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Archangel, the CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft
March 21, 2008 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Quick, identify this plane. SR-71 Blackbird, right? Wrong.

It's the A-12. Hundreds of documents pertaining to the A-12 program (codenamed OXCART) were declassified last September, and the CIA has rolled out a series of historical articles dedicated to development of the plane and its derivatives, including the SR-71 (Blackbird on left). There are some really cool photos, too, including this one of an engine test.
posted by cog_nate (92 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Everyone knows that the A12 was the forerunner to the SR 71...
posted by Burhanistan at 10:26 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow that whole engine is glowing.
Seems strange to me that the blackbird has never been succeeded. Like the concorde.
That's unnatural; everything should get faster and better and cheaper and more advanced...
posted by jouke at 10:27 AM on March 21, 2008


I feel so deeply ashamed.
posted by Dizzy at 10:28 AM on March 21, 2008


Going by the URL, I'm going to say "A-12".
posted by DU at 10:29 AM on March 21, 2008


> Everyone knows that the A12 was the forerunner to the SR 71...

Even if everyone did (and I didn't, so that's your thesis done in a second), not everyone - including yourself - posted a thread with some great links and amazing pictures.

So thanks cog_nate, and "up yours!" buhanistan...
posted by benzo8 at 10:30 AM on March 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


There's also the somewhat meaner-looking YF-12, which had missiles on it so it could shoot down bombers. The project was cancelled because Russian bombers weren't fast enough to justify having such a ridiculously fast interceptor.
posted by zsazsa at 10:30 AM on March 21, 2008


"Archangel"? Good lord, it's hard enough not to think of the X-Men whenever I see the name SR-71 as it is ...
posted by bettafish at 10:31 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


One imagines it would be hard to have one's luggage lost in that aeroplane, doesn't one?
posted by Rumple at 10:35 AM on March 21, 2008


The SR-71 is an A-12 variant not a derivative.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:35 AM on March 21, 2008


Isn't that the plane Clint Eastwood stole from the Russians?
posted by bondcliff at 10:35 AM on March 21, 2008


Thanks for posting this. I had no idea all that material was made available.
posted by procrastination at 10:36 AM on March 21, 2008


Don't forget the M-21 as well. Cool site; one of my great fantasies would be to fly an SR71. Of course, since I am neither a pilot nor in the military and am past the age where I could start flight school, it will have to remain unfulfilled.
posted by TedW at 10:41 AM on March 21, 2008


They just installed one of these on a pedestal on the CIA campus, I think.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:47 AM on March 21, 2008


I think about this plane everytime I hear that song the Beatles wrote about it...
posted by tadellin at 10:49 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


They just installed one of these on a pedestal on the CIA campus, I think.
posted by gottabefunky at 1:47 PM on March 21 [+] [!]


Either you work there and are revealing secrets or you are spying on them. Either way, I'm pretty sure that at this point you should be expecting some guys in black outfits to put you in a big sack at any moment.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:52 AM on March 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Another consequence of all this flight activity was an increase in UFO reports. As with the U-2 in the 1950s, there is a strong correlation between the A-12 flight schedule and “alien aircraft” sightings submitted in the early and mid-1960s. From one of the documents.
posted by jouke at 10:54 AM on March 21, 2008


I enjoyed reading those OXCART documents several weeks ago, that I'm bugged that many pages that are 50 years old are still redacted. Does the government still have secrets about Civil War cannon technology, or is that stuff redacted too?
posted by mr. creosote at 10:57 AM on March 21, 2008


The A-12/SR-71 is easily the most awesome plane ever made. Not entirely without problems of course but still unbearably badass.

The plane on the Intrepid flight deck is an A-12, just another in New York's long running campaign to confuse the hell out of unwary visitors.
posted by Skorgu at 10:58 AM on March 21, 2008 [10 favorites]


Seems strange to me that the blackbird has never been succeeded. Like the concorde.

As I understand it (I'd love to know more) that's because it's an obsolete concept. You can put great optics etc. on a satellite and accomplish the same thing without violating someone's airspace. I guess in a large-scale war scenario it might be harder to shoot one of these down.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:59 AM on March 21, 2008


The thing that makes the SR-71 so great is that it wasn't just ahead of it's time, it was so far ahead of it's time that I actually had people try to point to it as an example of reverse engineered UFO technology.

It's like, people couldn't get their heads around the idea that in 1962, people would create an aircraft that would still be able to break records forty some years later.

The other thing that makes it great is that it was one of our best cold war planes, and it never carried a weapon. There was an old (and probably apocryphal) description of how fast and low profile it operated; that by the time a Soviet operator was able to recognize that what it was seeing was, in fact, an American aircraft in their airspace, then was able to alert his superior, and have the decision made to fire a missile at it, the SR-71 would have already left the contested airspace.

If I recall correctly, the A-12 also almost spawned another variant that was almost built (Wikipedia calls it the B-71) that was supposed to be a shorter armed version of the SR-71, but it never came to fruition.
posted by quin at 11:00 AM on March 21, 2008


It is certainly wiser to invest in all these planes rather than domestic goodies. What good would a cancer cure be if we were taken over by communists. Or terrorists. Or black democrats. Or whatever.
posted by notreally at 11:01 AM on March 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Burhanistan, I really had no idea the history of the Blackbird, and I idolized it as a kid. I had its characteristics memorized out of my town library's copy of an aircraft reference book and always hoped -- naively, of course -- to see one in flight. Just thought the links -- especially the "a series of historical articles" one -- told an interesting story and were worth sharing.
posted by cog_nate at 11:02 AM on March 21, 2008


cog_nate: it was just a silly sarcastic remark...apologies it if came across the wrong way and up benzo8's whatever also.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:07 AM on March 21, 2008


When I was an airplane model building kid back in the '70's all I ever knew about was the YF-12A. I don't remember even hearing a reference to the SR-71 until many years later, and it took a long time for me stop thinking about them as YF-12A.

There's also one on display outside the Richmond airport in Richmond, VA.
posted by hwestiii at 11:08 AM on March 21, 2008


Didn't COBRA have Blackbirds in their air force? I think I had one as a kid.
posted by Vindaloo at 11:13 AM on March 21, 2008


I enjoyed reading those OXCART documents several weeks ago, that I'm bugged that many pages that are 50 years old are still redacted. Does the government still have secrets about Civil War cannon technology, or is that stuff redacted too?

Think about it this way. The SR-71 as badass as it is has been declassified since 1964. Google Earth has photos available to the public where you can pick out the sunbathers on the beach. What do you think the still classified stuff looks like?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:15 AM on March 21, 2008


If you're ever in the DC area, the trip out to the Dulles Air and Space Museum is a must to see the Blackbird and all the other cool stuff they have.
posted by empath at 11:18 AM on March 21, 2008


The SR-71s sometimes flew close or over Swedish air space on their to the Soviet Union, and Swedish Viggen pilots managed at several times to get radar locks on the SR-71s. It's assumed they could have shot done aircrafts if they wanted to.

There are also rumors that at least one of the pilots got a postcard at home from the CIA congratulating him, but I doubt that is true... :).
posted by rpn at 11:27 AM on March 21, 2008


I just got done reading this book that talked alot about these planes, even though it didn't really refer to the A-12 specifically ( I am assuming since it was declassified after the book was published), they did talk about.
posted by brent_h at 11:28 AM on March 21, 2008


Isn't the A12 what is/was sitting on the deck of the aircraft carrier in NYC/Jersey?
posted by furtive at 11:32 AM on March 21, 2008


Not entirely without problems of course but still unbearably badass.

That story is amazing. I especially like the rancher redlining his helo.

It is certainly wiser to invest in all these planes rather than domestic goodies.

The analytical part of my brain agrees with you, but the part of my brain that's still a 10-year-old with die-cast models of blackbirds is eating this post up. Thanks, cog_nate.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 11:34 AM on March 21, 2008


Didn't COBRA have Blackbirds in their air force? I think I had one as a kid.

Yup, I believe it was the Raven, and included a smaller "drone" that one guy could fit in. It was awesome, but from my perspective, was to big to "fly" much.

A-12's and SR-71s are awesome. They made me dream of working as a designer for the Skunk Works when I was a kid.

My understanding (as to why they're not used and there's probably not anything like it) is that many of the parts were made from unique composites that would change under the high stress of every flight, and were very very costly to replace.

That said, I've heard rumors of planes that may have replaced it, and if they were better than the blackbird, we'd probably never see them right?

There are drawbacks to satellites, but it seems like the flyover role is fulfilled more by drones these days.

Sigh.
posted by drezdn at 11:41 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the SR-71 article, here's an explanation of the failures of satellites...
"If we have the satellite intelligence that you collectively would like us to have, would that type of system eliminate the need for an SR-71… Or even if we had this blanket up there that you would like in satellites, do we still need an SR-71?” Macke replied “From the operator's perspective, what I need is something that will not give me just a spot in time but will give me a track of what is happening. When we are trying to find out if the Serbs are taking arms, moving tanks or artillery into Bosnia, we can get a picture of them stacked up on the Serbian side of the bridge. We do not know whether they then went on to move across that bridge. We need the [data] that a tactical, an SR-71, a U-2, or an unmanned vehicle of some sort, will give us, in addition to, not in replacement of, the ability of the satellites to go around and check not only that spot but a lot of other spots around the world for us. It is the integration of strategic and tactical."[6]"
posted by drezdn at 11:45 AM on March 21, 2008


notreally: It is certainly wiser to invest in all these planes rather than domestic goodies. What good would a cancer cure be if we were taken over by communists. Or terrorists. Or black democrats. Or whatever.

So then, you're probably pretty happy about the $500B to end turrurrrism and bring dehmocruhcee to the freedom-loving people of Iraq.

(in other words, don't get bent outta shape about money spent 40 years ago. Plenty of stuff to fix today...)
posted by Artful Codger at 11:46 AM on March 21, 2008




Either you work there and are revealing secrets or you are spying on them. Either way, I'm pretty sure that at this point you should be expecting some guys in black outfits to put you in a big sack at any moment.

Or he just reads a newspaper.
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:48 AM on March 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Somewhere or other I have a photo I snapped maybe 5 years ago of a Blackbird parked on the tarmac at MSP, shot from the window of the plane I was in as we taxied to the gate. I have no idea what a plane like that would be doing at a commercial airport in Minnesota & I'm somewhat surprised they have a runway long enough to accommodate it, but there it was. Maybe Hotblack Desiato was in town, I dunno.
posted by scalefree at 11:49 AM on March 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


just a silly sarcastic remark

I just hadn't yet put on my sarcasm antennae yet, but I gotcha now.

Also, that's a big nyet, bondcliff. But I think of that movie almost every time I start my browser.
posted by cog_nate at 11:50 AM on March 21, 2008


Excellent post, thanks.

@skorgu - thanks for the mishap link, as tarheelcoxn says, an amazing story. I work in the industry myself, it's all to easy to forget that this kind of thing can happen - this kind of story is a reminder of what can go wrong.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 11:56 AM on March 21, 2008


SR-71 Engine Test
posted by public at 12:06 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Awesome. The Wikipedia Blackbird article is pretty good, too, as it has a lot of info on one page. Aside from the brilliant engine design, the fact that the plane leaked fuel until its skin had heated up enough to expand and close the gaps in the fuselage has always struck me as incredible.
posted by spiderwire at 12:07 PM on March 21, 2008


@scalefree: "Hotblack Desiato." There is a sip of Diet Coke snorted out onto my desk with your name on it.
posted by uaudio at 12:10 PM on March 21, 2008


Here we go. The Pratt&Whitney J-58 page is pretty awesome as well -- it's a hybrid turbojet/ramjet. Some good diagrams; great picture, too.
posted by spiderwire at 12:14 PM on March 21, 2008


Poking around, it turns out that what I saw was actually an A-12, the same one that's now at Langley. The Net delivers!

My understanding (as to why they're not used and there's probably not anything like it) is that many of the parts were made from unique composites that would change under the high stress of every flight, and were very very costly to replace.

Blackbirds, both SR-71 & A-12, underwent so much stress as they heated up that the fuel tanks were designed to leak at takeoff. They lifted empty & refueled in flight after the body expanded enough to seal the seams of the tanks.
posted by scalefree at 12:16 PM on March 21, 2008


In the engine test picture, what are the brighter colored purple rings? I remember seeing some show about UFO/top secret aircraft stuff and they talked about donut shaped contrails. That picture totally reminded me of the pattern that the contrails made.
posted by peep at 12:16 PM on March 21, 2008


Not entirely without problems of course but still unbearably badass.

That is one amazing story.
posted by odinsdream at 12:23 PM on March 21, 2008


peep: They're Mach diamonds, shockwaves that form in the exhaust when it's moving supersonically. Or something along those lines. You see them in rocket exhaust too (e.g., the space shuttle's main engines).

The thing you remember was probably a discussion of "knots-on-a-rope contrails", which are speculated to be the result of Aurora, which is speculated to be the codename of a speculated even more badass secret high-speed high-altitude aircraft using some sort of externally-burning pulsed scramjet, which made the SR-71 obsolete and led to its declassification and retirement. Of course that's all speculation.
posted by hattifattener at 12:37 PM on March 21, 2008


In the engine test picture, what are the brighter colored purple rings? I remember seeing some show about UFO/top secret aircraft stuff and they talked about donut shaped contrails. That picture totally reminded me of the pattern that the contrails made.

Shock diamonds
posted by public at 12:38 PM on March 21, 2008


Not entirely without problems of course but still unbearably badass.

No shit. I installed a printer for the lady in HR down the hall. What did you do today?
posted by kbanas at 12:42 PM on March 21, 2008


My grandpa flew 2nd seat in the blackbird's first sortie. (Yes, he's there on the wikipedia page.) I love reading about these planes, the ones that are so ubiquitous in my family's visual history (there's walls and walls of memerobilia at their house, and a fantastic stained glass ICBM, too). Great post.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:52 PM on March 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


That engine test photo is my new desktop wallpaper.
posted by slogger at 12:54 PM on March 21, 2008


'I Loved That Jet.'
posted by spiderwire at 12:55 PM on March 21, 2008


Thanks hattifattener and public. That aerospaceweb link was very cool.
posted by peep at 1:01 PM on March 21, 2008


A stained glass ICBM? Pictures or its a lie!
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:18 PM on March 21, 2008




Not entirely without problems of course but still unbearably badass.


Flagged as holyfuckingshit!
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:23 PM on March 21, 2008


which made the SR-71 obsolete and led to its declassification and retirement. Of course that's all speculation.

There's the adage that the US military can keep a project secret for seven years, so it's safe to assume that there is some kind newer, cooler thing flying now that will be made publicly known sooner or later.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:38 PM on March 21, 2008


Okay, I'll document all Grandpa's hot-shot usaf stuff next time I go there, you relentless fanboys. And someday, I'll ask him about Thai prostitutes.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:48 PM on March 21, 2008


If I were a 'plane, I would so completely have sex with an SR-71. Or I would, except she'd be way out of my league. Such a pretty bird...
posted by LordSludge at 2:00 PM on March 21, 2008


rpn, I had heard even though they knew the SR-71 was flying over it would be pointless to try to shoot it down because it could outrun the missiles.

Also the Y at the begining of the name is specifically denotes that it is a prototype of the specific plane. I remember when I went to buy an F-22 model and the guy behind the desk corrected saying "You mean YF-22. They haven't made the F-22." I kind of chuckled and said sure. At the time I was working at Boeing, spending my time crawling all over the wings or inside the Aft Boom sections assembling the freakin' thing.

When I went on work trip to Atlanta to finish putting the F-22 together, some of my co-workers went to an air base out in Southern California and actually got to pet an SR-71.
Lucky bastards.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:06 PM on March 21, 2008


There are two SR-71s here at the museum on Wright Patterson AFB. They are so hair-raisingly awesome that I cannot resist touching the one every time I visit (one finger, on the back edge of the wing). F you, future generations.
posted by figment of my conation at 2:09 PM on March 21, 2008


Maybe someone can help answer this. Supposedly the SR-71 could travel faster than a bullet. What would happen if an SR-71 traveling faster than a bullet fired a bullet though?
posted by drezdn at 2:23 PM on March 21, 2008


one of my great fantasies would be to fly an SR71. Of course, since I am neither a pilot nor in the military and am past the age where I could start flight school, it will have to remain unfulfilled.

You can always hope to be declared an enemy combatant.
posted by three blind mice at 2:44 PM on March 21, 2008


Here is a youtube video of an M/D-21 breaking apart (M-21 is the plane, D-21 is the jet) after hitting its own drone which couldn't break through the plane's shockwave.
posted by drivers99 at 2:53 PM on March 21, 2008


(I mean D-21 is the drone, not jet.)
posted by drivers99 at 2:54 PM on March 21, 2008


The oldest Blackbird story in town (but still worth repeating).
posted by gdav at 3:02 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sorry, tiny bit after posting, here's a better link for the same Blackbird story.
posted by gdav at 3:11 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Maybe someone can help answer this. Supposedly the SR-71 could travel faster than a bullet. What would happen if an SR-71 traveling faster than a bullet fired a bullet though?"
posted by drezdn at 5:23 PM on March 21

The B-58 Hustler, a Mach 2 U.S. nuclear bomber, had a rear facing defensive cannon. At speed, shells fired from the cannon had very little rearward velocity. If it had any use at that speed, it was that pursuing missiles flying faster than Mach 2 to catch up would run into the slowly falling gun rounds like well aimed flying bricks.

The Hustler's nav system was built around a 1.2 ton vacuum tube equipped navigation "computer" that could take star sights and gyroscopic inputs to control navigation. Predating modern electronics, the Hustler's flight control system was "fly-by-hydraulic," meaning that the sole pilot in the 3 man crew operated the flight controls entirely by hydraulic servo (no direct connection from flight controls to flight control surfaces). And with that primitive technology, actual nap-of-the-earth supersonic test flights were made, to determine if it was feasible to use the B-58 in a low level, under-the-radar attack mode. 20% of the built fleet eventually was lost to accident, and B-58 supersonic operations were restricted to altitude. While I take nothing away from A-12 and SR-71 crews, for sheer stones and mental toughness, you have to give props to the B-58 guys.

The Soviets aggressively developed ground-to-air missiles to counter-act the threat of the B-58, much more than to shoot down the occasional U2, A-12, or SR-71. The Hustler could carry 5 nuclear weapons (a large B61 in the fuel/bomb pod under the fuselage) and 4 B61 or B43 weapons on wing pylons.

As the Hustler went trans-sonic, the center of lift inevitably moved aft, requiring transfer of fuel forward to maintain flight trim. Thus, flying the plane through speed transitions required close co-ordination of activities between the pilot and the Defensive Systems Officer, who handled the fuel transfers, as well as operating the aircraft radar systems, and operating the defensive gun and other countermeasures.

The B-58 also directly influenced A-12/SR-71 design, and was the testbed for the targeting radar eventually used on the YF-12. The Hustler was equipped with GE J53 turbojets, because the later P&W J59 used on the SR-71 variants was not available. A test version of the B-58, called the YB-58, with J93 engines developed for the abortive XB-70 program was thought to have been capable of better than Mach 3, but the B-58 development program had already been canceled by McNamara.

But sheesh. Mach 2 at 500 feet above the ground, in a plane with hydraulic controls, and vacuum tube electronics. Those B-58 guys were nuts...
posted by paulsc at 3:29 PM on March 21, 2008 [9 favorites]


On a typical training mission, we would take off near Sacramento, refuel over Nevada, accelerate into Montana, obtain high Mach over Colorado, turn right over New Mexico, speed across the Los Angeles Basin, run up the West Coast, turn right at Seattle, then return to Beale.
Total flight time: two hours and 40 minutes.


So cool.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:57 PM on March 21, 2008


Okay, this whole refueling-in-the-air thing ... can someone explain to me how that works? How do you refuel a plane in the air?! Have mercy.
posted by bettafish at 4:25 PM on March 21, 2008


Yes, I remember hearing sonic booms all the time in the late 1960's growing up in Western Montana. I never saw the aircraft that made them.

Seattle, where I live now, is home to Boeing's Museum of flight, which has on display not only a Blackbird, but the super-rare drone as well.
posted by Tube at 4:51 PM on March 21, 2008


YF-12C mid-air refueling
posted by Tenuki at 4:58 PM on March 21, 2008


Fear not. Pratt & Whitney has bigger engines you can still play with. My father used to work on the design of these bad-boys... they've got something like the power of Niagara Falls, throttle-able, to play with. Much fun.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:17 PM on March 21, 2008


Maybe someone can help answer this. Supposedly the SR-71 could travel faster than a bullet. What would happen if an SR-71 traveling faster than a bullet fired a bullet though?

With v < c, velocities add. IF the YF-12 could out accelerate a bullet, then there could be trouble. High velocities are fine, though.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:16 PM on March 21, 2008


another good read, from the "Sled Driver" book mentioned previously
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 6:28 PM on March 21, 2008


Out of consideration for my 93 year old grandmother I won't link to the awesome photo I took of her standing in front of the Blackbird on display at the Strategic Air Museum outside Omaha.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:27 PM on March 21, 2008


How do you refuel a plane in the air?

With two planes, one that needs gas and the other that's a flying gas tank. Let's call the two planes Thirsty and Gassy.

In the USAF, things work like this:

Thirsty flies up near to Gassy and opens a gas cap on its top.

Gassy sticks a gas nozzle into Thirsty's open gas tank. This is tricky in real life.

Gassy fuels Thirsty.

Its thirst slated, Thirsty-no-more backs away from Gassy and goes about its business.

In some other air forces and naval air arms, they use a different system where Gassy trails gas-spouting vaginas, that look sort of like shuttlecocks, behind it. Then Thirsty flies up behind Gassy and sticks a fuel-sucking penis into Gassy's gas-spouting vagina, and slurps madly until its thirst is slaked. Then it goes away and probably doesn't call in the morning.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:30 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Seems strange to me that the blackbird has never been succeeded.

I believe an aircraft called the Aurora was developed to succeed the SR71. Back in the early 90s, UFOs and alien technology transfer was all the rage, and a number of books identified a mysterious "Aurora" aircraft as being some sort of reverse-engineered UFO, residing out at Groom Lake.

It seemed pretty unbelievable, so I totally freaked out when, back in 91 or 92 there was an actual tv news spot linking mysterious sonic booms with the Aurora.

Wonder if the aircraft actually exists.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:44 PM on March 21, 2008


OK, so two people posted the Shul 'Sled Driver' story after I did -- did anyone post it before and I missed it?
posted by spiderwire at 8:08 PM on March 21, 2008


How long do shock diamonds persist in the sky? I think I saw some a few seconds after hearing a sonic boom (at least, that's what I thought I heard) and of course the aircraft was no longer in sight.

In 1989 I was on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the central Pacific that didn't seem to be under any normal flight paths. There wasn't anything else around that would have made such a bang, but it didn't sound like the sonic booms I remembered from the late 1960s when the Air Force did a lot of flight testing in my area. (Then again, maybe sonic booms sound different when you're indoors.)

After hearing the bang, by the time I got out from the undergrowth the only thing visible in the sky were a couple of vaguely diamond-shaped white clouds in an otherwise cloudless sky. Could they have been shock diamonds from an SR-71 flight? I suppose an Aurora flyover would have been too much to ask for.
posted by Quietgal at 8:20 PM on March 21, 2008


Pretty much the antithesis of the A-10 Warthog.
posted by porpoise at 8:23 PM on March 21, 2008


Well, as long we we're discussing historically-cool planes now, I think no discussion would be complete without mentioning Sukhoi's Su-27 'Flanker.' That basic airframe has been in use for over 30 years now, and the most recent variants can do some of the most ridiculous flight maneuvers you'll ever see. (NB: The beginning of that video shows an Su-37 'Sidewinder'. The most recent Flanker variant is the Su-35BM -- but the Su-37s are apparently being redesignated as Su-35s anyway.)

The Flanker is as impressive as the Blackbird to me, in many ways -- Sukhoi's upgraded that same basic airframe over three decades from a fighter designed to match the F-15 to a plane with 3D thrust vectoring, supercruise capability, and some stealth features. (Only the F-22 is really a clearly superior production model, but it costs about five times as much and presents some logistical problems -- it doesn't carry nearly as much armament as a single Su-35, and Russia's air-to-air missiles are at the very least comparable, and possibly slightly better.) The fact that the airframe has accommodated those evolutions is really nothing short of amazing.
posted by spiderwire at 8:51 PM on March 21, 2008


Oh, cool planes? I'm fond of the B-1 knockoff the Russians made. The Tu-160 fleet is still active and formidable.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:00 PM on March 21, 2008


Well, I was thinking historic planes. The SR-71 is impressive because it was at the top of its class for decades, and when it was retired... well, it was still pretty much at the top of its class. The Su-27 is similar -- in a way -- because it's proved to be such an enduring and versatile design. (The major difference is that SR-71 was never succeeded and probably never will be; the Su-27 probably will be, but not anytime soon.)

Planes like the B-52, the F-15, F-16, and F-18 have seen years and years of service and many upgrades, but they've been succeeded by newer models. The basic Su-27 airframe is still arguably at the top of its class after 30 years -- it's like the AK-47 of fighter jets. There's really something enduring about it.
posted by spiderwire at 9:35 PM on March 21, 2008


> It is certainly wiser to invest in all these planes rather than domestic goodies.

the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies.
posted by jfuller at 9:41 PM on March 21, 2008


Seattle, where I live now, is home to Boeing's Museum of flight, which has on display not only a Blackbird, but the super-rare drone as well.

When I was there about 5 years ago, there was a Blackbird cockpit that you could sit in.
posted by neuron at 10:31 PM on March 21, 2008


drezdn: the SR-71 wasn't made of composites: composite technology wasn't sufficiently advance back then. Instead, Skunk Works decided to build the thing from the toughest metal known at the time: titanium... only titanium was never milled before, so they had to invent their own titanium-based machine tools to work with it. Oh, and titanium was very rare, except in the Soviet Union. So, the CIA set up dummy companies to import Soviet titanium into California to build the Blackbirds...

I am an aero engineer and the Blackbird is by far my favorite plane and I believe one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time: concept-to-flight in under a year, while innovating in almost every respect of aero engineering --it helps if your lead designer is a true legend of his field, Kelly Johnson. I highly recommend Skunk Works for an inside look at the Blackbird and F-117 projects.
posted by costas at 3:47 AM on March 22, 2008


First model I ever built was an sr-71. They still give me a tingle every time I see one. Great post.

For more on mach disks/diamonds see this very cool liquid methane rocket test video
posted by vronsky at 4:21 AM on March 22, 2008


While in the USAF I saw the Sr-71/A-12 fly, it led me to think that there might be hope for humanity, it was just so beautiful. I was enthralled watching an A-10 fly, how it didn't stall is beyond me. It was by far the most graceful plane flying that I ever saw.
posted by Rancid Badger at 8:15 AM on March 22, 2008


Titanium? That makes sense.

The coolest A-10 story I ever heard was of the one that had more than 200 bullet holes after one Gulf War mission and still managed to land.

As far as refueling, the local airport hosted one of the Air Force's refueling wings, and when I was a kid I got to tour one of their planes. IIRC, in the back of the refueling plane, there was a part that could be dropped down. A controller would be able to move the fueling nozzle a bit.
posted by drezdn at 2:12 PM on March 22, 2008


I have absolutely no idea if it's true, but I've heard stories of an A-10 that engaged a Hind E helicopter that was hovering just above the ground. Supposedly the Hind attempted to lock on it or something and the A-10 was at a sufficient hight to use it's 30mm cannon on another aircraft.

the one that had more than 200 bullet holes


Supposedly they are designed to be flyable with extreme damage:

The aircraft is designed to fly with one engine, one tail, one elevator and half a wing torn off.


Though I'd hate to be the poor pilot who would have to put that to the test.
posted by quin at 2:53 PM on March 22, 2008


ROU_Xenophobe, that is probably the single most disturbing (and yet, vaguely accurate) description of Probe-and-Drogue Air-to-air refuelling I've ever read, and hopefully, ever will...

Bettafish, there's a whole host of (probably fairly accurate, I've only skimmed it) information at everyone's favourite Web 2.0 reality-suspension site.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 5:33 PM on March 22, 2008


There are two SR-71s here at the museum on Wright Patterson AFB. They are so hair-raisingly awesome that I cannot resist touching the one every time I visit (one finger, on the back edge of the wing). F you, future generations.

Don't feel bad, figment. The SR-71 is the plane that God wants to touch every time he visits Wright Patterson AFB.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:29 PM on March 25, 2008


spiderwire writes "That basic airframe has been in use for over 30 years now, and the most recent variants can do some of the most ridiculous flight maneuvers you'll ever see."

Those things must be a crazy blast to fly.
posted by Mitheral at 6:39 PM on March 25, 2008


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