Courtesy of photographer Michael Benton is this beautiful photograph of a beautiful bird, a retired SR-71 Blackbird at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC.
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An awe-inspiring airplane with an awe-inspiring story, the Blackbird is simply amazing. With a top speed just over Mach 3.2 and a service ceiling above 85,000 feet this bird is a beast. It has flown from L.A. to Washington, DC in 64 minutes. It has flown across the Atlantic in just under two hours. It passes over a mile of terrain in about two seconds. A traffic pattern for a Blackbird out of Edwards would take it out over Colorado, Nebraska, Washington, and down the pacific coast before turning back in to land.
Designed at the Lockheed “Skunk Works” in the early 1960’s for the CIA and branded the A-12 Oxcart, the early years of this airplane were cloaked in secrecy. Directly responsible for a number of high-altitude “UFO” sightings, the Oxcart was used by Central Intelligence to spy on other nations with great success.
A popular misconception about the A-12/SR-71 is that it was stealthy; this is far from the truth. The planes were stealthy, but the exhaust stream was highly visible on radar. However, the Blackbird moved so fast so high that it proved impossible to kill. I once heard a sled driver explain that it was “basically a huge middle finger to everyone we flew over; they knew we were there and there was nothing they could do about it.” SAMs, fighter intercepts, and other attempts to disrupt the SR-71 failed.
To fly on the edge of space at three times the speed of sound is incredible. To do it in the early 1960’s when jets themselves were new technology is astonishing. The fact that this bird was designed with pen and paper and the fiendish maths were done by nerds on slide rules is inconceivable in the modern era. The Blackbird is a miracle of engineering and a triumph of aviation. If you can’t appreciate the Blackbird for the miracle that it was…I don’t think we can be friends any more.