Retro Monday: Flying the SR-71 Blackbird

Sister site Kit Up! just published this great vignette about operating an all-time classic of military technology — the legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. Former Blackbird driver Maj. Brian Shul describes pushing his SR-71 past Mach 3.5 over Libya to outrun Gadhafi’s surface-to-air missiles in April 1986. Shul’s fascinating account gives a pilot’s perspective on flying the big black jet at the edge of space at speeds that no other manned jet has hit. In its nearly 40-years of service, the SR-71 flew countless dangerous missions provided critical intelligence on dozens of major world events. In all, nearly 4,000 SAMs were fired at the Blackbird. None of them ever touched it.

Here’s an excerpt from Shul’s account, which has been around for years but is still a lot of fun to read:

Walt’s voice pierces the quiet of my cockpit with the news of more missile launch signals. The gravity of Walter’s voice tells me that he believes the signals to be a more valid threat than the others. Within seconds he tells me to “push it up” and I firmly press both throttles against their stops. For the next few seconds, I will let the jet go as fast as she wants. A final turn is coming up and we both know that if we can hit that turn at this speed, we most likely will defeat any missiles. We are not there yet, though, and I’m wondering if Walt will call for a defensive turn off our course.

With no words spoken, I sense Walter is thinking in concert with me about maintaining our programmed course. To keep from worrying, I glance outside, wondering if I’ll be able to visually pick up a missile aimed at us. Odd are the thoughts that wander through one’s mind in times like these. I found myself recalling the words of former SR-71 pilots who were fired upon while flying missions over North Vietnam. They said the few errant missile detonations they were able to observe from the cockpit looked like implosions rather than explosions. This was due to the great speed at which the jet was hurling away from the exploding missile.

I see nothing outside except the endless expanse of a steel blue sky and the broad patch of tan earth far below. I have only had my eyes out of the cockpit for seconds, but it seems like many minutes since I have last checked the gauges inside. Returning my attention inward, I glance first at the miles counter telling me how many more to go, until we can start our turn. Then I note the Mach, and passing beyond 3.45, I realize that Walter and I have attained new personal records. The Mach continues to increase. The ride is incredibly smooth.

There seems to be a confirmed trust now, between me and the jet; she will not hesitate to deliver whatever speed we need, and I can count on no problems with the inlets. Walt and I are ultimately depending on the jet now - more so than normal - and she seems to know it. The cooler outside temperatures have awakened the spirit born into her years ago, when men dedicated to excellence took the time and care to build her well. With spikes and doors as tight as they can get, we are racing against the time it could take a missile to reach our altitude.

It is a race this jet will not let us lose. The Mach eases to 3.5 as we crest 80,000 feet. We are a bullet now - except faster. We hit the turn, and I feel some relief as our nose swings away from a country we have seen quite enough of. Screaming past Tripoli, our phenomenal speed continues to rise, and the screaming Sled pummels the enemy one more time, laying down a parting sonic boom. In seconds, we can see nothing but the expansive blue of the Mediterranean. I realize that I still have my left hand full-forward and we’re continuing to rocket along in maximum afterburner.

How could you not love that plane. While there’s been decades of speculation about the SR-71s replacement being a secret, even-faster, manned-spy plane, I’ll bet it’s been replaced by a combination of spy satellites that can easily be re-positioned, the X-37B space plane, and secret, stealthy — but slower — UAVs like the RQ-170 Sentinel. Meanwhile, our efforts to develop jets that can fly faster than the Blackbird continue to encounter problems.

Click here for the full story.

Also, check out DT’s earlier piece on how the Air Force covered up the crash of the SR-71’s predecessor, the A-12, in the Utah desert.

  • Lance

    Still o junky steal plane or UAV can compete n performance to Kelly Johnson’s master piece a tribute to his genius. Like the F-14 the SR-71 fell victim not over technology and performance but to Dick Cheney and his coneys ant the pentagon.

    • IronV

      A somewhat inelegant but essentially true response… politics and budgeting played a disproportionately huge and unfortunate role in the Blackbird’s retirement.

      • Ronaldo

        Completely wrong on both accounts.

        The F-14 was designed around the Phoenix missile system and neither has a place in the modern world. ( The Phoenix was designed to take out airborne threats to the carrier….never happened. The one combat launch in Iraq…why you might ask….has unrecorded results. If you want to talk the Gulf of Sidra, the F-18 could have handled that party with an engine out F-18)) The Navy fighter for that day was always, and for the moment remains, the F-18.

        SR-71 was terrific, and it’s fans kept it flying for far longer than it was productive to do so. Time and the technology of the threat changed. We all loved it but, everything has limits, even sentimental appeal.

        • blight

          I have a soft spot for the Mark IV “Mother” tank. The day when trench warfare returns we should bring that old battlewagon back.

          • Twidget at large

            If technology ever goes that way again then we might see something used to the same perpose, until then: Exposed treads?!? “Choke” “Gasp” “gurgle…”

          • blight

            Shh, but ours will be magic and digital with covered treads and composite armor.

        • chaos0xomega

          The plane is still useful today (especially as we approach retirement for the U-2). While modern missile technology means that it isn’t necessarily as invincible to enemy SAM’s as it once was, it could still provide timely battlefield reconnaissance at what actually wasn’t a very high cost relative to many of the AF’s other jet aircraft of the time, and certainly today. The airframes themselves are still good to go, as a result of thermal effects of skin friction, the airframes titanium molecules have re-aligned with time and have actually become stronger. Barring the need for spare parts for the engine, etc. the the airframe itself has a technically unlimited lifespan.

          • bevel450

            “Timely battlefield recon..” is the one thing that it could not do ! UAV’s handle that perfectly at a small fraction of the cost and they uplink directly whereas the SR has a wet film system. The technical environment has changed completely and what was stealth then, is a sad joke now.

            It is still my favorite airplane but not such a good idea nowadays.

          • Dfens

            The sad joke is all of these industry shills trying to make the SR-71 look like a failure to justify the current crappy state of the industry, which could not duplicate the success of the SR-71 anymore than it has been able to land a person on the moon for the last 30 years.

          • blight

            We only did it because we had the national will to spend our billions/launch to send three men, a buggy and a LEM to the moon. Government no longer has the money and the people do not care anymore.

          • Dfens

            Not true. The NASA budget now is the same a the average funding they got during the Apollo program. It seemed like a lot then. It’s peanuts now.

        • Lance

          Not exactly the F-14 AIMS radar can make it attack 8 different MiGs and bomber all at once the F-18 can only attack two MiGs at a time and its range and payload even E models are hopelessly inferior. Dick Cheney admitted he disliked the Grumman Tomcat. And undoubtedly wanted McDonald Douglas in a republican state to make Navy fighter and let Grumman in California in a Democrat state flounder and go broke. Look at it this way the proposed F-14F Super Tomcat would have been giving the Navy a deep strike fighter like the USAF F-15E and have longer range than any Hornet and since existing airframes where available would have been much much cheaper than retiring all fighters and bombers for just F-18s but Both Dick Cheney and then President Clinton torpedoed it in the early 90s.

          As for the SR-71 look at it this way no F-35 can fly at Mach 3 or fly at the edge of space or can out run a missile. Even China which this website is frighten about has no missiles and or fighter that can catch a SR-71. That’s Kelly Johnson’s genius. No modern company has made such a machine since.

          • NYDC81

            You’re talking about a plane that was specifically designed to go over Mach 3. What was the payload for the SR-71 other than a few cameras and a two man crew? if you want to throw the SR-71 into a dog fight and argue maneuverability, I’m pretty sure the F-35 would win. You can’t compare the two planes on one factor, particularly speed, if you’re going to pit a fighter against the fastest known manned jet in the world.

          • Dfens

            What a bunch of crap. There would be no reason for the SR-71 to dogfight an F-35. The F-35 does not have a weapon that could touch it. A single F-35 could never get a firing solution on the SR-71, and probably even if you had enough of them to darken the skies with F-35s, you still would not have even one aircraft that could come up with a valid firing solution.

          • tiger

            Your F-35 can’t climb high enough nor travel fast enough to do anything but eat fumes.

    • DCNY81

      Come on…as amazing as the SR-71 is, it’s ancient technology. About the only remarkable piece of technology left on that plane are the engines themselves. Everything else is outdated and it shows. You’re talking about 40+ year technology. The F-14 is ancient too, and the same can be said about the F-15. You can always argue that we should have kept them in service, but if you’re going to talk about overall effectiveness over efficiency and maintenance costs, newer planes are going to win out. Apparently, the B-52 is still just as effective as it was 40 years ago. A FA-18 is probably just as effective as an F-14.

      • tiger

        Just as effective? Hmmmm……. Nope.

    • fergy

      This Aircraft was made fifty years ago. And its still the best aircraft for the job. Was retired too soon. Or shelved just like many other awesome innovations due to some greedy people.. I knew Kelly , Bill Ferguson was my dad. over fourty years he worked at the scunkworks. Engineer with only a aa college degree like me. fought in two wars. Times have changed . But the old analog cable system. is em pulse proof. Mach 6 is fast enough and flown by men. Best system there will ever be. Scott y on star trek said it all . The more they muck up the plumbing the easyer it is to sabotage it. Politics sabotoged our big stick in the air. Back in the early sixties. . And many other awsome things. Nothing new under the sun. Hope this asteroid misses the moon and us. Be sure to wear a hat out side. and lotions and sun screen. yep Oh and Read The Bible. Jesus is our ultimate hope and savior. amen. k

      • tiger

        Yep, no Chinese parts needed.

  • dddd

    I agree with your analysis on the Blackbird’s replacements. Interesting tidbit that a lot of you probably know: the SR-71 was originally called the RS-71, for Reconnaissance/Strike. The reason it changed was because LBJ screwed it up when announcing its existence on television, and the Air Force does not tend to correct the president. Awesome aircraft. The Oxcart was bad, too.

    • Charlie Taylor

      According to what I’ve read it was a last minute lobbying by Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay to change to the designation to SR-71, which he preferred. The name in the speech was changed but someone forgot to change the RS-71 designation in the some places in the transcript given to the media right before the speech, thus starting the rumor that LBJ made a mistake.

  • Tad

    Sends a chill down my spine. What an awesome plane and what awesome guys who flew her.

  • Dfens

    Today we say in the pack of lies euphemistically called a “proposal” we’re going to have some nameless, faceless committee design an airplane better than anything Kelly Johnson could possibly come up with by doing a systems engineering trade study. Then after 30 years of development we cobble together some useless piece of crap that uses new engine, electronics, and structures technology to barely exceed the bar set by now 50 year old aircraft. Doing less with more, that’s the new American way!

    • Riceball

      The thing is, I don’t think we have any more Kelly Johnson’s and I’m not sure that the system, as it is now, even allows for anything like a Kelly Johnson or Jack Northrop, or any of the other pioneers of aviation from the past. It’s a shame too, this county could really use another Kelly Johnson & his like though I suppose we do have Burt Routan but he doesn’t build military aircraft.

      • Dfens

        Yeah, we have plenty of new Kelly Johnson’s in this country. What we lack is the position of Chief Weapon Designer. The big contractors can’t let the little engineers get famous, or they’d certainly tell it to you like it is. Hell, they’d kill the goose that laid the golden egg. All the stupidity is on the side of the US taxpayer and the troops in the field who are getting screwed by this system. The Kelly Johnson’s of this world are figuring out other ways to shine.

      • tiger

        I’d settle for a real life Tony Stark….

      • blight

        I’m guessing most of it is a product of complacency. America hasn’t been seriously threatened in a long time, thus the defense industry has gone complacent. And at the same time, corporate culture discourages high risk, high reward business units like Advanced Projects/Skunk Works. Bear in mind they were working with hydrogen fuels, designing high-altitude aircraft and fly Mach 3 jets in an era where hydrogen fuel was planned to power hypersonic jets (over the Mach 3 SR), high-altitude aircraft scarcely out of the Korean War, and Mach 3 jets when aircraft were flirting with Mach 2 but required afterburners, and couldn’t fly fast long-range missions simultaneously.

        Something is wrong systematically when you can’t even go over old ground without bleeding serious cash.

        • Dfens

          Hydrogen doesn’t make sense as an airplane fuel because it doesn’t have the energy density kerosene has. They were able to get kerosene to burn in scramjets by pulsing the fuel, but these aircraft had other issues that cause them to have lots of drag. The unique thing about the SR-71 is the way it used compressibility to gain efficiency. The F-23 demonstrated some other techniques for attaining high speeds with low drag. Many techniques have been developed over the years for going fast with less drag, but when we got rid of the airplane designers, we got rid of the people with the need to know what’s in the classified files. Plus a lot of the old design techniques weren’t written down, but passed down from one generation to the next. Now we don’t have a next generation, so even if we get past this current procurement fiasco, we’ve lost all the knowledge that would have been passed on. We’re starting over instead of building on the skills of those that went before.

    • Jayson

      Too true.

  • DEWright_CA

    I have met Brian several times; and while guys in the 9th considered him to be arrogant; the man; just as the rest of the sled-drivers is a hero without anyone realizing it.

  • Jayson

    I loved this plane, but I never can find pics of it taking off at night and the remarkable colours of the exhaust and the cool diamonds there. They never explained how they were created but man it looked amazing. Watching Wings was probably the only time I saw them.

    • Dfens

      The flow from the engine nozzles was over expanded for the higher atmospheric conditions that exist at low altitude, that’s why you get the diamonds. They go away at altitude. You used to see similar structures in rocket exhausts when most rockets used LO2 and kerosene. With LH2 - LO2 rockets the flame is so clear it is hard to see any diamonds even though they similarly exist until the nozzle is up to design altitude.

      • Dfens

        I meant to say “the higher atmospheric pressure conditions”

  • Thehurtinmypants

    I don’t remember what year it was but it was in Aviation week and science (early 90’s), ran a article about the air-force was no longer going to buy the Ball baring that where used in the J58 . I am sure there where other parts that the Air Force was no longer going to buy, but the ball baring where a big deal once the tooling was destroyed no one was going to be making anymore due to the cost involved. “Me thinks it was 20k-50k per ball barring”

    • blight

      When you spend millions on parts designed to survive at the high temperatures of Mach 3 and buy a handful of bearings, what do you think the net cost per part to the Air Force will be?

      • Dfens

        Hell, that’s nothing. I worked on a pivot shaft in the F-22 that cost $1 million each, and designed several titanium fittings that each cost more than that single bearing. Wasting your money is the fastest thing about that f’ing airplane.

        • blight

          So 1 million each, plus R&D and divide by the initial procurement plus spares.

  • Black Owl

    Of all the aircraft ever made in history the SR-71 is by far the coolest. It had done things that we will probably never hear about for many years to come. It’s surrounded by so much mystery.

  • Dfens

    If we were a nation of something other than nutless wonders, we would have a Mach 3+ bomber under construction right now expanding on the technology of the SR-71.

    • Jay

      uh, we tried that. google xb70

      newer commie SAMs made it obsolete during development.

      • Dfens

        SAM’s didn’t make it obsolete. The USAF geniuses decided to put their money in the ICBM basket. ICBM’s are marginally faster, not recallable, not adaptable to carry other munitions, easier to shoot down, less reliable, have no loiter time, and cannot be redirected to better targets. So by all means, let’s continue that brillian policy.

  • Stratege

    For sure, Blackbird is legendary aircraft, but SR-71 was not “wounderwaffe” anyway. It had pretty poor value against U.S.S.R. air defenses. It had straight flying maneuverability and ridiculous turn capability. In other words, it had reputation of sitting duck against SAM missiles which are faster and more agile. Sure, SR-71 was capable to escape and overrun long-distance missile launches, but its hypothetical mission with deep penetration of Soviet airspace could be 100% suicidal.
    The mission against obsolete and few SAM over Vietnam/M.East speak nothing.

    • Dfens

      Everything you’ve said is wrong.

  • Will

    “How could you not love that plane”? If you were 1 of the guys who had to maintain it. Mach 4 is still impressive in 2011 but totally inadequate against modern SAMs like the S-300.

    • Dfens

      Total BS!

    • Stratege

      S-300 is late generation of SAM.
      But older surface-to-air systems like SA-2 (S-75) and especially SA-5 (S-200) were being very dangerous for SR-71 as well.

      • Dfens

        Yeah, go on yapping. You don’t have a clue.

  • blight

    Found this random tidbit re Skunk Works:

    “WASHINGTON, DC, May 12, 2000 (WebToday)-WebToday has learned that Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company is planning on laying off employees from its Skunk Works operation.

    The substantial downsizing is as a result of Skunk Works being absorbed into the company’s aeronautical division.

    Insiders within the company reportedly told the Antelope Valley Press late this week, “A number of our directors are going to be cut, and those that stay-19 of them-are going to be told if they want to remain with the company, you’ve got to go to Fort Worth.”

    Skunk Works once was arguably Lockheed’s most prestigious division, creating high-tech aircraft including the SR-71 and U-2 spy planes, and the F-117 stealth fighter.”

    Though I can’t find anything on Lockheed’s website, which suggests that the Advanced Development Programs unit is a discrete unit? Hmm.

    • Dfens

      They are laying off 5% of their established workforce so they can hire cheaper young engineers to replace them. They believe this will make them more competitive. What the hell, it’s not like they get paid based on performance. Hmm, on the other hand, I guess it is. They get paid more for poor performance, so why not lay off their most experienced engineers and replace them with the most dim witted they can find?

  • OldBUFFkeeper

    I must say its astounding that no one has mentioned the ultimate factor complicating the Blackbird’s comfortable, and jingoistic, legend of eternal invincibility, Moore’s Law, which declares that computer chip technology is advancing so rapidly that the speed at which information can be processed will tend to DOUBLE(!!!) every two years. Edwin Moore, who as a founder of Intel Corp, has undeniable credibility in this area, advanced this hypothesis several decades ago, and since, the only criticism he has faced is that his analysis was too…….CONSERVATIVE(!!!!), and that the actual cycle of computer capability doubling was more like 18 months!! BTW, the ultimate proof that, in the contest between speed of flight and speed of info processing, NO(!!!) airframe, including the Blackbird, ever had a chance, came with the ASAT program, in 1984, in which an F-15, at the computer-designated apex of a computer-controlled zoom climb, launched a missile which then, under perfect computer guidance, scored a direct hit on a used up, batteries dead, good only for target practice, satellite, which, for all that, was,, still…..IN ORBIT(!!!),……. in OUTER SPACE(!!!), flying no less than EIGHT(!!!) times as fast as the Blackbird ever flew, and some fifteen times as high, which, even corrected for the mythical Aurora or SR-72, is still four times as fast and ten times as high. When one notes that, for SAMs, the question is not speed, nor altitude capability, but simply the computer ability to calculate the proper lead angle so that the missile and the target arrive at the same place at the same time, especially when the target, if a Blackbird, has a turn radius of over EIGHTY(!!!) miles, ruling out any fancy dodging maneuvers, its obvious, Moore RULES!!!