Sadly they no longer scream through the air but just to see a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft up close is an impressive sight. The Blackbird is a big aircraft and there is really nothing else like it, with that black, uniquely designed, almost flat 85% titanium airframe combined with huge delta wings containing the powerful Pratt & Whitney J-58 engines and a sharply pointed nose to slice through the air. The SR-71 is one mean looking machine that produced 34,000 lbs of thrust and could fly above 80,000 feet hurtling the two-man crew along at an impressive Mach 3.3! She was designed to fly high, get the photos required and out run any aircraft or missile that came near it.
Under the “Senior Crown” program, USAF SR-71’s commenced their first strategic operations over North Vietnam in 1968 (codename “Giant Scale“). flying from the Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, Japan. These missions then extended over Laos and Cambodia. As more came into service the SR-71 conducted strategic reconnaissance missions wherever required be it over Europe or Asia and beyond.
On July 28th, 1976 an SR-71 (serial number 61-7962) set the absolute sustained flight altitude record of 85,069 feet / 25,929 metres. On the same day another SR-71 (serial number 61-7958) set an absolute speed record of Mach 3.3 (2,193.2 mph / 3,529.6 km/h)!
On September 1st, 1974 an SR-71 set another record flying from New York to London in just 1 hour, 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds (a distance of 3,461.53 miles / 5,570.79 km)! Even when you take into account it had to slow down to be refueled, that equated to an average speed of Mach 2.72 with a top speed likely to have been at Mach 3.2! What a beast!
The predecessor to the SR-71 was the single seat Lockheed A-12 Blackbird high altitude reconnaissance aircraft used by the CIA for top-secret spying missions during the Cold War in the 1960’s. So top-secret that the program was not publicly revealed until the 1990’s. Apart from being a single seat aircraft the A-12 had similar characteristics to the later SR-71 including the same J-58 engine (although initial variants used a J-75 engine that was only capable of Mach 2.0). Under Operation Black Shield flying out of Kadena Air Base, the A-12 was used on operational missions over North Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 and also over North Korea in 1968. They were never used over the Soviet Union due to fears of loss from improved SAM defences (ironic as this was the intended mission of the A-12 but at the time of the aircrafts retirement satellites could do much the same job).
Blackbird Airpark is an annex of the US Air Force Flight Test (AFFT) Museum at Edwards AFB in Palmdale, California (you need on base access permission to visit the main museum). I recently visited the airpark to see a rare display of an A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird side by side. Billed as the only place you can see them together they make for an impressive sight.
Within the airpark in addition to the 2 Blackbirds are a J-58 engine, a Lockheed D-21 drone (see below for more information) and a Lockheed U-2D “Dragonlady” modified high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft where the camera behind the pilot was replaced with a second crew member seat and sensors to monitor missile launches and conduct atmospheric research. You can also see wind-tunnel models of the various Blackbird variants. I thoroughly recommend a visit to see all these together.
Nearby is the famous USAF Palmdale Plant 42 government aircraft and spare parts manufacturing plant used by the USAF and NASA. The plant includes “Black Projects” and is home to the famed Lockheed-Martin “Skunk Works“ where the A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird were designed and built. Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit (Stealth Bomber) final assembly and modification facility is also at Plant 42. These are all off-limits to the public of course unless you have authorised access but it is kind of cool to know they are right there.
Next door to Blackbird Airpark is the Joe Davies Heritage Airpark with an excellent collection of USAF, US Navy, USMC and NASA aircraft but more on that in a future post. Both airparks are free to enter and can easily be combined together in one visit.
The A-12 made its first flight on April 25th, 1962 at Groom Lake, Nevada and were operated from 1963 to 1968. A-12 Blackbird production consisted of 12 A-12’s, 1 A-12 two-seat trainer dubbed “Titanium Goose” (on display at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles), 3 YF-12A twin-seat interceptor prototypes (first flight was August 7th, 1963 but they were not put into operational service and were instead used for flight testing by the USAF until 1976. 1 was damaged beyond repair in 1966 and part of it became an SR-71C, 1 was lost during an in-flight fire in 1971 but luckily both crew ejected safely and the final one is today on display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Research and Development hangar at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio) and 2 M-21 drone carrying variants of the A-12. 5 A-12’s and 1 M-21 were lost in accidents during the 1960’s. The surviving M-21 Blackbird aircraft is on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.
The M-21 program began in 1963 and had an extra cockpit added for the Launch Control Operator/Officer (LCO) and carried a Lockheed D-21 ramjet powered Mach 3+ reconnaissance drone that was launched from the back of the M-21. The drone was intended to fly over the target area, gather recon intelligence, turn back then its camera module would be parachuted down in a safe recovery area for aerial retrieval and the drone would self-destruct. This way a pilot was not at risk of being shot down by a SAM over enemy territory like Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 over the Soviet Union on May 1st, 1960. The M-21 program was cancelled in 1966 though following an incident where the D-21 drone struck the tail of the M-21 during launch resulting in a crash and the sad death of the Launch Control Officer.
The D-21 drones were later launched from under wing pylons fitted to a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and were operationally used on 4 occasions over China between November 1969 to March 1971 (these operations were codenamed “Senior Bowl”) but the program was cancelled in July 1971 due to a lack of operational success and the introduction of improved spy satellites. Of the 4 D-21 missions launched over China, the first did not turn around and self-destructed over Siberia in the Soviet Union; the second was successful but the parachute did not deploy properly over the recovery site and the camera module was lost at sea; the third mission was also successful but the aerial retrieval of the camera module was not successful and it was also lost at sea; finally the fourth mission failed when the drone crashed in China. 38 D-21 and D-21B drones were built with 21 launched on test and operational missions.
The SR-71A made it’s first flight from Plant 42 on December 22nd, 1964 and entered service in 1966. SR-71 Blackbird production consisted of 32 airframes. 29 SR-71A’s, 2 SR-71B trainer variants with a raised rear cockpit and 1 SR-71C that was built from the rear fuselage of the first YF-12A interceptor prototype (S/N 60-6934) and front fuselage section of an SR-71 static test unit (it became known as “The Bastard” and is today on display at the Hill AFB Aerospace Museum in Utah). 12 SR-71’s were lost in various accidents mostly between 1966 and 1972 but not one was ever lost to an enemy engagement.
All USAF SR-71’s were initially retired in late 1989 but due to the lack of an adequate strategic reconnaissance replacement a small number were reactivated in 1995 and not officially retired until 1998. NASA continued to operate the last 2 SR-71’s for test flights until 1999.