Colonel Rich Graham flew the Blackbird from 1974 until the mid-1980s, first as a mission pilot and then as a trainer. He later took command of all Blackbird detachments – in California, Mildenhall in the UK and at Kadena on the Japanese island of Okinawa. He has also written several books about the aircraft. Here he tells BBC Future about what made the SR-71 such a remarkable plane.
It was a plane which flew at the edge of space; so high that most other jet engines would seize because of the lack of air. A plane that flew so fast that its airframe heated and grew during flight. A plane that, if needed, could outrun missiles launched to bring it down.
[See Colonel Rich Graham’s book: SR-71: The Complete Illustrated History of the Blackbird, The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane at Amazon.com]
The Lockheed SR-71 was a product of airplane maker Lockheed’s Skunk Works, a secretive project which came up with some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. It was designed after the loss of a U-2 spyplane over the Soviet Union in 1960 – a plane thought to fly too high to be shot down. The Blackbird would fly even higher, and at speeds of Mach 3.3 it would be fast enough to outrun any missile fired at it. Read the rest of this entry »
Among professional aviators, there’s a well-worn saying: Flying is simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. But I don’t recall too many periods of boredom during my 30-year career with Lockheed, most of which was spent as a test pilot. By far, the most memorable flight occurred on Jan. 25, 1966.
Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight-test specialist, and I were evaluating systems on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards. We also were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high-Mach cruise performance. The latter involved flying with the center-of-gravity (CG) located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.
We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a.m. and completed the mission’s first leg without incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to a Mach 3.2-cruise speed and climbed to 78,000 ft., our initial cruise-climb altitude. Several minutes into cruise, the right engine inlet’s automatic control system malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71’s inlet configuration was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate airflow in the duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine’s face. This was accomplished by the inlet’s center-body spike translating aft, and by modulating the inlet’s forward bypass doors. Read the rest of this entry »
Jason Paur reports: Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works has finally unveiled the long-awaited successor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Aviation Week and Space Technology’s Guy Norris pulled the covers off the project that Lockheed Martin is simply calling the SR-72. The new airplane will be roughly the same size as the record-setting Blackbird, but will be able to fly twice as fast as the jet that still holds the speed records.
The new spy plane will be capable of Mach 6 cruise speeds, making it the first hypersonic aircraft to enter service should it be produced. Only the rocket-powered North American X-15 was able to regularly fly those speeds, and the three examples built were used for research. The SR-71 Blackbird is legendary in aviation circles for its Mach 3 capabilities, and different iterations served as a spy plane for 35 years until its retirement in 1998. It still holds several records, including a flight from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in 64 minutes, 20 seconds.
The new SR-72 has long been rumored and debated, and is part of the U.S. Air Force’s plan for hypersonic capabilities that will allow fast reaction for gathering intelligence around the world. A Mach 6 airplane fills the gap between current surveillance aircraft that can loiter for long periods of time, but don’t have the ability to transit to a new area quickly. The SR-72 is also expected to have optional strike capabilities, according to Aviation Week. Read the rest of this entry »