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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Blackbird
February 14, 2003 2:12 AM   Subscribe

The Blackbird. I saw a documentary about the SR-71 Blackbird last night and I must admit I am fascinated by it. Not only is it sleek, beautiful and futuristic it's also fast as hell. Given its space-age appearance it is amazing to think that it first flew in 1964 and still nothing comes near in performance terms (that we know about!). Withdrawn from service in 1990 due to the expense of running it, it was used by Nasa for testing until recently. Nowadays your only chance of seeing one is in a museum, and if you're outside the US, the only place to go is the excellent Air Museum at RAF Duxford.
posted by jontyjago (35 comments total)

 
Cobra developed a similar aircraft in 1986 called Night Raven. It didn't help them in their ruthless bid for world domination, but it still looked pretty sweet.
posted by Ljubljana at 3:19 AM on February 14, 2003


Sadly, the SR-71 was retired due to its expenses. The craft's range was limited during subsonic speeds, and would leak fuel through its bottom plating. At mach plus, however, the plates would buffet themselves together, but neither the department of Defense nor NASA could justify the costs necessary for mid-air (again, subsonic) refuels.

Ironically enough, the F-35, also built by Lockheed-Martin, is another plane that's often in need of a drink. Due to the weight of its vertical lift-fan system, the craft requires additional thrust during takeoff.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:19 AM on February 14, 2003


Skunkworks.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 3:22 AM on February 14, 2003


If you're into the SR-71 (I am definitely a fan, and I used to be an aero engineer), I highly recommend the book "Skunk Works" by the chief engineer in charge of the F-117, who also took part in the SR-71.

The SR-71 is probably the greatest flying machine ever built (by the most famous aero engineer ever, Kelly Johnson). There's just too many trivia associated with it to list here, but I have to mention a few: it's the fastest, highest-flying, declassified air-breathing plane ever built, but it took Lockheed Skunk Works just 8 months to go from blueprint into production.

And to do that they had to invent little things like titanium machining tools, just to built the thing. And since the only reliable source of titanium back then was the Soviet Union, the CIA had shell companies buy titanium from the Soviets so they could built planes to spy on them.

For their part the Soviets were fully aware of SR-71 overpasses, but since the plane flew faster and higher than anything ever made by man (missiles, bullets, canonballs), the resorted to building the all-steel, super-macho Mig-29 fighter (the fastest --and heaviest-- fighter plane ever built until the F-22), and they still couldn't catch up with the Blackbirds. So what did they do? they had squadrons of Mig-29s fly beneath the SR-71s over classified areas of the Soviet Union so that the Migs would block the camera view of the Blackbirds.

I love that.
posted by costas at 3:32 AM on February 14, 2003 [1 favorite]


Those in the Richmond, VA area can view a blackbird at the Aviation museum alongside Richmond "International" airport.
posted by machaus at 6:51 AM on February 14, 2003


For their part the Soviets were fully aware of SR-71 overpasses, but since the plane flew faster and higher than anything ever made by man

Be careful with statements like that, remember Columbia broke up at Mach 18, while the Blackbird is definitely an incredible aircraft and just plain cool, it just doesn't fly "faster" (tops out at Mach 3+) nor "higher" (we did take some guys to the moon and back you might recall) than "anything ever made by man"

the CIA had shell companies buy titanium from the Soviets so they could built planes to spy on them.

I've often wondered about this, wasn't the exorbitant cost of titanium partly to blame for both the inability to find a solution to the fuel leak problems and the prohibitive maintenance costs, the problems that grounded the Blackbird. Now that the USSR is no more, couldn't we buy titanium directly from the ailing Russians or are U2's and satellites just that much better and more cost effective?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:52 AM on February 14, 2003


Some people think the SR-71 was replaced by the Mach 5 Aurora plane.

Of course, the Air Force will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the Aurora.
posted by Mid at 6:53 AM on February 14, 2003


It is a fantastic flying machine. I saw one make four passes at an air show (probably Dayton) and have seen two on static display. My father worked for Pratt & Whitney for 35 years although not on the engines for the SR-71. (He was, I think, involved in the engines for the F-111. I always thought it was a beautiful plane although with a nickname like "Aardvark" -- the plane not mine -- I think that may be a rare opinion.)
posted by Dick Paris at 6:55 AM on February 14, 2003


the all-steel, super-macho Mig-29 fighter (the fastest --and heaviest-- fighter plane ever built until the F-22)

Not true. These are the numbers from Global Aircraft

1. X-15 - Mach 6.72
2. SR-71 Blackbird (YF-12) - Mach 3.35
3. X-2 - Mach 3.196
4. XB-70 Valkyrie - Mach 3.1
5. MiG-31 Foxhound - Mach 2.83
6. MiG-25 Foxbat - Mach 2.8
7. F-15 Eagle - Mach 2.5
8. F-14A Tomcat & F-111 Aardvark - Mach 2.4
10. MiG-23 Flogger & Su-27 Flanker - Mach 2.35
39. F-22 Raptor - Mach 1.7 (AB)

Global Aircraft also has a page about MY personal favorite; the XB-70 Valkyrie; the most beautiful and majestic plane ever built. And it was no slouch either.
posted by cx at 7:06 AM on February 14, 2003


My uncle helped design and build the Blackbird's control systems. Of course he couldn't tell us this until just a couple of years ago. His basement is full of very cool Lockheed schwag from the early '60s.

I'm trying to get myself written into his will, obviously...
posted by MrBaliHai at 7:13 AM on February 14, 2003


I plan on going to the USS Intrepid in NYC and checking out the A-12 Blackbird soon. Everytime we drive by, I can't help but look at it in awe. I blame Discovery channel for making me a fan of this plane.
posted by riffola at 7:17 AM on February 14, 2003


cx: costas said, of the SR-71, that it's the fastest, highest-flying air-breathing plane ever built. The X-15 basically had a rocket engine. As for the MiG-29, dunno. Were all the MiGs fighters?
posted by caveday at 7:24 AM on February 14, 2003


If we're talking about the same documentary, it described the plane as a "stealth aircraft". As ntk points out, this is pretty ironic as the SR-71's exhaust plume made it one of the largest radar targets ever detected on the FAA's long-range radars.
posted by chrispy at 7:26 AM on February 14, 2003


Forgot to say that my second link shows where in the US some of the remaining SR-71s are located, in case you wanted to go and see one. Also lists the ones that came to an premature end - quite a high proportion.
posted by chrispy at 7:35 AM on February 14, 2003


Be careful with statements like that, remember Columbia broke up at Mach 18, while the Blackbird is definitely an incredible aircraft and just plain cool, it just doesn't fly "faster" (tops out at Mach 3+) nor "higher" (we did take some guys to the moon and back you might recall) than "anything ever made by man"

It's a stretch to call what the Shuttle does "flying". To quote Woody and Buzz, it's more like falling with style.

The shuttle gets its speed from altitude -- altitude it achieved with giant booster rockets. I think to qualify as flying you need to be able to go up as well as down, or at least a bit of level flight.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:36 AM on February 14, 2003


Speaking of very fast airplanes, this month on PBS, Nova is running a documentary on the competition that was used to select the new Joint Strike Fighter. It shows the design and production strategies that Lockheed Martin and Boeing were going through to win the contract with the Department of Defense. I tell you it gave me goose bumps every time watching those jet planes going into Harrier vertical/short takeoff and landing mode.
posted by beatnik808 at 7:39 AM on February 14, 2003


Y'all, the fast macho steel Soviet fighter you're talking about is the MiG-25 or its successor the MiG-31; your MiG-29s came somewhat later (than the MiG-25s at least) and were designed to counter the F-15s and F-18s that they look like. /fighter-plane-geek
posted by furiousthought at 7:41 AM on February 14, 2003


I like these kind of posts. I am a big aviation fan. Military aircraft have always been an interest. I worked for Fairchild Republic (P-47, A-10 +others) and also for Grumman Aircraft (Hellcat, F14 + others) and was in the USAF for a stint.
It has always amazed me that the SR-71 has its roots in the the early half of the 1960's. Kelly Johnson and the team he was surrounded by were definately amazing engineers. They did a lot of cool stuff.

Here is a link to a pink elephant of an aircraft, that somehow I always found interesting.
P6M Seamaster
posted by a3matrix at 7:46 AM on February 14, 2003


And since the only reliable source of titanium back then was the Soviet Union

I have a few hundred Timet mill workers in my hometown of Toronto, Ohio that would vigorously, if not violently, debate that statement and convince you that it was quantity, not reliability that was the problem. The mill had just opened in '57 and wasn't up to full production and since it's a finishing plant they'd blame the sponging plant for the lack of raw materials.

Titanium from that plant has been used in just about every military project (and many space ones, including parts of the Apollo capsules) since its inception.
posted by m@ at 7:56 AM on February 14, 2003


We have an SR-71 here at our local armament museum located at Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida. As I recall, the one here set a new speed record on its last flight from California. I thought it odd at the time that a plane that could do that was being retired.
posted by wsg at 8:05 AM on February 14, 2003


cx, if you haven't laid your eyes upon the only Valkyrie left in existence (out of the grand total of two built), get thyself to the USAF museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH. It's in the hangar with loads of other experimental aircraft (including a YF-12 Blackbird). I had no idea it was so monstrously huge. The cockpit "neck" must be 40 feet off the ground. It dominates everything in the hangar with both sheer size and grace.
posted by zsazsa at 8:05 AM on February 14, 2003


AIRPOWER! Proud to serve.
posted by davidmsc at 8:09 AM on February 14, 2003


Sure the SR-71 is fast but can it carry 17 Main Battle Tanks? 76 tires on 38 landing gear...that's gonna make some tire company very, very happy.
posted by m@ at 8:12 AM on February 14, 2003


We have a Blackbird at the Air National Guard museum here in Saint Paul, MN. It's awesome to walk around this thing!
posted by effer27 at 8:13 AM on February 14, 2003


It's a stretch to call what the Shuttle does "flying". To quote Woody and Buzz, it's more like falling with style.

Very true, but the original claim was the plane flew faster and higher than anything ever made by man (missiles, bullets, cannonballs) I would have to say that the shuttle at least falls into those categories! The shuttle is a glider really, it does have all the glider parts, rudders ailerons, wings, but you're right its not flying in any conventional sense rather than a controlled fall.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:42 AM on February 14, 2003


Awesome post, awesome comments, awesome links. Thanks everybody.
posted by vito90 at 8:49 AM on February 14, 2003


We have one sitting outside the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Looking at it, it is hard to believe the plane is almost as old as I am.
posted by kickerofelves at 9:01 AM on February 14, 2003


I'm with ya, m@. I was always a fan of the Super Guppy.
posted by samuelad at 9:53 AM on February 14, 2003


Back when I worked at Air & Space magazine, we went out to see the SR-71 the National Air and Space Museum had out at Dulles Airport, and a museum curator who had flown the thing told us what it was like. As I recall it, he said that on one occasion he was flying across the Atlantic when the cockpit cooling system failed and he had to skeedaddle back to England. By the time he landed, the plastic checklist clipboard he had attached to the knee of his pressure suit had melted. Those Blackbirds could get pretty hot, apparently.
posted by Man-Thing at 2:02 PM on February 14, 2003


For folks in Nor Cal, they've got one at Castle Air Museum. If you go on Memorial Day weekend they have it and a bunch of other aircraft open for display. They won't actually let you climb into the SR 71 cockpit, but you can get up on the access gantry and take photos of the cockpit (minus the secret stuff that was removed). I've got some photos from last year on my website. Have patience with my piddly DSL... Besides the SR71 they also have a bunch of other stuff open to climb around in, including a B52. Good stuff.
posted by ehintz at 3:20 PM on February 14, 2003


zsazsa, thanks for the link, it definitely looks like its worth a trip! :)

caveday, I know the X-15 (and the X-2 for that matter) really is in a category of its own, I just copied the list to show that neither the MiG-29 (nor the F-22) was designed to break the speed records.
posted by cx at 6:36 PM on February 14, 2003


m@ the Pelican is descended from the Caspian Sea Monster
posted by Joeforking at 4:29 AM on February 15, 2003


My father was part of the Skunkworks and worked on this plane. Although we only knew he was a Weight Engineer at Lockheed during his career (he measured parts of planes mathematically before they were built, to make sure they could take off). His penchant for secrecy fit his job very well.

When he died, I wanted to put a fitting tribute to him on his gravestone. I found an expression he would have used in his work and it is under his name on his stone. It's cryptic to most, but other aeronautical engineers will know what it means and what he did.

If you're interested, you can take a look at my Web version of his stone which explains the equation.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:32 AM on February 15, 2003


I am kinda late back in this thread: I did mess up the MiG-29 with the 25, but I stand by the "fastest, highest-flying" bit. My point was that nothing could chase the SR-71, and indeed nothing still can. As slow to turn as the SR-71/A-12 was, it was far more maneuverable than either the X-2 or the X-15 (which were basically rockets with a pilot seat strapped on) and could fly far, far, longer (2hrs at Mach 3 is damn impressive).

If y'all want to stick by numbers, the "fastest, highest-flying" machine ever made by man was any of the Apollo return capsules. Went to the Moon and hit Mach 25 on reentry (the Shuttle does a mere M18).

From an engineering perspective, the SR-71 is and was a triumph. The sheer number of obstacles that Skunk Works overcame to built this plane (materials, propulsion system, unknown aerodynamics) in the incredibly short time that they did, by far exceeds any of the X planes. In 8 months, Skunk Works built the first variable intake turbojet/ramjet engine, the first titanium-built plane, the first plane to go from 0 to Mach 3+ under its own power (the X-1,2 and 15 were dropped off bombers), and a short while later that machine was in production and operational.

There simply isn't a way to understate what a great machine the Blackbird is. BTW, the Valkyrie is one impressive beast (if you're ever near Dayton, Wright-Patterson worths a visit just for gaping at that monster) but to an engineer it is a conservative design compared to the SR-71.
posted by costas at 12:14 PM on February 15, 2003


Pretty Hate Machine
posted by yonderboy at 2:43 AM on March 8, 2003


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