The SR-71 Blackbird is a total badass.
It was the nation’s preeminent spy plane for more than 30 years and served as the gatekeeper between the era of spy plans and spy satellites. But what really mattered was that the thing flat out hauls serious butt.
When you make the fastest plane every to fly, there’s mind-boggling engineering and that leads to awesome factoids. Here’s a collection of things you probably don’t know about the SR-71:
1. Even though it hasn’t flown in 15 years, it’s still the official record holder for fastest manned jet-powered aircraft.
Though a few pilots took it even faster over the years, 2,193.13 mph is the official record, set in July of 1976 to celebrate America’s bicentennial. This image above is that plane landing after hitting that accomplishment.
2. And it set the record with only one engine.
As with other speed records, to be official speed, the plane needs to fly in both directions. On the run, one engine shut down at the start of the second run, and the pilot tried to get it relit. The pilot, then-Capt. Al Joersz, said, “By the time we’d gone through the checklist, we’d already passed the second gate [thus officially starting the run]. Still, we exited the gate at Mach 3.2.”
3. The SR-71 couldn’t be shot down.
Over the course of the plane’s service, more than 1,000 missiles were fired in an attempt to take it down. The evasive maneuver was just to hit the throttle and go higher and faster than the missile could travel. Needless to say, the SR-71 took it’s 1.000 batting average into retirement.
4. Continuous, supersonic afterburner
Ever wonder what causes the diamond pattern in the SR-71 jet engine exhaust? It’s due to the extra thrust provided by the afterburner which is actually supersonic, creating successive shock waves that show up as the diamond pattern. The SR-71 engines fly continuously in afterburner, except when refueling.
5. To even be allowed to work on the aircraft you had to be married.
You also had to be between 25 and 40 years old and “emotionally stable.” This wasn’t a normal plane or a normal job, and there was a need to be extra certain about everyone involved.
6. The flight suit was as complex as the aircraft
An entirely new flight suit was designed for the aircraft. The suit was pressurized via its own oxygen system, because otherwise at over 80,000 feet the pilots would have suffocated.
7. You could start the jets with a couple of Buicks
There were actually a few different ways to start the J58, but one of them was hooking a couple of Buick Wildcats together and using them to spin the engine until it got going.
8. First official flight
The first official flight of the SR-71 Blackbird was on December 22nd, 1964 at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA
9. The cockpit makes my head hurt
Because computerized equipment was non-existent during the design and construction of the Blackbird (late 50’s to early 60’s) the cockpit was entirely analog on the $34 million aircraft
10. It’s so heavy that it needs a parachute and special tires to land
Slowing down something that weights 170,000 pounds is no joke. A parachute helps during landing, which also requires special aluminum-reinforced tires made by BF Goodrich (that need replacing after 20 landings).
11. It’s Gotta Be The Inlets!
The speed and agility of the SR-71 is largely due to the unique design of the engine inlets. To handle the dramatic changes in air speed and pressure, air literally had to be slowed down to subsonic speeds before entering the jet engines.
A total of 12 SR-71’s were lost and one pilot died during the aircraft’s service career. 11 of the 12 accidents happened between 1966 and 1972.
13. The SR-71 produces about as much power as an ocean liner
Each one of the Blackbird’s twin Pratt & Whitney J58 jet engines are capable of 34,000 pounds of thrust.
14. Seventeen years after retirement it remains the fastest manned jet-powered aircraft in history
2,193.13 mph is the official record, set in July of 1976 to celebrate America’s bicentennial. This image is that plane landing after achieving the speed record.
15. It could photograph an entire swath of North Korea in seven minutes.
Because there was no weapon that could shoot the Blackbird down, pilots turned their cameras on and flew freely over places like China, Vietnam, and North Korea…which it could cover in just seven minutes.
16. The cockpit windows are covered in quartz.
The cockpit windows routinely hit temps of over 600 degrees (F), so the engineers needed something that could withstand that sort of abuse without distorting the pilot’s vision.
17. The SR-71 isn’t the only Blackbird.
The A-12 (shown) is an extremely similar predecessor that also flew above Mach 3, and was operated by the CIA.
18. There was also a variant intended as an interceptor.
Though it never made it into full-scale production, the YF-12 evolved the A-12 into a much closer shape and led to the SR-71. The prototypes set several speed records before going on to careers at NASA.
19. The A-12’s design evaluation team was headed by the founder of Polaroid.
Dr. Edwin Land knew film, and this was a spy plane, after all. He was tasked with checking out the design of the A-12 and comparing it with other potential espionage aircrafts.
20. The first SR-71’s were tested at Area 51
The aircraft were built by Lockheed Martin in Burbank, CA and then trucked over to the well known conspiracy HQ in Nevada.
21. The SR-71 leaked fuel and had to refill immediately after takeoff. Every single time.
Because the skin got so hot at high speeds, and because things tend to expand with heat, the plane’s panels were designed to have a very loose fitment when cold. While hot at cruising speed everything’s fine, but on the ground, there were so many gaps the plane couldn’t even hold fuel—crews would top it off, the SR-71 would spill it everywhere, then take off, warm up, and reload seven minutes later.
22. The engines burned up to 44,000 pounds of fuel every hour.
The faster the Blackbird flew, the more efficient it became due to what’s known as the ramjet effect—compression of air and fuel at supersonic speeds. That said, Blackbirds still had to refuel roughly every 90 minutes. Though in all fairness, that typically meant going 2,500 miles in that time.
23. And in order to refuel, an entire fleet of special tankers had to be built.
The KC-135Q was a highly modified version of the standard Air Force refueling rig, and it could only be used with the SR-71. Fifty-six of these were made, or three for every two of the 32 SR-71s.
24. SR-71 fuel production caused a shortage in bug spray. Really.
In the mid-late 1950s, JP7 was specifically designed for use at ultra high altitude and supersonic speeds, and the SR-71 also needed to use it to keep the engines cool. One of the ingredients in JP7 was also used to make Flit mosquito repellent; Shell didn’t have enough to make both. Guess who won between the government and your porch?
25. It set a new transcontinental speed record on it’s last flight just for the hell of it.
On the SR-71’s final flight to the Museum, it set a speed record. On March 6, 1990, Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging 3,418 kilometers (2,124 miles) per hour. After landing at Washington-Dulles International Airport, the airplane was turned over to the Smithsonian.
[This article was originally published on March 26, 2015]