The SR-71: Designed with a Slide Ruler!

So you've probably seen the big black plane outside of the Virginia Aviation Museum when you're on your way to the airport. But what exactly is it?

This plane is the SR-71 Blackbird and was manufactured by Lockheed under the direction of the CIA. After World War II, the United States wanted to maintain a close watch on Soviet missile and nuclear weapon production. To do this a plane was needed that could fly very high and very fast to both escape incoming missiles and to avoid detection by Soviet radar, all while taking photographs of what was going on below.

Flying at altitudes above 80,000 feet meant that the aircraft would be very hot but in very cold temperatures. Because of this virtually everything on the aircraft had to be specifically designed for the SR-71: even the washers! In addition, keep in mind that this is 1960s technology- the engineers of the SR-71 used a slide ruler to design this aircraft, there were no computers.
So what exactly can this plane do?

The SR-71:

  • Can fly at a top speed of Mach 3.3 or 2,200 miles in one hour
  • Can climb to an altitude of 85,000 feet where the curvature of the earth is visible
  • Is constructed of 93% titanium
  • Has a special coating of black paint that radiates heat away from the aircraft and into the cold high-altitude air
  • Reaches a temperature of 600 degrees Fahrenheit at cruising speeds with a max temperature of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit at the engine
  • Grows in length about three to four inches and widens one to two inches during flight as a result of the intense heat it generates
  • Carries 80,000 pounds of fuel
  • Can stay in flight for two and a half to four and a half hours with at least one in-flight refuel
  • Can fly from New York to London in 1 hour and 55 minutes
  • Can fly from Los Angeles to Washington, DC in 64 minutes

Only 32 of these aircraft were made and only 20 survive (though none were shot down by enemy fire- the SR-71 was able to 'outrun' any missile sent its way). VAM's SR-71 is on loan from the National Museum of the US Air Force. The SR-71 still holds the Air Speed Record by a manned airbreathing jet since 1976. This makes it the fastest known aircraft in existence- but makes me wonder just how fast the current classified US jets can go...