Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.
Developed under the code name Senior Crown, the SR-71 Blackbird became the ultimate Archangel, the capstone in the lineage that began with the first A-12. The SR-71 has the distinction of having served for more than three decades, while the A-12 was in combat for barely a year. No other aircraft has ever had the distinction of being the fastest operational aircraft in the world from the day it entered service until the day it was retired three decades later. No other aircraft has ever set a world speed record on its retirement flight.
In 1983, in a flightline conversation at Beale AFB, an SR-71 pilot told this author that the Blackbird represented “high nineties technology that we were lucky to have in the sixties.” Today the nineties have come and gone, but there has yet to be anything else quite like the extraordinary Blackbird.
“The Blackbird was a wild stallion of an airplane,” Ben Rich, the program manager, recalled in his memoirs. “Everything about it was daunting and hard to tame—building it, flying it, selling it. It was an airplane so advanced and awesome that it easily intimidated anyone who dared to come close. Those cleared to see the airplane roar into the sky would remember it as an experience both exhilarating and terrifying as the world shook loose … with the roar of an oncoming tornado and the ground shaking under [one’s] feet like an eight-point earthquake, as the engines spouted blinding diamond-shaped shock waves.”
One of those “cleared to see” the SR-71 was CIA Director Richard Helms.
“I was so shaken, that I invented my own name for the Blackbird,” Helms later told Ben Rich about watching a nighttime launch at Groom Lake. “I called it the Hammers of Hell.”
Five feet longer but largely similar to the single-seat A-12, the tandem seat SR-71 evolved out of Kelly Johnson’s suggestion that the US Air Force should consider a reconnaissance aircraft like the CIA’s Archangel. While the A-12 and YF-12A aircraft were originally delivered mainly in a natural metal finish, SR-71s were coated entirely in a dark blue-black paint, earning them the Blackbird name.
The first SR-71A (tail number 61-7950) made its debut flight at Palmdale, California, near Edwards AFB, on December 22, 1964. Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland, a veteran of the A-12 program, was at the controls. The second and third Blackbirds made their first flights during March 1965.
A total of thirty-one Blackbirds rolled out of final assembly at Palmdale between August 1964 and May 1967. These included twenty-nine SR-71As and two SR-71Bs, the latter designed as trainers with an elevated rear seat in a fashion similar to that of the A-12B Titanium Goose. In the SR-71A, unlike the A-12B and the SR-71B, the rear seat, accommodating the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), was not elevated.
In addition to the A and B variants, a thirty-second Blackbird was designated as SR-71C, which was completed in 1969 using the salvaged rear section of a YF-12A.
In January 1965, as a home for the incoming Blackbirds, the US Air Force activated the 4200th SRW at Beale AFB as a component of SAC. The subsidiary 4200th Support Squadron (later 4200th Test Wing) was the umbrella organization for the D-21 program at Groom Lake. In October 1965, the 4200th SRW was redesignated as the 9th SRW, assuming the lineage of the 9th Bombardment Group, which dated back to before World War II. This wing was comprised of two strategic reconnaissance squadrons (SRS), the 1st SRS and 99th SRS. In July 1976, in a strategic reconnaissance consolidation, the U-2s of the 100th SRW were reassigned to the 9th SRW.
Aerial refueling support was initially provided to the 9th SRW by KC-135Q tankers operated by the 9th and 903rd Aerial Refueling Squadrons (ARS) of the 456th Bombardment Wing. After 1975, the squadrons were reassigned directly to the 9th SRW.
The first Blackbird to arrive at Beale AFB was an SR-71B trainer that came in on January 7, 1966. The first operational SR-71A reconnaissance bird arrived on April 4. The first overseas deployment came two years later, by which time all of the SR-71As and SR-71Bs had been delivered.
Even before the aircraft had much of a chance to prove themselves, the Nixon administration counterintuitively decided that there should not be more Blackbirds—ever. They went so far as to demand that Lockheed literally break the mold. Aside from the single SR-71C hybrid, no more Blackbirds were built.
“One of the most depressing moments in the history of the Skunk Works occurred on February 5, 1970, when we received a telegram from the Pentagon ordering us to destroy all the tooling for the Blackbird,” Ben Rich recalls sadly. “All the molds, jigs, and forty thousand detail tools were cut up for scrap and sold off at seven cents a pound. Not only didn’t the government want to pay storage costs on the tooling, but it wanted to ensure that the Blackbird never would be built again. I thought at the time that this cost-cutting decision would be deeply regretted over the years by those responsible for the national security. That decision stopped production on the whole series of Mach 3 aircraft for the remainder of [the twentieth] century. It was just plain dumb.”
Indeed, the fascinating career of the Blackbird had barely begun.
Beginning on March 8, 1968, the 9th SRW formed a detachment of Blackbirds at Kadena AB on Okinawa, where they operated alongside the CIA A-12 detachment until May 8. Nicknamed “Habu” after a pit viper indigenous to Okinawa, the SR-71s would remain at Kadena for more than two decades until early 1990. During most of this time, they were known as Detachment 1, although they were originally called OL-8 (for Operating Location 8, numbered in sequence with previous SAC U-2 detachments).
Another SR-71 nickname that came into use was the term “Sled,” which was widely used by Blackbird pilots, who referred to themselves as “Sled Drivers.”
The Kadena detachment’s first mission on March 21, 1968, was followed by 167 more through the end of the year. The numerous wartime missions through the next few years included key battlefield surveillance missions, including those that helped planners assess air support for major battles, including the siege of Khe Sanh.
Other missions were conducted over North Korea and the periphery of both Chinese and Soviet air space—the latter including surveillance of the Soviet naval facilities around Vladivostok. Detachment 1 also conducted long-range missions over the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
Detachment 4 of the 9th SRW was established at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom in 1976, hosting short duration SR-71 and U-2 deployments until 1984, after which it became a permanent fixture through 1990. Missions included routine surveillance of East Germany, Poland, the Baltic Sea, and Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula. In April 1986, Detachment 4 Blackbirds conducted pre- and poststrike reconnaissance of Libyan targets that were attacked during Operation El Dorado Canyon.
The 9th SRW also operated SR-71 missions directly from the United States. In 1973, they conducted overflights of the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War, staging from Beale by way of Griffis AFB in New York and Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.
Under operational code names including Giant Plate and Clipper, the 9th SRW conducted routine overflights of Cuba through the 1970s. Unlike the more vulnerable U-2s, the fast, high-flying SR-71s were essentially impervious to any form of air defenses that could be brought to bear over Cuba.
During the 1970s, the US Air Force authorized the SR-71 to come out of the shadows long enough to give the world a sense of its capabilities. On September 1, 1974, Major James Sullivan and Major Noel Widdifield set the speed over a recognized course record while flying 3,508 miles from New York to London in just under two hours at an average speed of 1,435.6 mph.
On July 27 and 28, 1976, three SR-71s were used to set three separate absolute world records. Captain Robert Helt and Major Larry Elliott set the record for absolute altitude in horizontal flight (by an aircraft taking off under its own power) of 85,069 feet. Major Adolphus Bledsoe and Major John Fuller set an absolute closed course speed record of 2,092.3 mph. Finally, Captain Eldon Joersz and Major George Morgan set an absolute straight course speed record of 2,193.2 mph that still stood in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
The Blackbird’s full potential of speeds in excess of Mach 3.3 and operations above 100,000 feet has been repeatedly rumored but never made part of any official record.
The actual top speed of the SR-71 is still classified. Some people say that it was far beyond Mach 3.3. Others have said that it was never reached, that the Blackbird never was accelerated to its full potential maximum speed. An SR-71 pilot once told this author that if any other aircraft ever took away the Sled’s absolute speed record, one of the 9th SRW pilots would just go up the next day and “step down a little harder on the accelerator.”
The record still stands.
In another conversation, this author was speaking with a former ground radar operator who tracked an aircraft, not a missile, flying at Mach 6, and he nearly panicked. If there was ever a case of a truly unidentified UFO, this was it. The man reported this bogey to the officer in charge, who glanced at the scope and assured him, “Don’t worry, it’s one of ours.”
In his book, Sled Driver, SR-71 pilot Brian Shul recalled a radio exchange that occurred as he was over Southern California at 68,000 feet. Monitoring various radio transmissions from other aircraft, he heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its groundspeed.
“Ninety knots,” replied Los Angeles Center.
A Twin Beech asked for the same and was given a faster speed of 120 knots.
At that moment a cocky Navy F/A-18 pilot came on.
“Center, Dusty 52 requests groundspeed readout.”
The response came, “525 knots on the ground, Dusty.”
Unable to resist, Shul and his RSO clicked their radios simultaneously.
“It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew,” Shul recalls. “We were both thinking in unison.
“Center, Aspen 20,” Shul said, addressing Los Angeles Center. “You got a ground speed readout for us?”
“Aspen,” the controller replied after a long pause. “I show 1,742 knots.”
Shul notes that “no further inquiries were heard on that frequency.”
Though the SR-71 was probably never seriously threatened by enemy countermeasures, its ultimate undoing was, ironically, another Lockheed product, which was not an airplane.
As Lockheed’s Skunk Works was building spyplanes for the CIA, Lockheed Space Systems was developing spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). During the Cold War, if there was anything blacker in the metaphorical sense than the CIA and the black jets of Area 51, it was the NRO and its satellites. These were operated under the cover name “Discoverer,” but were known in the black world as “Keyhole” after their Itek high-definition cameras. Indeed the NRO itself, and the work it was doing in the 1960s and 1970s, was not declassified until the 1990s. Information about the work it is doing today is not something for which one should hold one’s breath.
The NRO was formed in suburban Washington, DC, in 1961 specifically to centralize work being done by the CIA and DOD to develop reconnaissance satellites. The NRO was separate from the CIA, although there would be extensive interaction, and many former CIA and black world spyplane hands, such as Ozzie Ritland and Richard Bissell, played a role in NRO’s early days.
Lockheed Space Systems and the Lockheed Missile Division, which were later combined to form the Lockheed Missiles & Space Company (LMSC), were created in Southern California but moved north in the late 1950s to what later became Silicon Valley, finally settling in Sunnyvale. It was responsible for the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident submarine-launched missiles, as well the NRO spy satellites.
The Discoverer/Keyhole series included the KH-1 through KH-3 satellites, which were part of a program code named Corona. Also coming under the NRO mandate were the KH-4 Mural, KH-5 Argon, and KH-6 Lanyard. Operational through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the early Keyholes were “film-return” systems in which photographic film was dropped back into the atmosphere from outer space, retrieved by specially modified aircraft, and processed. Through 1972, the KH-1 through KH-6 spacecraft exposed 2.1 million feet of film and took 800,000 pictures.
In many ways, the early Keyholes were operationally inferior to the SR-71 and its fellow Archangels. While the resolution of the cameras was the best that money could buy, the satellites orbited 75 to 100 miles above their subjects, while Blackbirds flew less than 18 miles above. Aircraft could also be sent over a specific target at a specific time, while satellites were confined to specific orbits. Finally, the process of retrieving the film capsules was complicated, difficult, and not always certain, despite techniques having been honed to a fine art by those doing the retrieving.
All this began to change late in 1976, as the NRO deployed the first of its KH-11 satellites, which now used electro-optical digital imaging. As the KH-11 satellites matured, and as at least a half dozen were launched during the 1980s, photoreconnaissance changed completely. No longer did film have to be retrieved, and no longer did decision makers have to wait days to see their coveted secret pictures. They could now see them instantaneously.
Despite the retrofitting of digital systems and communications links aboard the SR-71s, which allowed them to deliver imagery in near “real time,” the US Air Force itself recommended the retirement of the Blackbirds.
“General Larry Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, staged a one-man campaign on Capitol Hill to kill the program entirely,” Ben Rich wrote in his memoirs. “General Welch thought sophisticated spy satellites made the SR-71 a disposable luxury. Welch had headed the Strategic Air Command and was partial to its priorities. He wanted to use SR-71 refurbishment funding for development of the B-2 bomber. He was quoted by columnist Rowland Evans as saying, ‘The Blackbird can’t fire a gun and doesn’t carry a bomb, and I don’t want it.’ Then the general went on the Hill and claimed to certain powerful committee chairmen that he could operate a wing of fifteen to twenty [F-15E] fighter-bombers with what it cost him to fly a single SR-71. That claim was bogus. So were claims by SAC generals that the SR-71 cost $400 million annually to run. The actual cost was about $260 million.”
Both Welch and SAC commander General John Chain testified before Congress that the SR-71 should go, and so it did.
As Rich so aptly reflected, “a general would always prefer commanding a large fleet of conventional fighters or bombers that provides high visibility and glory. By contrast, buying into Blackbird would mean deep secrecy, small numbers, and no limelight.”
Blackbird operations, except training flights, were officially terminated in November 1989, having been eliminated from the FY1990 Defense Department budget.
On March 6, 1990, one Blackbird famously set a series of world speed records on its “retirement flight.” The SR-71 with tail number 64-17972 was flown from California to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, where it would eventually go on display. In the process, it set the official National Aeronautic Association coast-to-coast speed record of 2,086 miles in one hour and seven minutes, averaging 2,124.5 mph. It made the 311-mile St. Louis-to-Cincinnati leg in less than nine minutes, averaging 2,176.08 mph.
Within a few months of this much-publicized flight, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army had occupied Kuwait and the United States was involved in the Desert Shield buildup that culminated in Operation Desert Storm in January and February 1991. During that conflict, many operational commanders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, lamented the absence of expedited reconnaissance that the SR-71 might have contributed.
Mounting concerns about the situations in world trouble spots from the Middle East to North Korea led Congress to reconsider the reactivation of the SR-71. In 1993, Admiral Richard Macke, director of the joint staff for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that “from the operator’s perspective, what I need is something that will not give me just a spot in time but will give me a track of what is happening. When we are trying to find out if the Serbs are taking arms, moving tanks or artillery into Bosnia, we can get a picture of them stacked up on the Serbian side of the bridge. We do not know whether they then went on to move across that bridge. We need the [reconnaissance information] that a tactical, an SR-71, a U-2, or an unmanned vehicle of some sort, will give us, in addition to, not in replacement of, the ability of the satellites to go around and check not only that spot but a lot of other spots around the world for us. It is the integration of strategic and tactical.”
In its FY1994 appropriations, Congress authorized a reinstatement of funding to permit a revival of part of the SR-71 fleet. By that time, many of the twenty surviving SR-71s were being prepped for museum displays, but at least a half dozen were in storage at Palmdale or flying research missions with NASA.
The US Air Force moved too slowly on the path to SR-71 reactivation, and in October 1997, using a line-item veto, President Bill Clinton deleted the funding. The Blackbird was permanently grounded by the US Air Force in 1998, leaving just two at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB.
One of the last NASA missions for the SR-71 was the Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE) series conducted in 1997 and 1998. The object was to study aerodynamic performance of lifting bodies combined with aerospike engines such as would have been used in the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works X-33, the demonstrator for the conceptual VentureStar single-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane. The latter program was abandoned by NASA in 2001 but pursued by Lockheed Martin thereafter.
In signing off any discussion of the Blackbird’s demise, Americans are left with the words that Senator John Glenn spoke on the floor of the US Senate on the day after the 1990 “retirement flight.”
Said the former astronaut, “The termination of the SR-71 was a grave mistake and could place our nation at a serious disadvantage in the event of a future crisis. Yesterday’s historic transcontinental flight was a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”