The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” was a long-range, Mach 3+, 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.
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.
Titanium procurement during the Cold War was so vital to the US’ goal of defeating the Soviet Union that it had to secretly buy the metal from the very country it sought to vanquish. It was 1960 and Washington needed spy planes that could avoid detection in Soviet airspace by flying to the heavens. To make what would become the vaunted SR-71 Blackbird, Lockheed knew it had to build a light plane, but one that was strong enough to hold extra fuel to give it expansive range. The only metal that would do the job was titanium. The only place to get titanium in the needed quantities was the Soviet Union.
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.
According to the following video, one of the bogus operations mentioned by Graham saw the US asking Soviets for titanium because they needed it for pizza ovens.
And Russians easily believed that the US needed titanium for thousands of pizza ovens. After all, they fraudulently possibly told their comrades that the United States was a lazy country that probably couldn’t even cook for itself. They need it to go out to buy pizza…
This was a pivotal moment between two great powers that desperately wanted to defeat the other. Ultimately, through third parties and fake companies, the US, “managed to unobtrusively purchase the base metal from one of the world’s leading exporters – the Soviet Union,” according to the book Skunk Works by Ben Rich, a Lockheed Martin engineer who worked on the SR-71. “The Russians never had an inkling of how they were actually contributing to the creation of the airplane being rushed into construction to spy on their homeland.”
Andriy Brodskyy contributed to this article.
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 CIA
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