American Steel: The SR-71 Blackbird

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We unlocked the back doors, turned on the lights, and I thought ‘Oh lord, there’s a spaceship.’ – Excerpt from SBNation’s Interview with Rick McCrary, SR-71 Blackbird Pilot.

In the afternoon of the 5th of April 1986, an explosion rocked the Friedenau district of West Berlin. A bomb had been placed under the DJ’s table at La Belle, a disco-themed nightclub frequented by American servicemen stationed in the German capital. Upon its explosion, the bomb claimed the lives of three people, including US Army Sergeant Kenneth T. Ford and US Army Sergeant James E. Goins, while also injuring 230 other club-goers. In the days that followed, the United States, citing intercepted intelligence, formally accused Libya and its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, of sanctioning the terrorist attack on La Belle. In retaliation, President Reagan ordered the bombing of Libyan targets in Tripoli and Benghazi by the United States Air Force. In response to the first round of strikes by the USAF, Gaddafi established a “line of death” across the Gulf of Sidra, promising that Libyan forces would shoot down any American aircraft that crossed the boundary.

On the morning of April 15th, 1986, a black spear screamed past the Libyan leader’s line in the sand. Traveling at 2,125 miles per hour, the black blur blew past Libyan military installations, snapping photos and conducting extensive reconnaissance as it sped through the sky. Libyan ground forces scrambled to engage their blazing intruder, launching multiple surface-to-air missiles to destroy the aircraft making a mockery of their government’s ultimatum. The SAMs roared into the atmosphere, dutifully chasing their prey across the horizon, but struggling to match the aircraft’s speed while increasing altitude. The black jet accelerated, sensing the danger hunting it from below. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the plane was gone, the only indication it had existed a thunderous ringing reverberating through the air. The Libyan missiles never found their target because they were hunting the fastest aircraft that had ever been built, a ghost that had ruled the sky’s slipstreams for two decades: the SR-71 Blackbird.

The SR-71 Blackbird began its life as Project Archangel, a 1958 Lockheed initiative spurred by the CIA’s request for a modern age stealth reconnaissance aircraft to replace the aging U-2 spy plane. The project was led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, head of Lockheed’s advanced development unit (known as Skunk Works) located in Burbank, California. With the aim of flying higher and faster than the U-2, Johnson and his team developed 11 separate successive designs over the course of ten months, the best and most advanced of which was branded the Archangel 12 (A-12). The A-12 made its first flight at Groom Lake, also known as Area 51, on April 25th, 1962, and shortly thereafter was delivered to the Air Force and the CIA for use in covert photo-reconnaissance missions in the skies over North Korea and Vietnam. As a part of Operation Black Shield, the A-12 conducted 22 sorties in support of American forces in Vietnam, primarily photographing Vietcong SAM emplacements. Nonetheless, despite the A-12’s record of success, the plane was phased out of production in 1968 due to its limited fuel capacity and increasing vulnerability to more advanced Soviet manufactured anti-aircraft measures. However, there was another cause behind the A-12’s demise; Kelly Johnson and his Burbank team had developed a new aircraft, one that built upon the strengths of the A-12 but did not share its flaws. Lockheed called it the “Strategic Reconnaissance 71.”

The SR-71 was designed to be the most effective spy plane in existence. Built with a tandem cockpit for a flight crew of two, a pilot in the forward seat and a reconnaissance officer operating the surveillance and navigation equipment in the rear, it divided the responsibilities of flying the aircraft and surveying a target, resulting in a significant improvement in observational and operational efficiency from the single cockpit A-12. Equipped with twin Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbojet engines and powered by a fuel developed specifically for supersonic air travel, the SR-71 was capable of reaching speeds over Mach 3 with a maximum altitude of 80,000 feet. Flying that high meant that crew members could not use standard oxygen masks during travel as they could not provide an adequate amount of the gas above 43,000 feet. Instead, the pilot and the RSO were fitted with pressurized suits that resembled NASA space suits. These flight outfits were capable of providing sufficient oxygen while withstanding the extreme temperatures in the upper atmosphere in the case of emergency ejections. At the time of its debut, the SR-71 was the most expensive aircraft ever constructed and the loss of even one of the planes would have been considered to be a catastrophic cost to the USAF, so the jet was painted black to camouflage it with the night sky. Thus, the Blackbird was born.

The SR-71 would enjoy total domination in the skies for the next three decades. Between its extremely high level of operational altitude, its remarkable speed and its specially constructed stealth chassis that reduced radar cross-section, the aircraft was an impossible target for any surface-to-air missile to hit. For reference, the North Vietnamese alone fired approximately 800 SAMs at Blackbirds in their airspace and not a single one found its mark. In fact, over the course of its entire service life (1968-1999) not a single SR-71 was ever shot down. It flew reconnaissance missions in every theater of USAF operation on Earth, successfully surveying enemy targets in every major American military engagement until its retirement in 1999. The Blackbird’s exploits in the sky earned it the respect of airmen around the world and garnered it both national speed and altitude records. Its successful development, implementation, and prolonged usage are some of the United States’s crowning achievements in the military arena, and it is one of the main reasons America enjoys its current status as ruler of the heavens.

On the morning of April 15th, 1986, Major Brian Shul and Major Walter Watson rocketed past Muammar Gaddafi’s line of death born aloft by the fastest aircraft ever built. Outrunning missiles meant to destroy them, they successfully conducted reconnaissance critical to oncoming waves of American strike craft; the heralds of the United States’s retaliation for losing two of its own at a disco bar in Berlin. A beacon in the dark, the SR-71 Blackbird lit the way for American forces for three decades, its calling card the echo of a sonic boom. A masterpiece of speed and an enduring icon from the uncertain years of the Cold War, the SR-71 represents the greatest of American atmospheric accomplishment. For its world-changing capabilities and its era long devotion to protecting servicemen around the world, the Blackbird takes its rightful place as a sacred effigy to the brotherhood of American Steel.

Image via Shutterstock

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Wooden hulled, three masted heavy frigate. Named by President George Washington.

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