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10 Cool Things You May Not Know About The Museum’s Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

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1.  Continuous, Supersonic Afterburner. Ever wonder what causes the diamond pattern in the SR-71 jet engine exhaust?  It’s due to the extra thrust provided by the afterburner which is actually supersonic, creating successive shock waves that show up as the diamond pattern.  The SR-71 engines fly continuously in afterburner, except when refueling.


2. It Can Stand the Heat. Flying more than three times the speed of sound generates 316° C (600° F) temperatures on external aircraft surfaces, which are enough to melt conventional aluminum airframes. That’s why the SR-71’s external skin is made of titanium alloy, to shield the internal aluminum airframe.  But the tires, which retracted into the wings during flight, also had to keep from melting!  Aluminum was mixed in with latex when the tires were created and they are filled with nitrogen.  The tire pressure on the SR-71 was 415 psi (compared to the 32-35 psi in your automobile tires!).

3. Pilots Must Suit Up.  SR-71 pilots have more in common with astronauts that you might think.  They flew so high (80,000-85,000 ft), pilots had to wear special pressure suits that were actually modified spacesuits.

4. The Secret’s in the Inlets: The speed and agility of the SR-71 is largely due to the unique design of the engine inlets.  To handle the dramatic changes in air speed and pressure, air literally had to be slowed down to subsonic speeds before entering the jet engines.

5. It’s Fast.  Really fast. How fast is a typical 747 aircraft moving when it lifts off the runway?  155 knots (185 miles per hour)   How fast is the average  SR-71 traveling when it lifts off the runway? 210 knots (242 miles per hour)  The SR-71 cruised at over Mach 3.  It could operate safely at a maximum speed of Mach 3.3 at an altitude more than 16 miles, or 25,908 m (85,000 ft), above the Earth.  Other aircraft can approach this speed, but only for short duration.  The only other aircraft to fly supersonic for hours at a time was the Concorde, and that couldn’t fly Mach 3.3.  The Museum’s SR-71 holds the world speed record for manned air-breathing jet aircraft.

6. Best of the Fleet.  The Museum’s SR-71 holds six world records.  The most dramatic was its final flight to the Museum when it set a speed record on March 6, 1990. Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging 3,418 kilometers (2,124 miles) per hour.  After landing at Washington-Dulles International Airport, the airplane was turned over to the Smithsonian.

7. Flown by Museum Staff.  That’s right.  The Museum’s SR-71 was flown by Tom Alison, a former National Air and Space Museum’s Chief of Collections Management. Flying with Detachment 1 at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, Alison logged more than a dozen ‘972 operational sorties. Museum Docent Buz Carpenter was also an SR-71 pilot and instructor, though he did not fly the Museum’s aircraft.   Here Buz talks about his longest SR-71 flight on a recently declassified mission.

8. It’s A Movie Star. Yes, but no autographs, sorry.  Our SR-71 was featured in the major motion picture “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen,” as Jetfire.  The cast and crew filmed on-site at the Udvar-Hazy Center for 8 days.  No, the Decepticon emblem is not actually attached to the nose gear door of the aircraft.  We don’t think… but it can be seen in the display case located in the nearby Cold War exhibit station.

Landing gear door cover bearing Decepticon emblem from “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.” In the movie, the Museum’s SR-71 plays “Jetfire,” a former Decepticon turned good Transformer. One of several items from the movie on display in a case exhibit at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

9. Years of Darkness.  In addition to flying secret missions in its previous life, the SR-71 was stored in a custom hangar built solely for its protection in a secured area of the Dulles Airport property after it was turned over to Smithsonian.  It remained there for over 10 years until the Museum had a display facility where it could be viewed by the public – the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

SR-71 outside former storage hangar at Dulles International Airport. Photo #SI92-14090 by Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum.

10. The story behind the”Skunk:” The first Lockheed aircraft factory was built adjacent to an industrial plastics plant. When the wind blew just right, a horrible odor enveloped the Lockheed factory.  The story goes that one day a Lockheed engineer, Irving “Irv” Culver, was so distressed by the odor, he began to answer his phone with the phrase, “Skonk Works, inside man Culver here…,” in reference to the then popular comic strip “Li’l Abner” in which a fictitious factory brewed a smelly concoction of ground up skunks and old shoes known to readers as “Skonk Oil”. Over time the phrase caught on and the name was eventually changed to “Skunk Works” at the request of the comic strip copyright holder. The little skunk on the tail of the SR-71 is the official logo of the Lockheed secret projects factory.

Skunk Works logo on Museum’s SR-71. Photo #2005-6014 by Dane Penland, , National Air and Space Museum.

Learn more about the Museum’s Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Vicki Portway is Chair of Web & New Media and Dik Daso is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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55 thoughts on “10 Cool Things You May Not Know About The Museum’s Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

  1. Awesome …If the public knows about this aircraft…The ones we don’t know about must truely be amazing…

  2. Very cool article. I look forward to gaping in awe at this beautiful plane when I revisit the museum someday.


  3. Most interesting and informative. I have always admired the plane, co. and all involved and the thrill of it all.

    thank you regards,Tom.

  4. Actually, there probably aren’t any more planes like this one. Satellites have made super-powered spy planes obsolete. These planes were amazing, but also unbelievably expensive to build, maintain, and fly. Satellite reconnaissance is much cheaper, doesn’t require pilots, and is therefore safer for personnel. The Blackbird had its day, but we’ll probably never see its like in manned aircraft again.

  5. Very interesting blog posting. I particularly enjoyed the embedded videos. Until reading this I never knew that Aluminum was mixed in with Latex when making the SR-71’s tires. Does anyone know anything about the Lockheed A-12? I have seen the A-12 on display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama several times and it is often refereed to (incorrectly I believe) as an SR-71. The A-12 and SR-71 look very similar.

  6. Thanks Michael. Yes, the A-12 was the earliest version of what would become the SR-71 Blackbird, and they are very similar. Dik Daso discusses the A-12 quite a bit in his curatorial essay on the history behind the development of the SR-71 (see Long Description):
    Two other variants for which only one example still exists today are the M-21, on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA, and the YF-12, on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, OH.

  7. I am a private pilot. The SR-71 has been my all-time favorite aircraft for the past 18 years. I have seen a prototype on the deck of the Intrepid at NYC, and was at the grand opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles, and got to see their SR-71 up close and personal. Brian Shul flew the Blackbird and I have two books written by him that anyone really interested in this aircraft should read.

  8. I am fortunate to live right outside the former Castle AFB, which still maintains our aviation museum. We have an SR-71 here.

  9. …. very cool, our military has all the neatest toys to play with…. for all of our sakes…. and these are our old museum types now…. bet we have more awesome toys now, next generation stuff !! :)

  10. I wonder what will replace such a beautiful bird. I saw it once while flying as a commercial pilot over the UK as it was going into land at one of the US Airforce Bases, it was a deam come true

  11. The design of this plane — 50 years ago is incredible. To have came so far, just 15 years after the end of WW II and some of the first jets. There were no CAD systems no desktop computers only main frame computers, slide rules pencils and paper to design this. In today’s world, I think a plane like this would take 3x longer to design and get to production.

    You mention that 155 knots is equal to 185 MPH, it think it is closer to 177 MPH

  12. I was driving from LA to Palmdale CA in the evening and encountered this huge piece of fuselage going North on Hwy 14 on many wheels very slowly. Since it was only half of the plane, we were allowed to pass. Apparently en route for final assembly in Palmdale about 1961+/-.

  13. It is virtually certain that the SR-71 was capable of speeds in excess of the mach 3.3 figure quoted in the article above. I worked on the McDonnel/Douglas F-4 Phantom (various models)and the top speed for this aircraft was always given as mach 2.4. It was in fact much faster than that. It was said that the reconnaissance version (RF4) was capable of mach 3+. Bearing that in mind, and based on accounts given me by Air Force ATC’s I knew in Okinawa who tracked them on radar, a speed for the SR-71 of well over mach 4 seems reasonable. I discount one figure given by a pilot who claimed a mach 5 flight in an SR-71. I believe this was just a combination of jealousy, testosterone, and bravado. BUT – the Aurora, which DOES exist, with pulsejet powerplant, is probably capable of sustained flight of AT LEAST this mach 5 figure, and perhaps in significant excess of it.

  14. Awesome! The capabilities of these aircrafts are awesome. I’m looking for the next generation of fighter jets. I’m thinking of the probable capabilities of the new jets in the air force right now.

  15. > Awesome …If the public knows about this aircraft…The ones we don’t know about must truely be amazing…

    Oh, if only that were true.

    > Actually, there probably aren’t any more planes like this one. Satellites have made super-powered spy planes obsolete.

    Oh, if only that were true.

    > These planes were amazing, but also unbelievably expensive to build, maintain, and fly. Satellite reconnaissance is much cheaper, doesn’t require pilots, and is therefore safer for personnel.

    If only it worked as well, and as fast, and as controllably, and… oh, just go ask a 2-star whether he’d rather have satellites or a couple of Habu.

  16. Watching the SR-71 fly missions from Kadena AB, Okinawa was a highlight of my assignment there in the late 1960s.

  17. Some things written here are actually applicable to other planes.

    The supersonic air needs to ALWAYS be slowed down to subsonic speed before being allowed into the inlet. Hence the cones in the intakes. Much like MiG-21. The cones actually move back/forth according to speed.

    At high speeds the engines become RAMJET. Main combustion chamber is actually shut down and turbine is not even working. Only afterburner chamber is engaged.

  18. another interesting fact about the BLACKBIRD, ALL the titanium that the program used was bought by kelly johnson from the russians. they had the majority of the worlds titanium at the time the 71 was being built.

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  20. Awesome piece!

    Although the Concorde was slower than the SR-71, no other a/c could fly as fast for as long – but that was because it was larger, had greater fuel capacity.

    Interesting reading about the SR-71’s engine intakes, although the design was unique to the Blackbird, the concept is commonplace on jet fighters, and has only two commercial applications – on the Concorde and Tu-144.

  21. I was a boom operator stationed at Edwards where we supported the NASA Dryden SR-71 fleet.

    One of our missions was air refueling the SR-71 modified with the LASRE (Linear Aerospike Rocket Engine).

    Impressive to see all that stuff on its back.

  22. In 1978-79, I was stationed at Camp Makiminato, north of Naha, on Okinawa. We would often see the “habu,” as it was known. It flew out of Kadena, AFB miles north of us. And looked like Black Death flying so low overhead.
    The indigenous habu snake is poisonous. YATYAS

  23. I have always loved the Blackbird, but until I actually saw one in the flesh right in front of me, all I can say is WOW!! They are much bigger than I could have ever imagined. And much more beautiful. I love every thing about them.Just stunning. Cheers, Michelle McClure, from Windsor in Australia.

  24. Great post on a beautiful aircraft. It has long been a favorite of mine and when I got to finally it up close it was magical.

  25. This is a beautiful plane! It was so cool to see it way back at Expo 76 at Andrews AFB. I was mesmerized by it’s beauty and uniqueness and knew is was something very special. Without a camera being allowed in the hanger, I could only try to explain to my friends what I had seen. At 11 years old this was the coolest thing ever… and pretty much remained that way.

  26. After watching several videos, and reading many comments about this beautiful bird; no one has mentioned how they start her up!!!!

    I was a C-130 Crew Chief for over three years in the USAF and new many people working on the SR-71. I was in Mildenhall, England – Sept – Nov 1974 when a 71 made history by taking off, going vertical, as she always does; but headed west to LA. Before she took off though, the KC-135’s out of Peas, NH were already in the air to refuel her half way across the Atlantic. She had to slow down for the tankers to catch up and fill her up. That was one of four refueling “stops” before landing @ Vandland, over three hours faster than the rotation of the earth, beating the sun rise in CA. I think the total flight time was somewhere around three hours. Would have been less if it wasn’t for the pit stops!

    Additionally, I took (takes) two-455 cid Buick Wildcat engines in line to start each engine! Knew several people that had similar engines (only one) in there Buicks…..

    Furthermore, there have been several SR-71’s ceramic heat panels on the bellies, burnt and missing from reentry from a lot further than 100,000′, not the reported “85,000′. Hell, the U-2’s go over 120,000′.
    There was also tower recordings from Elmendorf from a Black Bird with a Mig in the early 70’s… Mig: Where are you? 71: Looking down on you! Mig: Impossible, I am at 90,000′ and you can only go 85,000′! 71: Don’t believe everything you read!!!

    God Bless all those that had any and everything to do with the making and the flying of the most beautiful aircraft this nation had ever made, that lasted as long as it has………… USAF VET JBird!

  27. This particular Blackbird – 972 – was used in an awesome air demonstration at Travis AFB in 1988. Of course at that time the plane was still operated by the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale AFB. Beale is about 50 northeast of Travis. Those were the “good ole days” of military open houses and air shows.

  28. If you want to read a great book about the organization that made this great plane possible, check out “Skunk Works” by Ben Rich.

  29. I saw the Habu while stationed on Okinawa. Watching the Aircraft do touch and go’s at Kadena, they did resemble the snake. Incredible machine

  30. So proud to be the granddaughter of one of Kelly Johnson’s Skunkworks’ engineers for the SR-71. I get to drive by #61-7960 almost ever day! What an awesome plane! : )

  31. Had the pleasure of seeing an SR-71 on radar while I was serving in Northern Quebec. 3 blips (covering 220 miles) at 75,000 and it was gone!!

  32. This was one of my favorites! Question: How many SR-71’s exist in the world today? Are they operable?

  33. The SR-71 Air and Space was piloted by NASA astronaut Col. Jim Halsell, and even lists his name on the aircraft, too.

  34. The SR-71 (and the A12) is my favorite plane(s) of all time. Gotta love a Mach 3 plane, made from titanium, designed with slide rules! I knew about 7 of the 10 facts, so not too bad. Don’t forget that all of the Blackbirds had to have drip pans under them, because of the kerosene dripping out of them. Such an amazing plane, and didn’t even need any weapons on it!

  35. Kelly Johnson’s team at Lockheed was an incredible gathering of talent and determination. The degree of invention and radical innovation is nothing short of spectacular. To me, it has been and always will be the most stunning aircraft in the world. Performance not withstanding, it is a thing of elegance and beauty to see. How many of today’s technologies will we marvel at in 50 years and still consider timeless and ground-breaking?

  36. Following on from J Willems earlier post I lived in the Mildenhall Area from 1988 and often visited the base for work. I was informed by some contractors who worked on base that Blackbird leaked like a sieve and that it would take off with minimal fuel and run up over the Norfolk coast and meet up with the tanker boys over the North Sea. Another point that was raised was that Blackbird reported directly back to the States so there was radio silence from the Tower whilst it was taking off.
    Final thing was that my son who was at school near the base at age 7 often used to come home and say that some of the USA kids in his class would know on the day Blackbird was taking off and at what time.
    Probably a bit of kids romance but it did seem to happen quite often.

  37. Including one “B” and one “C” model trainer, there are a total of 20 SR-71’s left. All are in museums. A few of
    them could have been made flyable again if they hadn’t destroyed all the spare parts and machinery.

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