Why Was This Plane Invulnerable: The SR-71 Blackbird Story
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Why Was This Plane Invulnerable: The SR-71 Blackbird Story

September 16, 2019


Thanks to SquareSpace for making this
video possible and for helping launch my new Mustard store. More on that after
this video. In the midst of the Cold War, two Mig-25s race to intercept a threat
along the Soviet border. They’re the fastest interceptors ever built, and if
they really push their engines, they can reach an incredible Mach 3.2. But it’s
not enough. Because what they’re chasing can outrun and out-climb any threat. A
plane engineered to be invulnerable. The Cold War locked the United States
and Soviet Union into a tense a struggle for global influence and control. Both
sides poured enormous resources into military technologies. But getting an
upper hand means knowing your opponent’s next move. And in the 1950s, little was
known about facilities deep within the Soviet Union. An extensive network of
radar stations, surface-to-air missile sites, and interceptor air bases kept the
Americans away. Until 1956, when U-2 spy planes began flying over the Soviet
Union. Neither fast nor stealthy, the U-2s had one critical advantage. At 70,000 feet,
they could fly above Soviet air defenses. U.S. President Eisenhower was even
assured, Soviet radars couldn’t detect the U-2 at such high altitudes. But it
turns out, the Americans were wrong. The Soviets had tracked the U-2 since day one, and it was only a matter of time before they’d be able to shoot one down. Simply
flying high wasn’t enough. Even before the U-2 began its surveillance missions,
there were already plans underway to replace it. Because true impunity over
Soviet airspace would need a combination of incredible speed, altitude, and stealth.
And this led the Americans to explore some pretty radical spy plane concepts,
like a ramjet powered aircraft that would be deployed from the bottom of a
supersonic B-58. But in 1959 the CIA chose Lockheed to develop the next
generation of spy plane. Meanwhile, the U-2 continued to fly over
the Soviet Union. But not for very long, because in the spring of 1960, a Soviet
surface-to-air missile finally managed to bring one down. The captured pilot and
wreckage were paraded around the Soviet Union used as proof of Western
aggression. As tensions rose, now more than ever the US needed a replacement
for the U-2. And what Lockheed developed, would be
unlike any aircraft ever built. A plane that nearly 60 years after its first
flight, remains the fastest air-breathing jet to ever fly. Lockheed’s
highly-classified spy plane would be known as the A-12. Originally used by the
CIA for reconnaissance, the A-12 was also developed into an interceptor prototype,
armed with air-to-air missiles, along with a variant that could launch an
unmanned reconnaissance drone. But it was the SR-71 Blackbird, a variant developed
for the Air Force that would go on to serve for decades, while earlier versions
were quickly retired. The Blackbird could cruise at Mach 3.2 right near the edge
of space, and do it for hours on end. To achieve this, Lockheed’s engineers had
to innovate pretty much everything from scratch. To sustain such incredible
speeds the SR-71 and its predecessors were powered by engines often described
as turboramjets. Below Mach 2 they functioned like conventional
after-burning jet engines. But above that, they behaved more like ramjets, as an
inlet cone adjusted to bypass air around the engine and directly into the
afterburner. At mach 3.2 the SR-71’s exterior would heat up to beyond 500
degrees Fahrenheit, easily hot enough to soften aircraft aluminum. Lockheed
engineers used titanium for 92 percent of the aircraft, and in the 1960s this
required inventing entirely new fabrication technologies. It’s unusual
shape did more than just spook UFO enthusiasts, it helped reduce its radar
signature as did its special black paint, which earned the SR-71 its Blackbird
name. The A-12 and SR-71 were first deployed
over North Korea and Vietnam, where they were unsuccessfully targeted by over 800
surface-to-air missiles. But the spy plane never flew into Soviet airspace. At
least not officially, because another shoot-down over the Soviet Union would
be catastrophic. So instead, the SR-71 flew along its
borders, using its powerful side-looking radar and cameras to peer hundreds of
miles into Soviet territory. And that frustrated the Soviets. In 1976, Viktor
Belenko defected to the west, by escaping the Soviet Union in his Mig-25. He
described the frustration of trying to intercept Blackbirds. The MiG’s were
Mach 3 capable, but only for a few minutes at a time. Not for hours like the
Blackbird. Nor could they climb to reach the SR-71’s incredible altitude. Even
their enormous R40 missiles lacked the guidance needed to strike the SR-71
head-on. For years, the Blackbirds were practically invulnerable. They could out
fly and out-climb any threat. But by the 1980s, Mig-31s were roaming the
skies, equipped with sophisticated radar and long-range R33 missiles. They posed
a legitimate threat, as did a new generation of Soviet surface-to-air
missiles. But the greatest threat to the Blackbird wasn’t an enemy missile or jet.
It was itself. No Blackbird was ever lost on a mission, but more than a third of
the 50 built were destroyed in accidents. One literally disintegrated around its
pilots. They were also enormously expensive to operate. Each one siphoning
about 300 million dollars a year out of America’s defense budget. A fleet of
special aerial refuelers and a small army of support and maintenance staff were
needed just to keep these planes mission ready. And advances in spy satellites
aerial drones and the SR-71 s inability to deliver surveillance data in real
time, diminished some of the plane’s utility. Add to that, politics and
infighting for defense budgets and by the late 1980s, the SR-71’s days were numbered. They were officially retired in 1998,
with two sent to NASA for testing. The technology behind the A-12 and SR-71 is
now well over fifty years old. Yet somehow these incredible planes
still speak to us. Not about the past, but the future. Leaving us with a sense of
wonder unlike any other in aviation history. A few months ago, I launched my
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