SR-71 Top Speed

The Fastest known Speed ever Recorded by a Lockheed Blackbird

When talking about the Lockheed Blackbird family probably the most frequently asked Blackbird question is-how how fast does it really fly?

The iconic SR-71 Blackbird spy plane is known for being the official record holder for the fastest jet-powered, piloted aircraft of all time.

The SR-71 was based on another Mach 3, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, the A-12 Oxcart.

Another Blackbird, the YF-12 high-altitude, Mach 3 interceptor was developed from the A-12 to defend against supersonic bombers. The YF-12 was never adopted by the military as an operational aircraft. The YF-12 too was, however, a precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane.

When talking about the Lockheed Blackbird family probably the most frequently asked Blackbird question is-how how fast does it really fly?

“I’ve answered this question before, but here goes,” says Jim Goodall, former Master Sergeant at U.S. Air Force and author of the book Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated History of America’s Legendary Mach 3 Spy Plane. “The fastest an SR-71A has ever gone is Mach 3.43 in 974 [Blackbird #61-17974, better known as “Ichi-Ban”], at the time, a Site II bird. It blew out both inlets as it had a dual unstart.”

Goodall continues. “Ben Rich told me that the inlets were designed to fly at its “Sweet Spot” of Mach 3.24. All manned Blackbirds from the A-12 through to the last SR-71 built were and designed to all fly at the same top speed.

“But during early flight testing at Area 51 with the A-12s, Jim Eastham told me that A-12 #128 flew as fast as any A-12 during testing. On the particular day that the A-12 red lined everything.

“During a routine top speed envelope expansion flight, A-12 #128 was having a hard time getting past Mach 2.7 as the outside air was too warm. The reason for the flight test card that day was to validate a new inlet bypass door schedule.

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“Jim said he dropped the nose down a bit to see if he could at least reach Mach 3.0. Out of nowhere, Jim hit good air and in the dive with good air he red lined everything. He went into his descent profile and headed back to the test site.”

Goodall concludes:

“When all was said and done; and for a very brief 15 seconds, Jim hit Mach 3.56, or just under 2,400 mph. Mind you, this was a one-time event and was never duplicated.”

Our contributor Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer), who runs Habubrats Facebook page, adds more details.

“The A-12, also known as Oxcart, altitude and speed are unofficial because the A-12 remained top-secret until 1982. Ken Collins, A-12 pilot and SR -71 pilot [who also flew with Col. Sheffield] has revealed an altitude of 94,000 feet!

“The maximum design cruise speed was Mach 3.2. The speed was limited by structural temperature restrictions.

“The SR-71 flew faster than the rotation of the earth.”

She also lists the fastest known flights:

  • YF-12A (60-6936) – Mach 3.14 (2,070 mph), USAF, official, 1 May 1965
  • SR-71B (61-7956) – Mach 3.27 (2,158 mph), NASA, unofficial, 14 December 1995 and 4 March 1997
  • A-12 (60-6928) – Mach 3.29 (2,171 mph), CIA, unofficial, 8 May 1965
  • SR-71A (61-7972) – Mach 3.32 (2,193 mph), USAF, official, 27 July 1976.”

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

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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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