The story of SR-71A #61-7959, the only “Big Tail” Blackbird in existence

Here’s why SR-71A #61-7959 was the only Blackbird to feature a special “Big Tail”

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Apr 16 2023
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The new ‘Big Tail’ assembly would be 13 feet 9 inches long and weigh 1,273 lbs. with 49 cubic feet of space to carry 864 lbs. of payload. The primary payload would consist of aft-facing ECM as well as the 24-inch Optical Bar Camera.

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CLICK HERE to buy unique SR-71 Blackbird merchandise for your HABU collection.

The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” is a long-range, advanced, strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft. 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.

Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 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.

The US Air Force (USAF) retired its fleet of SR-71s on Jan. 26, 1990.

Here’s why SR-71A #61-7959 was the only Blackbird to feature a special “Big Tail”

The interesting pictures in this post feature a one of a kind Blackbird, SR-71A #61-7959, also known as “Big Tail.”

#959 came off the assembly line like any other SR-71 when it was rolled out on Aug. 16, 1965. But it was chosen as the platform for a new set of sensor equipment to be carried in a nine-foot extension from the rear of the aircraft in 1975.

When the SR-71 went operational during the Vietnam War some Missions were canceled due to weather conditions. This led to the experimental testing of the additional camera.

There was also the possible threat that future ground defenses would someday have the ability to reach the SR-71 from behind since it carried no aft facing defensive countermeasures.

Here’s why SR-71A #61-7959 was the only Blackbird to feature a special “Big Tail”

In 1974, the Air Force identified a requirement for an aft facing Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) capability for the SR-71, and several feasibility studies examined by the Air Force included conformal packages underneath the aft fuselage and belly pods, as well as an extended tail fairing. After researching all the possibilities, the extended tail appeared to be the most viable option based on lowest cost, added volume and least amount of aerodynamic drag. The new ‘Big Tail’ assembly would be 13 feet 9 inches long and weigh 1,273 lbs. with 49 cubic feet of space to carry 864 lbs. of payload. The primary payload would consist of aft-facing ECM as well as the 24-inch Optical Bar Camera.

[According to Habu.org] because of the lengthened tail section, the new assembly would also have to be articulated to move 8.5 degrees upward in order to clear the runway during take-off and landing and then downward so it would not interfere with the aircraft’s drag chute deployment on rollout.

Other modifications included a 51-inch adapter unit for the new tail, air conditioning for cameras and other equipment as well as routing the fuel vent along the upper surface of the tail. In addition to the tail modification, chine bays were modified to accommodate the 24-inch Optical Bar Camera.

On Dec. 3, 1975, the “Big Tail” flew for the first time. The tests demonstrated that there was little performance loss, but that the new sensor equipment proved of little advantage. The program was dropped, this aircraft was last flown on Oct. 29, 1976 and SR-71A #61-7959 is the only “Big Tail” in existence.

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

Although Big Tail had proven to be a viable system operationally, the Air Force chose not to pursue the concept any further. After only 36 flights with the extended tail, # 959 made its last flight on Oct. 29, 1976.

SR-71A #61-7959 is currently on display at the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), FL.

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Pages Habubrats SR-71 and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Rodney Miller via Linda Sheffield Miller

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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Linda Sheffield Miller

Linda Sheffield Miller

Grew up at Beale Air Force Base, California. I am a Habubrat. Graduated from North Dakota State University. Former Public School Substitute Teacher, (all subjects all grades). Member of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolutionary War). I am interested in History, especially the history of SR-71. Married, Mother of three wonderful daughters and four extremely handsome grandsons. I live near Washington, DC.
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