Hidden History: the SR-71 “Blackbird”

Mon Nov 26, 2018

“Though I fly through the Valley of Death, I shall fear no evil, for I am at 80,000 feet and climbing!”

 -Sign over the entrance to the old SR-71 operating base in Kadena, Japan


I swear that not ALL my historical trivia knowledge and interest is in warfare - just a very large majority of it. As has been mentioned in prior Hidden History articles, it just so happens that the periods of duress that times of war create happen to bring the most desperate and creative solutions humankind has ever produced - from beloved canine combatants to the Roman Empire’s actual war on the seas. Still, today’s Hidden History installment will at least somewhat stray away from focusing on the context of a global war by instead looking at a more mysterious and alluring aspect of it - espionage and the feats of technology created to aid it.

In late 1957, in the midst of growing political tensions between the U.S. and the USSR in the Cold War, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) approached defense contractor Lockheed to create an undetectable spy plane to replace the old cadre of U-2 spy planes currently in service (this concern would prove to be the right call when an American U-2 was infamously downed by Soviet air defense in May 1960, prompting an even worse deterioration in political relations between the two powers).

In what came to be known as Project Archangel, Lockheed would go on to create the iconic Strategic Reconaissance-71 (SR-71) “Blackbird” reconnaissance aircraft. Designed for Mach three flight (three times the speed of sound), the 105-feet-long SR-71 is operated by a flight crew of two, with a pilot in the forward cockpit and a reconnaissance systems officer (RSO) operating the surveillance and navigation equipment in the rear cockpit. The overall shape of the SR-71 is made to minimize its cross-section radar signature, possibly one of the earliest attempts at stealth design in an aircraft. Finishing the aircraft is a dark blue - almost black - paint scheme to increase the aircraft’s emission of internal heat as well as camouflage it against night skies. This color scheme is what led to the aircraft’s official nickname of “Blackbird.”

Flying at approximately 2000 miles per hour between 75,000 and 80,000 above the surface of the earth for anywhere between three and 10 hours meant that the “Blackbird” would reach hull temperatures as high as 800 degrees Fahrenheit. So, the aircraft’s designers accounted for this by creating the plane out of lightweight and heat-resistance titanium (approximately 92% of the plane’s total material). There was only one problem with this plan: most of the world’s titanium supply at the time was held by the USSR. Thus, the U.S. government had to work through a clever (and somewhat morally dubious) string of developing countries and fake companies to acquire enough titanium from the USSR to even create the plane in the first place.

Seeing the opportunity to use this new technological wonder as a propaganda tool, U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a public announcement about the plane’s existence in February of 1964 - a full 10 months before the aircraft even conducted its first test flight. At the time, the “Blackbird” was still in development with the official name of Reconnaissance/Strike-71 (RS-71). However, Johnson’s speech saw him erroneously refer to the aircraft instead by its now-commonplace name of SR-71 (other historical interpretations state that this was a deliberate renaming made by Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay). Either way, the full designation of Strategic Reconnaissance-71 stuck, and some 33,000 different drawings and renderings had to be changed by the aircraft’s designers to reflect the new name. By hand.  

With its first flight on December 22, 1964, the “Blackbird” would serve the U.S. until 1998, with a total of 32 built. Of these 32, 12 were lost in accidents, but not a single one was ever shot down. Notably, the official procedure for evading any surface-to-air missiles was to simply accelerate the aircraft and outfly any missiles. Over the course of the Vietnam War alone, some 800 North Vietnamese missiles were fired at SR-71s. Not even one managed to hit.

To even fly the plane, pilots had to meet a long list of physical requirements, likely alongside a long history of Air Force service. In addition, “Blackbird” pilots also had a unique qualification: they had to be a married man. This requirement was listed on official documentation as being “emotionally stable,” and it very likely arose because of the belief that a married man would be less likely to defect when he has loved ones back home in the U.S. This was not without precedent; in 1976, Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko (at the time an unmarried man) defected from the USSR with his MiG-25 “Foxbat” jet fighter (complete with the instruction manual) and allowed the U.S. to examine it before being granted political asylum and later U.S. citizenship.

Overall, the SR-71 held an impressive record of over 17,000 sorties flown, amounting to about 53,000 hours in the air. Only a single crew member, Jim Zwayer, died in a flight accident related to the aircraft. The aircraft is responsible for several world records being broken, including the “absolute altitude record” of 85,069 feet (set by Captain Robert Helt), and “speed over a recognized course” by flying from New York to London in one hour and 54 minutes (set by James Sullivan and Noel Widdifield). All remaining SR-71s have been moved to museums except for two that remain in the possession of the Armstrong Flight Research Center, operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).



Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force



Appears in
2018 - Fall - Issue 11