SR-71 Blackbird

Did you know the SR-71 engine was originally developed to power US Navy XF8U-3 Super Crusader? World renowned expert on the Blackbird unveils some unique facts about J58 turboramjet

‘It was thought if the Chance Vought XF8U-3 Super Crusader where to have gone into production it would have been powered by a J58,’ Jim Goodall, former Master Sergeant at US Air Force.

The Pratt & Whitney J58 Turbojet engine, two of which powered the highly-sophisticated Lockheed SR-71 high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft as well as its forerunners, the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A prototype interceptor, was designed to operate at speeds of Mach 3+ and at altitudes of more than 80,000 feet. The J58 was the first engine designed to operate for extended periods using its afterburner, and it was the first engine to be flight-qualified at Mach 3 for the US Air Force (USAF).

What is often forgotten is that the J58 was developed in the late 1950s by Pratt & Whitney to meet a US Navy requirement.

‘The then unclassified Pratt & Whitney model J58-2 and J58-4 were both designed as a generic engine for a proposed US Navy Mach 2.7 Fleet Defense Interceptor. It was thought if the Chance Vought XF8U-3 Super Crusader where to have gone into production it would have been powered by a J58,’ says Jim Goodall, former Master Sergeant at US Air Force and author of the book Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated History of America’s Legendary Mach 3 Spy Plane.

The first of two U.S. Navy Vought F8U-3 Crusader III (BuNo 147085) taxiing. This aircraft was transferred to the NASA as “225” in June 1959.

‘When Kelly Johnson went looking for a motor for Project Oxcart he felt that this Navy motor had all of the key components needed as a base line engine for the Blackbird. A lot of testing went into making it work. As for the inlet, that is the key to Mach 3.2 flight. At speed and altitude, the engine only supplies 18% of the thrust, the Lockheed designed inlet and exhaust ejector provided the balance of the 83% of the thrust needed to reach Mach 3.24 and above.*

‘The only Mach 3 certified engine ever to put onto an operational aircraft is the J58 Model K. It is one amazing engine. At speed and altitude, the -70-degree air enters the inlet lip. The Blackbird is travelling through the air at about 3400 feet per second, or three miles every two seconds.’

Goodall continues;

SR-71A with J58 Jet Engine.

‘In the 20 feet from the lip of the inlet to the face of the J58, the air has risen to about 830 degrees, or a 900 degree rise in air temperature in the distance of 20 feet. Once it enters the engine, by the time it hits the fourth stage, the temperature is about 1200 degrees. Once it is in the afterburner that internal temperature is now about 3200 degrees.

‘With the extreme operating temps, the J58 grows about six inches in length and about 2.5 inches in diameter. The skin on the afterburner is a mere 0.030” and is made of a very special watch spring material supplied by the Elgin Watch Company, it is called Elginoy (not too sure of the spelling). Up to that point in time, Elginoy was only available in sheets that measure 3×3 inches. So, they have to develop the skills necessary to make larger sheets and then P&W had to figure out how to weld a metal that can withstand temp of 3200 degrees and higher.’

Goodall concludes;

‘Even with ear protection, the mighty Pratt & Whitney J58 is so loud that it hurts your entire body if you were to be anywhere near the rear end of the J58,’ says Goodall.

‘Even with ear protection, the mighty Pratt & Whitney J58 is so loud that it hurts your entire body if you were to be anywhere near the rear end of the J58.’

* ‘The J58 only supplies 18% of the thrust with the inlet and the exhaust ejector providing the rest. How can that be? ‘

At design speed a majority of the inlet air bypasses the engines entirely with that air being directed into the after burner. Same with the six bypass tubes coming off the ninth stage of the J58. In essence, the inlet and engine nacelle act as a ramjet, and using the same principles as a ramjet.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. SR-71A Blackbird 61-7972 “Skunkworks”

‘Back in the late 1970s, NASA took the design of the Blackbirds entire inlet to see, as an exercise if two CDC Mk 205 super computers could design a more efficient inlet; and still utilizing the same engine nacelle external mold lines and exhaust ejector.

‘The main reason for this exercise, the Blackbird’s inlet was designed by a guy that I was told, might have had no more than a 9th grade education, but could visualize airflow at any Reynolds number. And all they had for computers were slip sticks, also known as slide rules (pre-computers, pre-calculators, except mechanical ones; designed when we only had three TV channels!) ‘

After fifteen months of using two of the most powerful super computers of the age (your iPhone 10 has more computing power that all the computers in the free world in the late 1970s), their only recommendation if they were to design one from scratch, use better materials in some of the seals……. That was it.’

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy, Clemens Vasters from Viersen, Germany and Steve Riggins via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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