Title: A Rare Bird

By: Small, Lawrence M., Smithsonian, 00377333, Jan2001, Vol. 31, Issue 10


When the national air and space museum (NASM) opens its spectacular new Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in Virginia in about three years, visitors will get to face the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird head on, and their first reaction may be to duck and get out of the way. That's because, even at rest, the supersonic reconnaissance plane is so flat-out intimidating. It comes at you like an oversize stingray flanked by two mean sharks. The Blackbird is a marvel of American ingenuity and one of the most striking objects in the Smithsonian. The plane was conceived and built almost 40 years ago, and to this day an SR-71 holds the record for having flown faster than any other turbojet. It can sustain a speed of Mach 3+ (in excess of 2,100 miles an hour) at altitudes of 80,000 feet and more, with the temperature on its titanium alloy skin reaching 750 degrees Fahrenheit. More than twice as fast as a bullet from a .357 Magnum, the SR-71 would have had Superman puffing to keep up. In fact, there's no knowing for sure the plane's true capabilities. Security would have kept them from being publicly revealed, had the limitations of the human body ever allowed them to be reached.

The wingspan of the SR-71 is 55 feet, 7 inches, its length 107 feet, 5 inches, and its height with the landing gear down 18.5 feet. It weighs about 60,000 pounds without fuel, and up to 140,000 pounds with its six fuel tanks full. It has a flying range of about 2,300 miles, but aerial refueling--that improbable maneuver of linking up with a fuel tanker as if it were a floating service station--removes the limitation on distance. The plane's two-person crews sit one behind the other and wear full pressure suits; without them, the flyers' blood would boil at 80,000 feet if there were a pressure failure in the cabin. (There are now fewer SR-71 pilots in the world than there are space shuttle astronauts, and one of them, Tom Alison, is chief of the collections division at NASM.) The Blackbird's paint dissipates heat, and radar-absorbent materials in it confuse systems attempting to track the plane. Up close you can see that the plane sometimes seems not black but a deep indigo blue. So the SR-71 is not quite what it appears, which is appropriate for a plane designed to be an object of evasion.

Only 32 SR-71s were ever built, all in the 1960s. The Air Force put the plane in service in January 1966, and for more than two decades of the Cold War, it gathered vital intelligence on virtually every major area of military and political crisis in the world. With a high-resolution radar imaging system in its nose, the SR-71 would survey 100,000 square miles in an hour. It was so fast that it could get in and out of a location before anyone knew of its presence. Indeed, its presence announced its absence.

The Blackbird flew alone in hostile environments, along flight paths and at intervals unpredictable to those who were being observed. And because it flew so high, the plane was out of reach of an enemy's intercepting blow. It was fired at hundreds of times by surface-to-air missiles, to no effect. No U.S. Air Force flier ever lost his life on a mission in an SR-71. The plane rode the very edge of the envelope and balanced its daring with an outstanding safety record.

The Air Force retired the SR-71 in the 1990s, but in a sense the plane had long since been marked for extinction. In 1968, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered its tooling destroyed as a consequence of changed Defense Department priorities, and that made it impossible to build another.

The arc of the SR-71's tour of duty began its upward ascent in 1966 and touched back down to earth in the late '90s. In that three decade interval, the plane and its crews did their brave deeds of service to the nation and built a legend. And, in legend, the Blackbird is flying still--sleek and unmatchably swift, aloft and untouchable.

By Lawrence M. Small, Secretary