SR-71 Top Speed

“We could have gone faster.” SR-71 Blackbird crew members recall the Inlet Unstart that prevented them to go Faster than Mach 3.2 during the Absolute Speed Record run

‘Al and I had the ACTUAL speed record. 2200 indicated in our equipment aboard 958! Theirs…. 2193….NAH!,’ Lt. Col. George Morgan, SR-71 Blackbird RSO.

In 1976, it was a different time. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was in full swing and Americans were standing in line to buy gas.

That year was also the country’s bicentennial birthday. To celebrate, officials decided to attempt to break some records with an aircraft known as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” was 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 Jan. 1966.

As told by Angela Woolen in the article SR-71 pilots, crew relive absolute speed record, on Jul. 28, 1976, retired Maj. Gen. Eldon (Al) Joersz, the pilot, and retired Lt. Col. George Morgan, the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), set the world absolute speed record for jet-powered airplanes with a speed of 2,193 mph.

The record still stands today.

Today, SR-71 #958, the Blackbird that made the speed record run is on display at the Museum of Aviation near Warner Robins, GA.

Retired Maj. Gen. Eldon Joersz, a former pilot, and retired Lt. Col. George Morgan, a former reconnaissance systems officer, sit inside the cockpit of the SR-71 Blackbird they flew when setting the world absolute speed record for jet-powered aircraft on Jul. 28, 1976. The two were at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia, for the 40th anniversary of the historic flight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tommie Horton)

Noteworthy, during the record-breaking event, Joersz and Morgan experienced an inlet unstart that however didn’t prevent the iconic Blackbird to set the absolute speed record.

SR-71 pilot David Peters explains;

‘If Joersz and Morgan had just a normal unstart without a burner blow out if probably didn’t slow them down much but they certainly would have had the record higher without it.’

If it weren’t for the inlet unstart that temporarily jammed up an engine, they could have gone faster than 2,193 mph. In fact they could have stayed under Mach3.3.

This note is from George Morgan: ‘Al and I had the ACTUAL speed record. 2200 indicated in our equipment aboard 958!

‘Theirs…. 2193….NAH!’

Peters explains;

“Just to clear up a couple of points. First an unstart does not usually cause the engine to shut down. In this case it was just an unstart of the inlet which can be recovered rather quickly. Second unstarts were much more likely in the 2.6 to 2.9 range especially in the climb. High Mach unstarts were much more rare.”

It is true that any SR-71 with any crew could’ve made that record breaking run. But the commander would’ve picked his most reliable crew that he had. And he picked Al Joersz and George Morgan to make the flight. In the early days of the SR-71 they really didn’t want to call any attention to the Blackbird. In the spirit of the bicentennial 200-year anniversary of the United States, President Ford asked if an SR could make the speed run. SR-71 commanders never said no to a President.

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

The plane flew through the first of its two passes at a much, much higher speed than what was required to set the record. Just before start of the second pass, one of the engines shut down. Before the engine could be restarted, the plane was well beyond the start line. The engine did recover from the unstart.

Capt. Al Joersz, the record-setting pilot, said, “By the time we’d gone through the checklist, we’d already passed the second gate thus officially starting the run. Still, we exited the gate at Mach 3.2.”

Peters concludes:

“If they hadn’t had the unstart when they were going through the gate, the record speed would’ve been higher. Their goal was to make 2200 mph.”

However, once the engine was restarted after the inlet unstart, Joersz and Morgan could’ve pushed the Blackbird to the limit and gone Mach 3.3, but in 1976 they really didn’t want anyone to know how fast the SR-71 could go. It was still classified. For this reason, the US Air Force (USAF) chose to set the speed record “very carefully” avoiding to disclose how fast the SR-71 could really go.

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
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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  • Loved watching the SR71 fly at Edwards AFB during testing and watching film footage on a daily basis from it's previous days tests. Buck Rogers came to life through this aircraft.

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