Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird Shows Off
Believe it or not, since the dawn of aerospace, there’s been a major record broken for speed nearly every year since Wilbur Wright piloted the first airplane off of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. That record for fastest air flight was 6.82 mph. The last manned aircraft to break a speed record was in 1976. That flight was done by Captain Eldon Joersz and Major George Morgan in the illustrious Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Since that fateful day, no manned aircraft has officially surpassed that record of 2,193.2 mph. That was over three times the speed of sound.
It’s amazing to think that it’s been over forty years since the record for fastest manned flight was broken. What’s changed? Haven’t we continued to improve in technology or the ability to move aircraft at exceedingly fast speeds? The answer is undoubtedly yes. But there has yet to be a concrete challenger to that steadfast SR-71 Blackbird – synonymous with American ingenuity and engineering.
The SR-71 was designed in the subterranean dwelling of Skunk Works – a division of Lockheed Martin specially dedicated to classified aerospace designs. Only 32 SR-71s were built from 1964 until the end of its career in 1998 and of those, 12 were lost due to accidents. Aircraft traveling at three times the speed of sound are a bit more prone to failure than traditional jet aircraft which typically fly in speeds hovering just over Mach 1.
The technology that made the SR-71 so important, however, became relatively useless in a period of twenty years. Battle commanders no longer depended upon the heavy time to process information collected by the SR-71 Blackbird to make battle decisions. They had other assets including satellites, RC-135s, and other aircraft which could work in an area of operation for much longer.
Blackbirds also had a high failure rate relative to the number of aircraft. They were extremely expensive to maintain and had a very narrow window of application – other than breaking all sorts of altitude and speed records. This was an aircraft that existed because it could and it stood as a symbol to the rest of the world that we were willing to push the envelope on engineering to new heights.
The main advent that brought about the total end of the SR-71 Blackbird and many other high altitude aircraft was the introduction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs can be paired with payloads of sensitive camera equipment, optical sensors, and electronic modules which enable them to effectively circle in an area for long periods of time, collecting and transmitting data without ceasing. And because no humans are on board, there’s no limits to the amount of time a UAV can be employed.
It’s elements like this that forced battle commanders to forgo the absolute enthusiasm exhibited over the SR-71 Blackbird in favor of more practical tools to get the same or even better information. The SR-71 Blackbird had an application: high altitude surveillance. We now have tools that do the exact same thing, cheaper, and more efficiently.
We Broke The Speed Record Before – And We’ll Do It Again
Will we ever rise to a new height in terms of records of speed and altitude?
Well, funny enough, we actually broke our own record some twenty years prior to the SR-71’s world renowned flight. Back in 1951, the United States launched an experimental unmanned craft called the X-7. The “X” stands for experimental. It was a test of ramjet capabilities and considered much too dangerous to risk for a human pilot.
This rocket powered aircraft attained a speed of Mach 4.31 – or 2,881 mph. With a service ceiling of 106,000 ft, it surpassed what would become the SR-71’s ceiling of some 81,000 ft. Later on, in 1967, William Knight would hop into the X-15 and break all records for manned flight with a recorded 4,519 mph speed. This wouldn’t be touched again until 1981 when the United States counted Joe Engle’s blistering 17,500 mph re-entry speed on the space shuttle Columbia. All major records since, surpassing the SR-71, have involved either unmanned flight like the HTV-2 Falcon or, like the space shuttle Columbia, re-entry from orbit.
While we’re undoubtedly able to engineer new aircraft capable of breaking the outer bounds, most organizations of the size and capacity to do so are less than enthusiastic about risking human life to break those boundaries. Perhaps a good thing after all.