Dan's Blackbird Page

Last updated 23 March 2001
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The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

Blackbird History

Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird was ahead of its time. The history of the SR-71 can be traced back to 1957, the year that Lockheed's Advanced Development Project (better known as "Skunk Works") began exploring the feasibility of a higher-flying, faster, and less radar-visible alternative to the U-2. "Skunk Works" was originally called "Skonk Works," which was the name of a secret moonshine distillery in Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" comic strip. The name was changed slightly after Mr. Capp's editor threatened legal action for copyright infringement.

The SR-71 was designed without the aid of modern computers, but rather using slide rules and the "primitive" drafting techniques of the time. Its planning and construction were undertaken in total secrecy. The Blackbird program began as a project called "Archangel" eventually resulting in the single-seat A-11 (which evolved into the more stealthy A-12, code named OXCART) flown by civilian CIA pilots, an interceptor version called the YF-12A, and finally the two-seat SR-71 (code named SENIOR CROWN) flown by the U.S. Air Force. "SR" referred to its planned role as a strike/reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft was originally designated the RS-71, but the letters were reversed after President Lyndon B. Johnson's now-infamous flub when he misread the name while announcing the program's existence to the world during a press conference on 24 July 1964.

The first flight of the SR-71 was on 22 December 1964, with Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland in the driver's seat. Now, at the outset of the 21st century, the Blackbird is still the most unique, fastest, highest-flying "air-breathing" aircraft in the world. The Blackbird, or "habu" as it is known by Air Force insiders, is capable of sustained speeds in excess of Mach 3 and has an altitude ceiling of over 80,000 feet. It was the first generation of "stealth" aircraft, utilizing Radar Absorbing Material to give it a radar cross-section of less than ten square meters.

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Blackbird Specifications

Titanium (Beta-120/Ti-13V-11Cr-3A1) Monocoque with some super-high-temperature plastics
107 feet, 5 inches
55 feet, 7 inches
Wing area:
1,795 ft²
18 feet, 6 inches
Landing weight:
68,000 lbs.
Maximum gross takeoff weight:
140,000 lbs.
Maximum speed:
3.2 Mach above 75,000 ft
Operational ceiling:
Over 85,000 feet
Maximum unrefueled range:
Over 2000 miles (3200 km)
Powerplant Data:
Two Pratt & Whitney J58 (JT11D-20A) high-bypass axial-flow turbojets with 34,000 pounds of thrust

Three-view of SR-71A

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A Record-shattering Aircraft

Below are just a few official blackbird records. As impressive as these are, the habu is unofficially rumored to have flown higher and faster! For example, in his book "Conquer the Sky" (Metro Books, 1996), Harold Rabinowitz states:
    "The SR-71 began its life as theYF-12, a high-speed interceptor fighter--fromcertain angles, in fact, an SR-71 looks to betwo aircraft melded together down the middle.The plane has been modified and improved manytimes since its introduction in 1964--newmaterials, new systems, and most importantly,new fuels have allowed the aircraft to reach itspotential speed of Mach 7-plus. However, theworld's airplane speed record is held by WilliamJ. "Pete" Knight, who flew an X-15-2A overEdwards Air Force Base at 4,535 miles per hour(7,297 kph), or Mach 6.72--a record set onOctober 3, 1967. Aviation observers point outthat several U.S. military aircraft (even somelater models of the SR-71) may be capable ofgreater speeds and that the USAF may well haveestablished new records in secret since."

For another viewpoint on just how high and how fast the Blackbird can go, consider the following, from John Stone's "Blackbird Myth & Fact":

Altitude in level flight
85,068.997 ft
(25,929.031 m)
Speed over a straight course
(15-25 km)
2,193.167 mph
Speed over a closed course
(1000 km)
2,092.294 mph
U.S. Coast to coast
(2086 nautical miles)
67 min 54 sec
(Average speed 2,124.25 mph)
Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
(1,998 nautical miles)
64 min 19.89 sec
(Average speed 2,144.83 mph)
St. Louis to Cincinnati
(311.44 nautical miles)
8 min 31.97 sec
(Average speed 2,189.94 mph)

North Korea: January 23, 1968. The USS Pueblo had just been captured off the North Korean coast. Decisions needed to be made quickly, and immediate intelligence was critical.

An SR-71 was launched from Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa (then a U.S. Protectorate, returned to Japan on May 15, 1972). In less than 25 minutes' time, the SR had reached North Korea, made its first run up the coastline, gathered its intelligence, turned around completely, and was on its way back in a southbound heading.

Map of Okinawa/N. Korea region
(Note distance scale at bottom of map)

Sadly, it was already too late--but not because of the Blackbird. The delay in deciding to launch the SR-71 was the reason the Pueblo was not found until it was in the posession of the North Koreans, and well out of our reach.

A source, serving at Kadena at the time, stated that he knew the SR-71 to exceed 100,000 feet in altitude and airspeeds in excess of 3,200 mph. He cited reports suggesting a ceiling of 120,000 feet and a top speed of more than 4,100 mph above 80,000 feet, but could not confirm the latter figures firsthand. He also noted, "these were the early birds, not the later, revised editions."

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Farewell to the Blackbird?

This page is my tribute to these sleek, black planes and their pilots and crews. As of 1998, the habu is no longer on active military duty, having been offered up by U.S. Air Force top brass to President Clinton's line item veto, effectively "re-retiring" the aircraft. As of July 1999, four Blackbirds (original Air Force serial numbers < a href="http://www.habu.org/sr-71/17956.html">17956, 17967, 17971, and 17980 are now being flown by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. Serial numbers 17956 and 17980 were given tail numbers 831 and 844 by NASA. All four planes are being used for high-speed, high-altitude research.

The SR-71 is unparalleled in its ability to make high-speed passes over sensitive, high-threat areas. It can photograph, in great detail, 100,000 square miles of terrain in an hour. The Blackbird's cameras are said to be able to resolve an object the size of a golf ball from an altitude of more than 80,000 feet. Its speed makes it superior to the U-2 when surface-to-air or air-to-air missiles are a threat; its unpredictability makes it superior to satellite reconnaissance when sensitive intelligence of enemy territory is required. According to Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, former head of Skunk Works, over 1000 enemy SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) were fired at the SR-71. Not a single one hit its target.

"The SR-71 provides coverage on demand with little or no warning to the reconnaissance target--it is a highly flexible system... the SR-71 is able to penetrate hostile territory with comparatively little vulnerability to attack unlike other reconnaissance platforms."
--Senator John Glenn, 7 March 1990

Unfortunately, a campaign of misinformation mounted by the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Government has put the final nail in the coffin of the SR-71 program. Perhaps the low profile of the program has worked against it, as many government and military officials who worked so hard to kill the program didn't even know what the SR-71 did!

"The sad thing is this country will never know what it lost. We know the SR-71 is needed--now more than ever. In the last year alone there have been several unresolved crises that could have been satisfied with the Blackbird. You are all aware of them. How many more will follow in this ever-increasingly volatile world? The criminal thing is how many wrong decisions will be made, unnecessary piles of money spent, or American lives lost without the best intelligence at hand?"
--Leland Haynes, USAF Master Sergeant (ret), former SR-71 crew chief, 17 October 1998

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Habu Photo Gallery

Here are some of the best Blackbird photos I have found while searching the web. I have tried to include photos that are somewhat uncommon and interesting. I hope you enjoy them. For a brief description, move your mouse pointer over the photo. Click on the photo to view a high-resolution image. Dru Blair's painting, "The Last Hot Flight," is copyrighted and is displayed here with his express written permission. Similarly, Ed Markham's painting, "The Sled Riders," is copyrighted and is displayed with Mr. Markham's express written permission. My thanks to both of these fine artists for allowing me to display their works here. Credit is given to the original photographer where possible. Thanks to David Allison of www.habu.org for informing me of the photographers to credit for many of these photos. If you know of a photo for which I have not given proper credit, please let me know.

In flight over Edwards AFB
Edwards AFB
Eric Schulzinger/LM
'The Last Hot Flight' painting by artist Dru Blair
Dru Blair
'The Sled Riders' painting by artist Ed Markham
Ed Markham
SR-71 with 'canoe' structure to hold LASRE motor
Three SR-71s on the tarmac
SR-71 painting, artist unknown
Ahead of its time (artist unknown)
Silhouetted against blue sky
How high, how fast?
Pilot's cockpit
Eric Schulzinger/LM
RSO's cockpit
Eric Schulzinger/LM
SR-71 17968 mid-air refueling
Eric Schulzinger/LM
In flight
In flight, full AB
Eric Schulzinger/LM
Landing with drogue chute
Eric Schulzinger/LM
Tetraethyl borane (TEB) fireball
Eleven Blackbirds on the tarmac, Beale AFB, California
Eric Schulzinger/LM
In flight over the Atlantic
Brian Shul
Lighting the pipes
Close-up shot
Eric Schulzinger/LM
YF-12C 06937 (Actually SR-71A 61-7951) flying into sunset, circa 1974
In flight
Lockheed Martin
Not a contrail--dumping fuel at Mach 3+, 80K feet for visibility
In flight over California's Tehachapi mountains
In flight from tanker
In flight over Sierra Nevadas
Dual max afterburner test
Takeoff with shock diamonds
On the ramp, engines running
Tony Landis/NASA
Number 958, holder of world absolute speed and altitude records
Mark Meyer
Taking off
SR-71A Three-view
Ten A-12's on the flightline, Groom Dry Lake, Nevada (Area 51)
Lockheed Martin
M/D-21:  Not strictly an A-12, but built from the ground up as an 'M-12' expressly for ferrying the D-21 unmanned recon drone.  When the two were mated together, they were referred to as an M/D-21.
Lockheed Martin
A-12 S/N 60-06932 in flight:  Lost at sea near the Phillipines, June 5, 1968, after mid-air explosion at Mach 3.  Neither pilot nor plane were ever recovered.
Lockheed Martin
A-12 in flight
Lockheed Martin
A-12 Three-view drawing
Lockheed Martin
Kelly Johnson with YF-12
Lockheed Martin
YF-12 in flight over mountains
Edwards AFB
YF-12 #60-6934
Lockheed Martin
YF-12 on the tarmac
YF-12 'Coldwall' experiment
YF-12 #60-6935
Pilot Don Mallick with YF-12 #60-6935
YF-12 #60-6936 on ramp with Phoenix missile
Lockheed Martin
YF-12 Three-view drawing
Lockheed Skunk Works Director Clarence L. 'Kelly' Johnson
Lockheed Martin
SR-71 Pilot Rich Graham, Col., USAF (ret)
Rich Graham
Sample mission profile
DFRC (Dryden Flight Research Center) aircraft
North American XB-70 Valkyrie Bomber--the other Mach 3 aircraft
North American XB-70 Valkyrie in flight
NASA photo of North American XB-70 Valkyrie takeoff
Artist Adrian Mann's conception of 'Aurora'--hypersonic successor of the SR-71?
Adrian Mann
Artist Adrian Mann's conception of Aurora, in low Earth orbit
Adrian Mann
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Habu Video

Mick McClary's videos are displayed here with his written permission.

Video 1:  SR-71 Kadena Flyby
Mick McClary
Video 2:  SR-71 Kadena Landing
Mick McClary
Video 3:  SR-71 in flight
Lockheed Martin
Video 4:  Low-altitude, high-speed flyby
Video 5:  High-bank, low-altitude flyover at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center
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Habu Audio

SR-71 Sonic Boom
SR-71 Flyby
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Habu Links

SR-71 Online Discussion Group
Like to talk Blackbirds or military aviation in general? Join the SR-71 Online Discussion Group!
It is affiliated with SR-71 Online: An Online Aircraft Museum.
The SR-71 Blackbird is basically a more reader-friendly version of the OXCART story. Read Kelly Johnson's Fourteen Rules of Project Management and you'll see how an advanced aircraft like the SR-71 could be built almost forty years ago! www.habu.org
This is the Online Blackbird Museum, with a wealth of information, photos and multimedia, and lots of links to other excellent sites.
Leland Haynes' SR-71 Page
An excellent site with continuing news and updates from the Blackbird community. Will the habu be resurrected yet again in time for the ever-increasing reconnaissance demands of the new millenium? Stay tuned and find out!
John Stone's Lockheed Blackbird Page
Lots of info on Lockheed's Blackbirds, the U-2 and SR-71.
Blackbird: Past, Present, and Future
Fascinating reading about the greatest airplane that ever flew.
SR-71 Online: An Online Aircraft Museum
A nicely put-together page with information on the SR-71 and other interesting aircraft.
NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center SR-71 High Speed Research Page
SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story
This book, written by Richard Graham, Col., USAF (ret), tells all (well, maybe not all) about the still-mysterious world of the SR-71. This book was my introduction to the world of the habu.
Air Power article about performance of the SR-71, written by former habu Neville Dawson. Shadowed Blackbird is an excellent site by Troy Adams, all about SR-71C serial number 17981 (which began its life as YF-12 Interceptor serial number 06934). This is the plane which you see as the background image on this site. Blackworld is an unofficial website for past and present SR-71/U-2 maintainers.
Search Altavista for "SR-71"      
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The photo used as the background for this page is of Blackbird #
17981, which is on static display at the Hill Aerospace Museum at Hill AFB in Utah.

YF-12C 06937 (Actually SR-71A 61-7951) flying into sunset, circa 1974
My Family
Other Birches
Family Album