The Blackbird Turns 50

The SR-71 was a strategic reconnaissance aircraft, but that’s like calling the Taj Mahal a big building. First flown on December 22, 1964 at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, the Blackbird replaced the subsonic U-2 spy plane that Russian radar had rendered sitting ducks. Blackbirds could fly record high—90,000 feet—and fast—2,194 miles per hour. And it could sustain such speeds: In 1990, one flew from L.A. to D.C. in an hour and four minutes. That’s 2,144.83 miles per hour. Think about that: six-tenths of a mile per second.

The first SR-71 produced, flown solo by Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland on Dec. 22, 1964. Source:

The first SR-71 produced, flown solo by Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland on Dec. 22, 1964. Source:

If the Russians fired a missile at a Blackbird, it could simply outran the missile. Said a sign over the entrance to an SR-71 base, “Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death I Shall Fear No Evil—For I am at 80,000 Feet and Climbing.”

An aircraft designer at the Skunk Works—Lockheed’s secret projects division, which developed the Blackbird—said that the technology in the simultaneous Apollo program was much simpler. As it happens, the pilots who tested the Blackbird, fifty years ago, initially thought it was a spacecraft. And a good deal of UFO sightings in the vicinity of Area 51 in the 1960s: you guessed it.

The first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in January, 1966. A total of thirty-two Blackbirds served from 1964 to 1998, flying 3,551 mission sorties whose contribution to national security can’t be understated. Unless you know about the aircraft that succeeded the Blackbird.

One last, slightly relevant bit: video of the actual first flight:

To learn more about the Blackbird, check out this terrific Code One article or the book Sled Driver, the book Sled Driver, or the photo-intensive online Blackbird museum, Not incidentally, the Blackbird also has a cameo in the novel Once a Spy.