The Lockheed SR-71 “BLACKBIRD”

  • July 26, 2013

Some of us may remember the actual SR-71 Blackbird and others have seen its several appearances in motion pictures. The most famous movie being Transformers 2 where Jetfire, the Decepticon soldier, hides in plain sight at an Air Force museum as the SR-71 Blackbird. This plane, in its prime, was one of the most advanced airplanes found in the sky.

The Blackbird was developed in the mid-1960s, by Lockheed, to serve as a long-range strategic reconnaissance plane. It was capable of flying over Mach 3.2, roughly 2430 miles per hour, which is over three times faster than the speed of sound. While flying over Russian air space, if a ground-to-air missile threat was detected, the SR-71 could simply outrun the missile as their way of evasive action. Since 1976, the Blackbird still holds the world record for the fastest “air-breathing manned aircraft.”

The SR-71 Blackbird, which got its name from the dark blue, almost black paint, was designed to fly over Mach 3 with a crew of two individuals; one pilot and one Reconnaissance Systems Officer. This plane was the first attempt at a “stealth” plane through the exterior design, minimizing its radar cross-section. The dark blue paint helped increase the emission of internal heat and also provided camouflage in the night sky.

Before the discovery of carbon-fiber based building materials, titanium was the best choice available for the SR-71 while it was being developed. Unfortunately, in the 60s, attaining and fabricating titanium into usable material was limited and expensive. (During development, in order to cut costs, Lockheed used a titanium alloy that softened at high temperatures).Only about 85% of the manufactured SR-71 was made from titanium, and the titanium was used mostly on components that were exposed to the highest temperatures. The other 15% of the aircraft was made from polymer composite materials. The empty weight of the SR-71 Blackbird was 59,000 lbs.

All metal expands when heated, it is a part of the chemical property. Titanium, unlike most metals out there, expands relatively little, making it the best option for the SR-71 Blackbird. Lockheed knew this when it designed the plane and specifically designed the aircraft to fit together better when in flight. When the plane was sitting on the ground before a flight, it was “cool” and the parts fit loosely into one another. It wouldn’t be until the plane was in flight and “heated” up that everything fit snuggly into each other. The large, “cool” surfaces on the aircraft had a corrugated texture that allowed the metal to expand as it heated up.

The plane’s ability to fly so fast was due to the state-of-the-art engines and the light weight nature of the aircraft. Ironically, the plane did not have enough thrust to get itself off the ground and into flight with full tanks of gas. After take-off, the SR-71 would almost immediately meet up with a fueling jet.

The SR-71 Blackbird served in the armed forces from 1964 to 1998. No other reconnaissance aircraft in history has spent as much time in hostile airspace as the Blackbird.  Officially retired from the Air Force in 1998, the last SR-71 flight was at Edwards Air Force Base in California in October 1999. There were a total of 32 built, 12 lost in accidents, with many of the remaining found in museums across the United States.