Blackbird: A History of the Untouchable Spy Plane
(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.—