The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird" is a legendary jet, introduced in the 1960s and retired in the 1990s.
“No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71 Blackbird,” noted in one report last year, also referring to the plane as the fastest plane propelled by air-breathing engines.
The report also looked at the question of exactly how fast the SR-71 Blackbird could go. The plane was designed to go at “Mach 3+” — more than three times the speed of sound — but it could go even faster than that.
Jim Goodall, a former Air Force Master Sergeant and author of a book-length history of the jet called Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated History of America’s Legendary Mach 3 Spy Plane, told Aviation Geek Club the story.
“The fastest an SR-71A has ever gone is Mach 3.43 in 974, at the time, a Site II bird. It blew out both inlets as it had a dual unstart,” Goodall said.
“Ben Rich told me that the inlets were designed to fly at its ‘Sweet Spot’ of Mach 3.24. All manned Blackbirds from the A-12 through to the last SR-71 built were and designed to all fly at the same top speed… but during early flight testing at Area 51 with the A-12s, Jim Eastham told me that A-12 #128 flew as fast as any A-12 during testing. On the particular day that the A-12 red lined everything.”
“Jim said he dropped the nose down a bit to see if he could at least reach Mach 3.0. Out of nowhere, Jim hit good air and in the dive with good air he red lined everything. He went into his descent profile and headed back to the test site.”
Therefore, if only for 15 seconds, that plane reached Mach 3.56, or just under 2,400 mph. It’s not clear on what date that happened.
Ben Rich was a top engineer with Lockheed, known as the “father of stealth.” Jim Eastham was an important test pilot.
The SR-71 broke other records, as well, including the time it flew from the West Coast to the East Coast in just 68:17 minutes.
We wrote last week about Bill Weaver, the test pilot who was torn from the seat of an SR-71 Blackbird, 78,800 feet above New Mexico, and regained consciousness while falling to Earth. Weaver was able to activate his parachute, and survived, although his colleague died. We also looked recently at Russia’s aborted plans to build an SR-71 equivalent of their own.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.