR-71.



Screenshot_20171103-232538Me with a Blackbird in Dayton, Ohio.

Author: mburnsoh

I'm a geek of all sorts, I love comics and philosophy. I also dig on movies, music, books and tons of other things. I'm a dad to a wonderful troupe of munchkins. Life is good, but never content to accept it, always think I can do better.

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