Reaching for the Heavens: The Legendary Blackbird

Introduction

Everyone is familiar with the concept of cause and effect.  For every action, there is a reaction of the same or lesser magnitude.  Sometimes the resulting reaction is just the first in a chain of events that leads up to something else.  A chain reaction, that's what one might call the programs that led us to today's reconnaissance gathering mission in the U.S. military.  The gathering and collection of intelligence and information has always been a key element in the grand art known as war.  Even the great military philosopher Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of intelligence gathering and various forms of espionage.

But our tale today takes place far more recently than the fifth century BCE.  Instead it takes place in 1951, when the U.S. military defined it's need and requirements for a way to collect intelligence on Soviet assets well inside Soviet territory.  The Cold War, by this time, was well underway and the race to the next new piece of technology was on.  Double agents, spies, and espionage were old hat, but that didn't make these techniques or professions any less valuable.  However, there surely had to be an effective and more direct approach to the problem of gathering information.  From the skies, seemed to be a practical means to acquire this information.  After all, two World War's had provided a wealth of insight into the effectiveness of this method - regardless of how successful.

As time wore on, technology changed as does everything else.  Planes were able to get heavier, fly faster, and punch higher into the skies.  1951 was, for all intents and purposes, the birth of the Spy Plane Renaissance.

The B-47 Stratojet

Crew: 3
Dimensions: 107'1" L, 116'0" W, 28'0" H
Weight: 80,000 lbs Empty, ~133,000 Average, 230,000 Maximum
Speed: ~600 MPH Maximum, ~560 MPH Cruise
Range: ~2,000 miles
Ceiling: ~41,000 feet
Variants: 28
Number Built: 2,000+
First Flight: 17 December 1947
Service History: Introduced, 1951; Retired, 1969-1977

The Stratojet Era

While it is true that the first aircraft to adopt the role of reconnaissance gathering in addition to it's role as a high-altitude bomber was the RB-36 in 1948, the first widely produced, purpose-built reconnaissance aircraft was the RB-47 in 1951.  In fact, the RB-36 and RB-47's served with each other through 1956, when the RB-36 was permanently retired.  About 100 or so RB-36's were produced, and most of those were converted from existing B-36 airframes.  The RB-47 remained in service well into the 1960s, with partial activation documented through at least the 1970s.

The first flyover by a Stratojet of the Soviet Union was in 1952 however, this was a converted B-47B that was equipped with a camera cluster in it's bomb bay.  Because of the nature of their mission set, the RB-47 variant was the most likely to see combat-relative conditions.  The service history of these aircraft included three that were shot down, and two others that managed to evade Soviet anti-air defenses.  Unlike their successors, RB-47's were in fact bombers that were equipped with armaments.  Gun turrets were present on these aircraft, meaning that their missions did include some form of insurance in the event that they were intercepted.    However, the majority of techniques used by RB-47 crews to evade the Soviet responses was by way of maneuver and speed.  This was the case in numerous interception with Soviet MiG-15's and 17's.

The role of purpose-built aircraft that were based on existing air frames was passed to the KC-135 family of aircraft in 1965.  Most of those aircraft were then relegated for the sweeping of international airspace, weather, battlefield reconnaissance, and anti-submarine warfare.  By 1953, however, the game of spy aircraft was already in the process of being transformed into something much more fluid and special.

The U-2 Dragon Lady

Crew: 1
Dimensions: 63'0" L, 105'0" W, 16'0" H
Weight: 16,000 lbs Empty, 40,000 Maximum
Speed: ~410 MPH Average (Stall/Cruise Match)
Range: 6,000+ miles
Ceiling: 80,000+ feet
Variants: 18
Number Built: ~100
First Flight: 1 August 1955
Service History: Introduced, 1957, Service Continues

The Birth of the Spy Plane

By 1953, defense contractor Lockheed had understood the growing need for a dedicated system to collect information on national and international interests.  Kelly Johnson was the one to design the aircraft (he also worked on the P-38, SR-71, the C-130, and the F-117).  In 1954, the Department of Defense approved the design and plan.  By 1955, the first U-2A was ready for flight.

The need for such an aircraft was defined by Soviet missile defenses and interception capabilities of the MiG-17 - the most advanced Soviet fighter at that time.  This Air Force defined the limitation of the MiG-17's ceiling at 45,000 feet and specified that an aircraft flying over about 60,000 feet would be virtually untouchable by the interceptor.  In actuality, the MiG-17 was capable of achieving altitudes near 50,000 feet.  Likewise, limited radar capabilities meant that if an aircraft exceeded 65,000 feet - it may be undetectable.  Johnson and the rest of his team at Lockheed, however, were two steps ahead of the requirements.

Johnson's design, called CL-282, was a modification on the then-testbed XF-104 Starfighter.  While the concept was met with resistance by GEN Curtis LeMay, other members within the Department of Defense were much more optimistic.  The project was then forwarded to the CIA, where it was almost immediately accepted.  However, by the time a buyer had been lined up, Lockheed had since moved on with work on the XF-104 and other projects.  The CIA eventually persuaded Lockheed into producing the aircraft (after the USAF changed their minds on the usefulness of the aircraft as well), which bore fruit in 1955 with the first test flight of the U-2A.  Johnson, in anticipation of eventual need for a replacement, had already begun design on a more advanced reconnaissance  aircraft by this time.  The CL-400, known to many as the Suntan, would have been capable of flying just as far, with over six times the speed, and fifty percent higher than the U-2.  However, the overall success of the U-2 program among other budget constraints cancelled the program in 1958.  The technological advancements in the CL-400, however, were not lost nor forgotten - especially on the eve of 2 May 1960.

On 1 May 1960, a CIA U-2 piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet airspace by Soviet surface-to-air missile.  While Powers was generally unharmed, this was a revelation for both the CIA and the USAF.  The solution to this concern had already been placed on the table, however, a year earlier in 1959 with Project GUSTO.  By the time Powers had been shot down over Soviet airspace, another much more vicious beast was already in the queue within the USAF.  The Archangel's of Oxcart had already selected the prototype that was to be built.

The Archangels

The A-12 designation comes from the internal program name, and the number of designs that were within that program.  Separate from the CL-400, there were twelve Archangels in total, with the twelfth being the one that went to production.

The A-12 Oxcart

Crew: 1
Dimensions: Exact figures unknown, dimensions available are based on Blackbird.
Weight: 117,000 lbs Maximum (52,000 lbs RTBMAX)
Speed: ~2,570 MPH Maximum, ~2,375 MPH Cruise
Range: 2,900+ miles
Ceiling: 85,000+ feet
Variants: 3
Number Built: 15
First Flight: 26 April 1962
Service History: Data varies

Stealth & Speed Take Over

The CIA, as early as 1955, had been trying to reduce radar cross-section of aircraft.  The concept that we now call stealth was rooted in Project Rainbow - the CIA directed project to reduce this cross-section.  Johnson was of the opinion that one to possibly two generations of aircraft would be needed before satellites could replace aircraft in the reconnaissance role.  Lockheed responded to the requirements of both Project Rainbow and Project GUSTO with the Archangel designs.  It was Archangel-12 that caught the attention of both the CIA and eventually the Air Force.  In 1960, twelve of these aircraft were ordered.  Due to the nature of Archangel 12's design, technology had to be invented for it to function properly, while other components were selected to simply fill roles intermittently.  This would not be the last time something like this would happen, as it also occurred in the A-X Program that produced the A-10, and the ATF Program, which produced the F-22.  New aircraft materiel proved to be the most challenging obstacle to overcome for the manufacturing of the aircraft.

The A-12 was a smaller aircraft than the SR-71, it was capable of achieving higher altitudes and higher speeds.  However, by the time the Vietnam War peaked in 1968, the program had been cancelled due to rapid advancement in Soviet missile and radar technology.  By 1969, all of the aircraft were grounded and put into storage.  The SR-71 had entered service before the last A-12 retired.  However, the function of the SR-71 remained in question for many years, and at least one A-12 variant was still in operation into the 1970s.

The YF-12 was not only the cover-story for the A-12's reconnaissance mission, but was also the aircraft GEN Curtis LeMay was really after for the Air Force - one of them, anyway.  The YF-12, a two-seater version of the A-12, was designed to be a high-altitude, high-speed interceptor aircraft with an internal weapons bay that carried three AIM-47 Falcon air-to-air missiles.  The AIM-47 had previously been designed for the XF-108 Rapier, a by-product of the Valkyrie Program.  Future revisions resulted in the AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which is still in use today.  The two-seat YF-12, meanwhile, served two additional functions: the testbed for what would become the SR-71, and a bomber that would adequately salvage research from the Valkyrie program.

The SR-71 Blackbird

Crew: 2
Dimensions: 107'5" L, 55'7" W, 18'6" H
Weight: 67,500 lbs Empty, 152,000 lbs Average, 172,000 lbs Maximum
Speed: ~2,550 MPH Maximum, ~2,200 MPH Cruise
Range: ~3,250 miles
Ceiling: ~85,000 feet
Variants: 3
Number Built: 32
First Flight: 22 December 1964
Service History: 1966, Introduced; 1998 USAF Retirement

The Blackbird Factor

The early 1960s presented a number of technological advancements in aviation and weapon systems.  The Valkyrie Program and the Blackbird Family are examples of this.  North American Aviation and Lockheed were grappled with each other in a major bidding war for the next weapon systems platform with these two projects.  North American was presenting it's XB-70 and XF-108, while Lockheed was presenting the SR-71 and the YF-12.  Reconnaissance, fighter-interceptors, and bombers were the chief matter within this competition.  Ultimately, Lockheed was the winner of the contest, but not in such a way that all of the product displayed would be built.

The YF-12 Interceptor would never make the leap from it's prototype stage, and instead the project was scrapped with the introduction of the F-15 Eagle, which provided a much more natural approach at interception.  The B-71 concept, a "Bomber Blackbird", was scrapped by budget restraints, and then eventually totally sunk with the development of the B-1 Lancer.  Still, none could fulfill the role of the reconnaissance quite like the SR-71 Blackbird could.  Thus, the thirty-two aircraft that were produced prior to the destruction of the manufacturing tools to build them were left in service.  The SR-71A is the most commonly referenced variant of the program, with the SR-71B functioning as the trainer for new pilots.  The SR-71B features a second cockpit located above a trainer cockpit.  In the second, elevated cockpit, an instructor has full control of the aircraft.  The SR-71C was a hybridized aircraft that attempted to merge the YF-12 Fighter Prototype with the SR-71 Production Variant.

The SR-71 served along with the U-2 in it's reconnaissance capacity throughout the remainder of the Cold War, providing support to Allied forces in multiple smaller scale conflicts.  In the 1990s, NASA began limited operation of the SR-71 to test various new technologies and sample high-altitude conditions for other research.  In 1999, the SR-71 flew officially for the last time - although there are mixed reports about NASA still operating an aircraft.

Many aircrews who had worked on the project described the aircraft's last flight as "surreal" and "impossible."

Brian Shul described his last glance at the Blackbird (also referred to as "Habu" or "the Sled") in his book Sled Driver:

As the SR-71 taxied by, I knew I was witnessing the passing of an era. This era began with the fateful flight of Gary Powers in a U-2 and the resulting embarrassment to the Eisenhower administration. An order was issued to proceed with the development of a more advanced plane that  couldn't be shot down. The SR-71 was the result. For three decades it performed its mission untouched by the other side. As it swung its long nose into the run-up area, the jet took on that proud look I had seen before.

 

I watched the support people scurry beneath the jet, carrying out their normal procedures. The familiar scene felt different because I watched with a heavy heart. The distinguished roar of the engines assaulted my hearing one more time, and I felt the jet defiantly telling all who could hear that it did not want to go away; it could still do the job. The airplane was still the best. The sound thundered across the airfield with the cry of one still undefeated, issuing its final challenge. When the run was completed and all the maintenance people had moved away, the jet sat alone, waiting to take the runway.

 

I saw her then as I had the very first time and tears welled in my eyes. I knew her better now and loved her more. How could I not love her, after all she had shown me? She had not changed, and she had not aged. She was a bit of the past and the future rolled into one, the hottest of hot rods, and a technological wonder built to last. As she sat there dripping fuel, leaning slightly forward on a sloped ramp, she embodied purpose and elegance. I knew I would always remember her that way, the elegant Lady in Black, superior in design and performance. Some people said that the continuous heating incurred at high speeds had caused the metals of the jet to weld tighter over the years, and she now flew faster than when she was new. I had flown her and I believed them.

 

I watched the last SR-71 pull two fiery plumes down the runway and climb steeply away, her voice echoing proudly across the foothills. My eyes strained to follow her, hoping somehow to keep her alive, but soon she was swallowed by a bright blue sky. Though the jet was miles away and out of sight, I could still hear the faint rumble of the J-58s.

The Legacy

The Blackbird retains multiple records in aviation, and still set records even on her final flight.  These records included fastest travel time from coast-to-coast, airspeed records, and international traversing time.  All of these records were set in the category of manned flight.  Unmanned flight had already well surpassed the Blackbird by this time and continues to do so.  While the Archangel may not have officially survived, the original Angel, the U-2 Dragon Lady, remains in service today and has even recently received technology updates.  The U-2S is expected to remain in service for at least another decade, providing the United States with the ability to launch adhoc reconnaissance missions into enemy territory.

As recently as 2018, there have been isolated incidents where the Blackbird has been reported airborne in some shape or form.  Two of these reports described aircraft sporting NASA markings, which makes the most sense, as NASA had the last known airworthy airframes.  Others have reported USAF markings, but none of these are confirmed nor corroborated by NASA or the USAF.  Therefore, the age of the Blackbird is gone.  However, that does not mean the tale is entirely over.

Future Developments

Just as with the Blackbird, the Dragon Lady, will eventually have to come to terms with her replacement.  Advancements in military technology and weapons guarantee this as an inevitability, no matter how many fans exist of the tried and true technology of the past.  War evolves, and so must the technology.  The age of unmanned drones has arrived, calling into question the future of manned aircraft and sorties.  While it is unlikely that military confrontations in the air are ever going to reach a state where manned pilots are unnecessary, a reduction of manned aircraft is likely in the next few decades.  The Northrop RQ-180 (top left) is an example of this, where it was built to fulfill the SR-71's role of penetrating enemy airspace that was heavily defended to conduct reconnaissance operations.

Lockheed has also described potential developments of two additional follow-on projects in sub-sequence to the SR-71 and U-2, respectfully.  The first and most publicized of these is the TR-X Program (bottom left), which is designed to replace the U-2.  The TR-X would be responsible for routine missions where time sensitivity was not a factor.  It would be a heavier counterpart to the U-2, capable of flying up to 77,000 feet, and generally would use similar engine technology.  At this time, it would only replace USAF operated U-2 aircraft, as there have been no attempts to market the aircraft to the CIA.  The last bit of information supplied by Lockheed on the TR-X program was in 2016, and it's current status is unknown.

The most anticipated replacement, however, is the SR-72 (middle left).  Lockheed has all but confirmed that there is a concept for such an aircraft.  However, this is not surprising considering the company's history with experimentation with hypersonic designs and space flight.  The SR-72 would also be unmanned, capable of sub-orbital flight, and capable of reaching speeds of up to Mach 6.  In 2014, NASA awarded a contract to Lockheed for researching the feasibility of such an aircraft.  This study revealed that such an aircraft would be roughly the size of an F-22, capable of achieving Mach 6, and could be built for under $1 billion 2016 dollars.  In 2018, it was further disclosed that such an aircraft may also serve as a weapons platform for hypersonic missiles that could cater to multiple missions.  No additional details on a weapons platform has been discussed other than feasibility.  Lockheed last predicted a potential prototype flight as early as 2025, but no additional information has been made available since 2019.

Various other projects that could be cycled into the reconnaissance role have been discussed in the past, ranging from modified bombers (such as the B-1), to smaller, cheap, and lightweight drones.  Research for the next major reconnaissance platform continues to be centered around aircraft capable of flight altitudes between 75,000 and 100,000 feet upwards towards sub-orbital range.  With this, other research has been conducted in defensive mechanisms against such technology and to defend the technology against any potential threats that may be encountered.  The role of the USSF had not been considered at the onset of either of the previously mentioned Lockheed projects, and this will likely also play a role in future development of space-operated reconnaissance aircraft.  It is still unclear how this relates to the weaponizing of space and the prohibition thereof.  It is likely that new international policy will likely dictate the extent of future developments and technology regarding space-travel.

Conclusion

In a glance between how this report began (fifth century BCE) to where it concludes (2025 and beyond), one notices a very jarring advancement in technological fervor and tenacity.  One might also be shocked to see how quickly technological requirements escalated.  What is more puzzling for researchers and the public is the mode of declassification for projects even fifty years ago.  Just twenty-five years ago, the Blackbird was an only child that was brought to us by way of a proposed fighter.  Twenty-two years ago, it had an older sibling in the Oxcart that prowled the skies of Vietnam.  It grew into having a whole family.  It is unclear, even today, exactly to what extent the Blackbird Family extends out to.  It is known that Kelly Johnson was not finished with the Blackbird, and that he continued work on aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk that wasn't declassified until the 1990s as well.

Time will tell just how much more there is to the legend of the Blackbird - but one thing is for certain: her story is not yet finished.

Share:

Author: The Kid

A junior Military Historian. In 2018 I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History. I'm also a professional student, specializing in Cold War era military history and American aviation history. I have composed several publications over the last four years, and continue to publish writings and photos to various journals, publishers, and blogs - including this one.

1 thought on “Reaching for the Heavens: The Legendary Blackbird

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *