The Fastest Manned Aircraft Ever Built

An aircraft so advanced it was reported as a UFO in the first years of it's service

Introduction

     In 1955, the U-2 went on it's first test flight and would be utilized in conducting reconnaissance operations over the USSR during the Cold War. It could fly high and take great photos, however the U-2 was not stealth. The Soviet Military knew when and where it was flying over it's territory at all times and in 1960, the Soviets finally shot down a U-2 being piloted by CIA agent Gary Francis Powers on a routine surveillance mission.

     Gary Powers was publicly trialed and the United States was deeply embarrassed by this incident. The U-2 wreckage was recovered by the Soviets in relatively well condition with even the on-board cameras intact and would be paraded around for all to see. The United States was in need of a way to spy on Soviet territory without opposition.

     Fortunately for the US, legendary aircraft designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson had already been working on designs for their answer. A strategic reconnaissance aircraft with stealth and could fly high and fast enough that nothing could dare disturb it while it worked. Nothing could catch it, nothing could hide from it and it would leave it's mark on history as one of the single greatest planes to have ever been designed.

14 pilots in pressure suits pose in front of a U-2 Dragonlady, the predecessor to the Blackbird family

Airframe & Engineering

     When going at the speeds the Blackbird would be, the airframe would be under heavy stress and heat from the air friction. Other incredibly fast vehicles have found ways to mitigate these issues. The X-15 would use a specially designed heat-sink type skin while the Space Shuttles would use ceramic tiling. The Blackbird needed a solution and it would get it.

     The Blackbird would find it's solution in the material used in it's construction. Aircraft are normally built using aluminum as it's lightweight and all around perfect for aviation. Aluminum, however, handles heat very poorly. So to help solve their problems, aluminum would be replaced with titanium. It's both lightweight and heat resistant with the added benefit of being extremely strong & durable but there were 2 things being compromised for those benefits.

     At that time, the largest producer of titanium was, ironically, the USSR. If the US wanted to have enough titanium to construct these airplanes, the titanium had to come from the USSR. To do this, the CIA would create multiple false companies as fronts to source the titanium and purchase it over time, this way the Soviets would not notice and be none the wiser. The second compromise was time. Titanium has incredible heat resistance while also being both strong and durable. This of course also means it's extremely difficult to work with so it would require special tools and more time needed to construct these Blackbirds.

     Despite the compromises, Kelly Johnson would not only deliver the Blackbirds to the US Government way ahead of schedule but also millions of dollars cheaper than the original projected costs. It's safe to say the military was in love with him by this point.

               Engines Engineered by Energized Engineers

     The Blackbird used twin Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning (continuously) turbojet engines (JT11D-20). Each engine could output around 30,000 Lbs. (13,607 Kg.) of thrust on full afterburner and the two inlet cones, tipped off with solid titanium spikes, were able to retract automatically according to the aircraft's airspeed. Below is the aft position correlated with airspeed:

     Mach 0 - Mach 1.5 (0MPH - 1150 Mp/H / 1850 | Km/H) = Fully retracted back

     Mach 1.5 - Mach 1.9 (1150MPH - 1457 Mp/H | 2344 Km/H) = Middle position

     Mach 1.9+ (1457 Mp/H+ | 2344 Km/H+) = Fully extended forward

     Most super sonic aircraft produced 1 single sonic boom when breaking the sound barrier. The Blackbird, however, produced 2 sonic booms. This is because both the nose and the inlet cones on the engines would break the sound barrier, the cones breaking it just shortly after the cone since they were farther back in relative distance to the nose. The result was two distinct sonic booms.

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Dual Sonic Boom

               Astroinertial Navigation System - "R2D2"

     The SR-71 was operational long before GPS or any serious satellite infrastructure existed. Maps are rendered useless at the edge of space and the Blackbird needed something to know where it was, so it was installed with a special set of sensors and a camera that was placed on the top of the aircraft so it could use the stars to navigate.

     The ANS system, affectionately named "R2D2" by the flight crews, would pick two stars and track the Blackbird's position relative to them to give precise location information. The camera was sensitive enough to be able to see the stars even in bright daylight.

Variants, Equipment & Arsenals

               SR-71A Blackbird "Long Tail"

          The SR-71A #61-7959, nicknamed "Long Tail", was a variant of the Blackbird created due to arising misplaced concerns the United States Air Force had of future ground forces being able to fire on the aircraft from behind. So to future-proof the SR-71, they decided adding some new sensors and equipment would be best. This included an ECM package (Electronic Countermeasures) such as missile and radar jamming as well as things like a new 24" Optical Bar Camera to aid with seeing targets in severe weather.

     The USAF had concluded the best place to put all of this new equipment without affecting performance was in the back by extending the tail. The new tail extended 13 ft. 9 in. long and was raised slightly by 8.5° for take-off ground clearance. It could carry an additional 864 Lbs., making the entire tail assembly weigh a total of 1,273 Lbs.

     61-7959 was built on the Lockheed Martin assembly line with all her other sisters but was kidnapped upon completion to serve as the testbed for the new tail. Flight tests have shown though that the new sensor suite provided little more advantage and that the SR-71 already had everything it needed. The project was abandoned and she was the only one ever built.

     If you wish to see her, she now resides at the Air Force Armament Museum located at Eglin AFB in Florida.

SR-71A #61-7959 "Long Tail" sits and enjoys the sun

               SR-71B Blackbird Trainer

          Two were built, one was lost when it suffered double generator failure over Washington state.

An SR-71B being admired as it enjoys it's retirement

               SR-71C Blackbird Experimental

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An SR-71C flying amidst the sunset

     M-21 Blackbird & D-21 Drone -

          The D-21 drone was capable of around Mach 3.3 (2,532 Mp/H) and also carried it's own camera. It would be carried on the back of a modified A-12 Blackbird / Oxcart and would enter deep into enemy territory to take photographs of targets. The drone would follow a predefined flight path after the M-21 carried it to where it needed to go, release the photos it took and self destruct.

     Four test flights were conducted with the M-21. The first flight test would only let the D-21 fly a little above it's back for a short amount of time. The second and third test flights failed due to engineering failures with the drone. The fourth test would see the D-21 suffer engine problems and striking the tail of it's M-21 carrier. Both aircraft were destroyed with one fatality. Both pilots successfully ejected however the Launch Control Officer, Ray Torrick, drowned. Bill Park survived the incident.

     Several more test flights were made but on modified B-52s per Kelly Johnson's advice. Some would succeed and some would fail but the project would ultimately be cancelled in 1971. All failures were due to technical issues with the drone with the exception of one being due to a stripped nut that kept the D-21B to it's pylon.

D-21 drone patiently waits to be loaded onto it's mothership
M-21 Blackbird with a D-21 on it's back

     A-12 "Oxcart" -

          The A-12, belonging to the CIA, was actually smaller & faster than the SR-71. It also had better cameras. The reason why the SR-71 was chosen to succeed the A-12 was due to the SR-71's side facing radars and cameras. This would allow the SR-71 to peer deep inside enemy territory without having to penetrate it. This vastly improves the Blackbird's already very high survivability odds, making it even more untouchable than it already was.

3 A-12s enjoy each other's company on the TARMAC

     YF-12 Interceptor -

          First taking flight on August 7th, 1963; the YF-12 was intended to replace the F-106 Delta Dart as the United State's interceptor aircraft. The YF-12 carried 3 AIM-47 Falcon A-A missiles and had new forward-facing radar installed for target tracking. The project was ultimately cancelled due to the emergence of ICBMs on the world stage, meaning there were no longer any bombers to intercept... thus no need for an interceptor. The YF-12 conducted 7 fire/ combat tests, 6 of which were successful. The 7th one failed when the AIM-47's propulsion didn't function as expected.

          There were 3 YF-12s built, 2 of which were destroyed in accidents. (YF-12A 60-6936, YF-12

A YF-12 Interceptor taking off

      KC-135Q/T Stratotanker -

          When the Blackbird was in service, every aircraft within it's inventory utilized JP-4 fuel. Aircraft that had in-flight refueling capabilities would be fed by a fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. The only problem is, the Blackbird didn't drink JP-4. The Blackbird had a special fuel concocted specifically for it due to JP-4 not being able to handle the speeds, altitudes or temperatures the Blackbird achieved.

      One of the biggest changes made to the select 803 KC135s so they could feed the Blackbird was isolated fuel tanks. The KC-135 itself used JP-4 fuel and aircraft it refueled would just take fuel from it's own supply. The KC-135Q was now carrying two different fuel types so, obviously, two separate fuel tanks were needed.

      Production numbers for all the Blackbirds tallied 30 SR-71As, 2 SR-71Bs, 13 A-12s, 3 YF-12s and 2 M-21s for a total of 50. 803 KC-135Q/Ts were essential to the Blackbird fleet as without them, the Blackbirds range was about 2,000 miles. Midair refueling brought that range up to a rounded 3,500 miles, nearly doubling it.

KC-135Q preparing for a landing

Incidents & Stories

     There's a conspiracy that the Blackbird was created from alien technology. The Blackbird was developed and tested under the Skunkworks A-12 program at Area 51 for the CIA. The A-12's first flight was in 1962 and in 1947, 15 years before her maiden flight, it's reported that Area 51 was in possession of 2 crashed UFOs in the Roswell incident. Everything about the Blackbird was so far ahead of it's time that even today modern aircraft and other sophisticated systems don't hold a candle to it's engineering. From semi-ram jet engines with automatic retracting cones to it's ridiculously proficient aerodynamics that were almost a century ahead of it's time, it really makes one wonder.

Myths & Misconceptions

     - The SR-71 Blackbird was not decommissioned because of spy satellites or increased threat of advanced missiles. It boiled down to politics. The aircraft was too expensive as it required a lot of maintenance time, specialty parts and special fuel. The cold war was over and there wasn't much left to spy on that required something as advanced as the SR-71. Congress didn't like the operating costs.

     - The MiG-31 Foxbat was not actually capable of intercepting the SR-71. The SR-71 was on constant afterburner and only got more fuel efficient the faster it flew. It could do well over Mach 3. (About 2,500 Mp/H) and possibly more as the actual top speed is still top secret at an altitude of 80K feet.

       The MiG-31 Foxbat had a top speed of Mach 2.8 (about 1,800 Mp/H) and could not remain on afterburner for very long. It was also extremely inefficient with fuel consumption. The MiG-31 could technically go faster than Mach 2.8, up to Mach 3.2 but that would require losing all of it's armaments and it would also most likely destroy the aircraft, it would also run out of fuel very quickly if it somehow did survive. Even with all of that though, it still wouldn't be fast enough to catch the Blackbird.

        The Foxbat had a maximum altitude of 67,500 feet compared to the Blackbird's altitude of 80,000 feet. The SR-71 Blackbird was also better designed compared to the Foxbat that was hastily put together just so the Soviets could say they countered it. This means the SR-71 Blackbird would be performing far better in those conditions than the Foxbat would be.

MiG-31 Foxbat dreaming of catching a Blackbird. The irony of it's existence is that it never will.
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