One of the most famous planes in the military, the Lockheed Blackbird has been the pinnacle of speed, stealth, and innovation for decades.
During the Cold War, there was a need for planes that could fly higher and faster to avoid detection by enemy forces, and report back on military installations around the world. By the end of the 1950s, tensions between the US and the Soviet Union had escalated to a crisis-point.
The technology to create a plane that could fly undetected simply didn’t exist at the time. It had to be invented.
The plane was designed to fly faster than 2,000 mph at altitudes above 60,000 feet. Other planes at the time could reach that speed, but only for short bursts of time. The Blackbird was designed to maintain this speed for hours. With conventional models, moving at three times the speed of sound would create friction with the atmosphere, generating enough heat to melt the frame of the aircraft.
This heat could rise as high as six hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and at that time titanium alloy was the only material that could withstand such temperatures. The very first Blackbird was built with titanium that the CIA smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
To further complicate things, the average ambient temperature outside the cockpit would be around -60 degrees Fahrenheit.
A designer remembered that the colour black both emits and absorbs heat. Over 60 pounds of paint were applied to the plane to ensure adequate heat dissipation.
The original Blackbird was a single-seater, designated the A-12, and made its first flight on April 30th, 1962. The later model was the SR-71, developed two years later with a second seat for a recon systems officer. The plan was outfitted with cutting-edge monitoring and defensive systems, including electronic countermeasures that could jam radar and targeting systems.
At 105 feet long and weighing over 150,000 pounds, special aluminium-reinforced tires had to be developed for the plane to operate.
The engines burned through 44,000 pounds of fuel an hour, so they had to refuel roughly every 90 minutes. Luckily, in that time, they could fly around 2,500 miles. However, the Air Force still had to order an entire fleet of refuelling rigs to allow for refuelling mid-flight.
For stealth, all surfaces had to be designed to avoid reflecting radar signals, even the paint had a radar-absorbing element added to it. All this resulted in the Blackbird appearing on radar scans as larger than a bird but smaller than a man, reducing the radar cross-section by 90%.
The plane is the fastest air-breathing aircraft ever designed, able to reach speed higher than Mach 3.2. Its official speed record of 2,193 miles per hour has never been beaten.
It required a special fuel called JP7, designed by the CIA, the Air Force, and Shell to work at ultrasonic speeds. It is still used today on highly advanced planes.
The speed was a crucial part of the plane’s missile avoidance strategy. Around eight hundred missiles were shot at Blackbirds during their active service, but not a single one ever hit because the planes could fly faster than the missiles chasing them.
Flight suits had to be designed specially for the Blackbird, in case the pilots ever had to eject. An emergency ejection at Mach 3 would subject crews to temperatures of about 230° Celsius, then to sub-zero temperatures that would cause them to simultaneously freeze and suffocate while their blood boiled in the near-vacuum. This would happen before their parachutes even had a chance to open. The suits were basically prototype space suits, and would later be adapted for NASA missions. They cost $120,000 each.
Due to extensive operating costs, the Blackbird was retired in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Blackbird represents the very best in design, changing what was possible.
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