Developed by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, SR-71 AKA “the blackbird” is undoubtedly one of the greatest aircraft ever produced. An aircraft that has inspired and continues to inspire generations of aeronautical engineers. It is a prime example of human ingenuity and technological advancements, flying faster than a bullet ( it was capable of sustained Mach 3+ flight for hours), higher than any other jet-powered aircraft and is one of the very few military aircrafts that can boast about never being brought down by enemy fire. In fact, in its 25 glorious years of service, more than 4000 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) were shot at the blackbird, but none ever hit it. The SR-71 could Evade missiles by virtue of its sheer velocity, often outrunning them in straight and level flights. The list of exceptional achievements of the SR-71 can go on and on and on, from its unique turbo-ramjet engine to the radar absorbent paint on its body everything about this aircraft is fascinating and worthy of individual attention. In this article, however, we shall be taking a look at some of the lesser-known facts about the SR-71 and unravel some of the secrets of this secret plane.
To trace the origins of the SR-71 program we have to look back at the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The U-2 first flew in 1955 and was meant to be an aircraft the Soviets couldn’t track or detect. However, it was tracked on its very first flight and within the first 5 years of its operations, it became clear that the plane was too vulnerable to advanced Soviet radars and SAM systems. As a result, starting in 1956, the designers at Skunk Works started experimenting with ideas to improve the serviceability of the U-2 by flying higher, faster and with a reduced cross-section. This ultimately lead to the development of A-12, an aircraft which was later developed into the SR-71. Flying at sustained speeds of over Mach 3 the aircraft produced an incredible amount of heat (temperature could range from 315-480 degree Celsius on the aircraft surface), making titanium the only metal that could withstand such harsh conditions without adding additional weight on the aircraft. This is where things start getting interesting, Titanium metal corporation the primary supplier of this precious alloy for the SR-71 program had limited reserves, so to ensure a sustained supply of high-grade titanium the CIA set up multiple shell companies that sourced titanium from the then largest exporter of this metal AKA the Soviet Union. Working through third world countries and bogus operations, the Soviet Union was duped into supplying titanium ore for a weapon that was meant to be used against it.
But the USSR was not completely in the dark, it was already aware of the capabilities of the SR-71, even before its first flight. Mainly due to the over overhead satellite reconnaissance that the Soviet Union carried out over important US military installations. In this case the Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake, popularly known as Area-51. While the Americans did try to schedule all flight tests after the satellites had passed, the Soviets used the heating and cooling pattern on the tarmac, as a result of the shadow formed by the aircraft to track any activity. In fact, around 1964 the US Ambassador to the USSR in Moscow was given a sketch of the A-12’s top-down silhouette, forcing the CIA to temporarily ground the A-12 project. During this period the ground crew at area-51 would draw absurd plane shapes on the runway and heat them up with lamps to mess with Soviet intelligence.
The threat of a leak, however, was not only from Soviet satellites or spies, the general public, plane spotters and commercial pilots were all a potential source. The importance of secrecy was illustrated by the CIA when the first A-12 called “Article-123” crashed on the 24th of May,1963. The CIA called the crashed aircraft a Republic F-105 thunder chief and threatened eyewitness of dire consequences if they reported otherwise to the press. In fact, the law enforcement officer and a passing family (who were the only civilians to witness the crash) were also offered $25,000 as compensation to keep their mouths shut. Such payouts were a regular feature of this program flush with cash. Another neat trick that the CIA used for the SR-71/OXCART program was to utilized the UFO hoax to cover up its trails. The unprecedented shape of OXCART and SR-71, particularly the wide disk-like fuselage designed to carry vast quantities of fuel confused a lot of commercial pilots. Pilots cruising over Nevada at dusk would look up and see the bottom of OXCART whiz by at 2,000-plus mph flying at an altitude of over 60,000 feet. Now during the 1950s and 60s, commercial aircrafts flew at under 20,000 feet while military aircraft flew under 40,000 feet and the SR-71s titanium body, moving as fast as a bullet at 60,000 feet, would reflect the sun’s rays in a way that could make anyone think UFO. The CIA played along this hysteria, as a result, UFO sightings increased exponentially during the 1960s and in many ways laid the foundation to all the conspiracy theories surrounding Area-51.
Throughout its lifespan, the SR-71 did what no other aircraft was capable of doing, went to places deemed too dangerous for any other aircraft and brought in data that potentially saved thousands if not millions of lives. Even though it was retired by 1999 for being too expensive to fly and maintain, till date no other aircraft has been able to fill in its shoe with the same grace and elegance. The SR-71 was not just rare metals fused together to produce a flying marvel, it was a technological marvel made up of sheer passion and dedication. It was made up of the stuff legends are made of.
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