On May 1, 1960, as the Cold War was heating up, CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down flying a U-2C spy plane over Soviet airspace, dropping from 70,000 ft to 30,000 ft before he could safely eject. The United States tried to cover up the mission, but the pilot and his U-2 were both recovered, forcing the U.S. to admit its spying. This was how the legendary SR-71 was born.
As Lockheed Martin explains, after the U-2 incident, the government put pressure on the company—already working on a high-speed, high-altitude stealth spy plane—to build a plane that couldn’t be shot down, and to do it fast. Lockheed’s advanced development program, known as Skunk Works, was up for the challenge and ultimately produced the SR-71 Blackbird. Capable of over 2,100 mph and heights of 80,000 feet, it was the perfect spy plane.
It was an incredible machine—one of the fastest and most alien ever built. We remember it for outrunning missiles over Libya, for the ultimate ground speed check, for setting speed records even in its retiring flight. Recently the U.S. government released new footage of the SR-71, as good an excuse to go over its achievements as any.
What made the jet even more incredible was its stealth as well as its speed. Skunk Works designed features that not only made it look like it materialized out of an Area-51 bunker but also reduced the SR-71's radar signature, as Lockheed Martin officially describes:
Reducing the size of the Blackbird’s radar image meant an even further reduction in the likelihood that the plane would be perceived and shot down. Though the initial test results were good, rumors of Soviet radar advances led the U.S. government to ask for an even smaller radar profile.
Surfaces had to be redesigned to avoid reflecting radar signals, the engines moved to a subtler mid-wing position, and a radar-absorbing element was added to the paint. Then a full-scale model of the Blackbird was hoisted on a pylon for radar testing at a Skunk Works’ secret location in the Nevada desert. With tests carefully scheduled to avoid Soviet satellite observations, the results were impressive: The Blackbird model, more than 100 feet in length, would appear on Soviet radar as bigger than a bird but smaller than a man. The team had succeeded in reducing radar cross section by 90 percent.
Only 32 were built and the SR-71 was retired from USAF service in 1998, then from NASA’s service in 1999. It remains the pinnacle of reconnaissance planes, in high-speed planes altogether, paving the way for the more modern planes, many of which are unmanned and could reach Mach 6.
But today, we salute the SR-71 Blackbird.