The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” is a long-range, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft that was developed as a black project from the Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance aircraft in the 1960s by Lockheed and its Skunk Works division. American aerospace engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was responsible for many of the design’s innovative concepts. During aerial reconnaissance missions, the SR-71 operated at high speeds and altitudes to allow it to outrace threats. If a surface-to-air missile launch was detected, the standard evasive action was simply to accelerate and outfly the missile. The SR-71 was designed with a reduced radar cross-section.
The SR-71 served with the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1998. A total of 32 aircraft were built; 12 were lost in accidents and none lost to enemy action. The SR-71 has been given several nicknames, including Blackbird and Habu. It has held the world record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft since 1976; this record was previously held by the related Lockheed YF-12.
The SR-71 was designed for flight at over Mach 3 with a flight crew of two in tandem cockpits, with the pilot in the forward cockpit and the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) operating the surveillance systems and equipment from the rear cockpit, and directing navigation on the mission flight path. The SR-71 was designed to minimize its radar cross-section, an early attempt at stealth design. Finished aircraft were painted a dark blue, almost black, to increase the emission of internal heat and to act as camouflage against the night sky. The dark color led to the aircraft’s nickname “Blackbird”.
While the SR-71 carried radar countermeasures to evade interception efforts, its greatest protection was its combination of high altitude and very high speed, which made it almost invulnerable. Along with its low radar cross-section, these qualities gave a very short amount of time for an enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) site to acquire and track the aircraft on radar. By the time the SAM site could track the SR-71, it was often too late to launch a SAM, and the SR-71 would be out of range before the SAM could catch up to it. If the SAM site could track the SR-71 and fire a SAM in time, the SAM would expend nearly all of the delta-v of its boost and sustainer phases just reaching the SR-71’s altitude: at this point, out of thrust, it would go ballistic. Merely accelerating would typically be enough for an SR-71 to evade a SAM; changes by the pilots in the SR-71’s speed, altitude, and heading were also often enough to spoil any radar lock on the plane by SAM sites or enemy fighters. At sustained speeds of more than Mach 3.2, the plane was faster than the Soviet Union’s fastest interceptor, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25, which however could not reach the SR-71’s altitude. During its service life, no SR-71 was shot down.