The first flight of an SR-71 took place on Dec. 22, 1964, and the first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966.
The Blackbird was in a different category from anything that had come before. “Everything had to be invented. Everything,” Skunk Works legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson recalled in an interesting article appeared on Lockheed Martin website.
The speed of the SR-71 exceeded 2,000 mph. Other planes of the era could, in theory, approximate that speed but only in short, after-burner-driven bursts. The Blackbird maintained a record-setting speed for hours at a time. At such velocity, friction with the atmosphere generates temperatures that would melt the conventional airframe.
With temperatures on the aircraft’s leading edges exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, dealing with the heat raised a host of seemingly insurmountable design and material challenges. Titanium alloy was the only option for the airframe —providing the strength of stainless steel, a relatively light weight, and durability at the excessive temperatures.
Titanium, however, proved to be a particularly sensitive material from which to build an airplane. The brittle alloy shattered if mishandled, which meant great frustration on the Skunk Works assembly line, and new training classes for Lockheed’s machinists. Conventional cadmium-plated steel tools, it was soon learned, embrittled the titanium on contact; so new tools were designed and fabricated—out of titanium.
But most important the US did not have the necessary ore. The world’s largest supplier of it was the Soviet Union, America’s enemy during the Cold War. The US worked through Third World countries and fake companies and finally was able to ship the ore to the US to build the SR-71.
“The airplane is 92% titanium inside and out. Back when they were building the airplane the United States didn’t have the ore supplies – an ore called rutile ore. It’s a very sandy soil and it’s only found in very few parts of the world. The major supplier of the ore was the USSR. Working through Third World countries and bogus operations, they were able to get the rutile ore shipped to the United States to build the SR-71,” famous former SR-71 pilot Colonel Rich Graham said in an interesting article appeared on BBC.
So, also thanks to the accidental help of the Soviet Union, throughout its nearly 24-year career, the Blackbird remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour.
During its operational lifetime, the SR-71 provided intelligence about the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the American air forces raid on Libya in 1986 and the revelation of Iranian Silkworm missile batteries in 1987. The US Air Force retired its fleet of SR-71s on Jan. 26, 1990, because of a decreasing defense budget and high costs of operation.
Photo credit: Judson Brohmer / U.S. Air Force
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