Black­bird: A His­tory of the Un­touch­able Spy Plane

Flight Journal - - REVIEW RUNAWAY - By James Hamil­ton-Pater­son Gerry Yar­rish

(Pe­ga­sus Books, 232 pages, $26.95)

Who isn’t fas­ci­nated by the story of the SR-71 “Black­bird” spy plane, aka the fastest manned air­craft in the his­tory of avi­a­tion? Con­ceived by Lock­heed in the late 1950s by the com­pany’s se­cret “Skunk Works” divi­sion, the Black­bird was de­signed from the on­set to be the world’s fastest and high­est-fly­ing air­craft—a goal it achieved in spades!

The super-se­cret project was un­der the man­age­ment of fa­mous air­craft de­signer Clarence “Kelly” John­son. Once fully de­vel­oped in 1964, the Black­bird rep­re­sented the pin­na­cle of jet-air­craft flight and tech­nol­ogy. It was de­signed fly above 85,000 feet and at more than three times the speed of sound. It has an un­re­fu­eled flight range of 3,200 nau­ti­cal miles. The SR-71 was ex­ten­sively used over Vietnam and in later con­flicts, and not a sin­gle one was ever shot down; it flew suc­cess­fully un­til it was re­tired in 1999. The ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Black­bird spy plane seem un­likely to ever be sur­passed. As suc­cess­ful as the spy plane was, it was even­tu­ally re­tired be­cause its mis­sions were re­placed by spy satel­lites and, more re­cently, with less-ex­pen­sive un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles. It is highly un­likely that any other hu­man-car­ry­ing jet air­craft with sim­i­lar flight and speed ca­pa­bil­i­ties will ever again be de­vel­oped.

James Hamil­ton-Pater­son doc­u­ments not only the hard­ware de­vel­op­ment for the most fa­mous spy plane in his­tory but also the times and po­lit­i­cal his­tory of the day. Touch­ing on the needs of the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency (CIA) to ob­tain sen­si­tive aerial re­con­nais­sance, the Black­bird project was specif­i­cally de­signed to meet strate­gic ob­jec­tives in the after­math of the shoot­ing down of the U-2 pi­loted by Gary Pow­ers by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Lock­heed ac­tu­ally man­u­fac­tured four ver­sions of the air­craft. At a cost of $20 mil­lion each, the A-12 vari­ant was the first or­dered by the CIA (code name “Ox­cart”). Lock­heed built 13 of these sin­gle-seat spy planes. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) or­dered a pro­to­type for a high­speed, high-al­ti­tude fighter/in­ter­cep­tor. The two-seat YF-12A, the sec­ond vari­ant, was fol­lowed by a short-lived drone-launch­ing plat­form, the M-21. As a fol­low-on to the YF-12A, the USAF or­dered 32 SR-71 sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance air­craft.

The most in­trigu­ing part of the au­thor’s nar­ra­tive is the de­scrip­tion of the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges in­volved in the de­sign­ing and man­u­fac­ture as well as the test fly­ing of this 78-ton air­craft. To make the air­craft op­er­ate prop­erly at such high speeds and al­ti­tudes, or­di­nary jet fuel, oil, and hy­draulic flu­ids could not be used, and new ma­te­rial needed to be de­vel­oped. Be­cause the air­craft’s sur­face tem­per­a­tures at cruis­ing speed ranged from 440 to 950°F, all the outer skins had to be made out of ti­ta­nium. Even the tires re­quired spe­cial man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses to sur­vive in such harsh en­vi­ron­ments. In ad­di­tion, the pi­lots cho­sen to fly the Black­bird had to be of the high­est cal­iber, both phys­i­cally and men­tally. Over the du­ra­tion of the flight pro­gram, only

141 pi­lots passed the high stan­dards and earned the rat­ing to fly the Black­bird.

Writ­ten in easy-to-un­der­stand lan­guage, Hamil­ton-Pater­son does an excellent job pre­sent­ing the his­tory of the SR-71 that all avi­a­tion lovers can en­joy. With 20 black-and-white and 19 color images, this pub­li­ca­tion is a great ad­di­tion to any en­thu­si­ast’s book col­lec­tion.—

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