Happy 50th, SR-71 Blackbird

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the SR-71 Blackbird’s first flight. On Dec. 22, 1964, the iconic American spy plane took off from a testing facility in Palmdale, California and set out to begin a career that would earn its spot in aviation history.

Development of the Blackbird started in Lockheed Martin’s famous and secretive Skunk Works division. Their goal; make a plane that would fly faster and higher than anything else out there.

The first version of the Blackbird was called the A-12 and was first flown in 1962. Two years later, the SR-71 came out, which carried more fuel and second seat for the Reconnaissance Systems Officer.

Credit: NASA

To this day, the SR-71 is the fastest and highest flying production airplane ever manufactured. Speeding through the atmosphere at Mach 3.2 (2,200 mph) generates intense heat, enough to melt traditional aircraft. To overcome these challenges, Lockheed says part of the solution was to design a titanium airframe, and the other part is in the aircraft’s color:

Skunk Works’ Ben Rich spent untold hours tackling the problem of how heat could be dissipated across the entire airframe. Then he recalled a simple lesson from one of his university courses: Black paint both emits and absorbs heat. The aircraft was painted black, and soon earned its name: ‘Blackbird.’

The SR-71 was also made to be as stealthy as possible. To the Soviets, its radar signature would have looked, “bigger than a bird but smaller than a man.”

What was it like to fly such a machine?  One pilot, Air Force Colonel Jim Wadkins, told Lockheed that,

At 85,000 feet and Mach 3, it was almost a religious experience. Nothing had prepared me to fly that fast… My God, even now, I get goose bumps remembering.

The Air Force officially retired the SR-71 in 1990, but it was still flown into the late nineties by NASA for high-speed research purposes. According to a NASA site, the last Blackbird flight took place on Oct. 9 1999.

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