When we took off from Sky Harbor Airport last Sunday to return home from Phoenix, our airplane got delayed a bit. An airplane in front of us had a mechanical issue and had to stop, turn around, and return to its gate. This meant that every plane behind it (of which ours was one) got held up. We sat at our gate for an extra 20 minutes or so, then had to join what appeared to be a 25-plane procession to the runway. Needless to say, we left the ground almost 40 minutes later than planned.
But oh boy, did we leave the ground in a hurry! I don’t fly all that often, so I probably don’t have a great frame of reference, but our pilot seemed to tilt that plane on end and give it the beans, rocketing us skyward. For a guy that already doesn’t much like to fly, it was a bit disconcerting. He then came on the intercom and told us we’d be landing on time…uh, what?!? He said our initial “at altitude” speed would be 530mph, but he’d be bumping it up “just a bit” from there once we burned a bit of fuel. I don’t know how fast we were going, but it was fast. But still, he was going to make up 40 minutes in a two-and-a-half-hour flight? He most certainly was, and he most certainly did…I believe we landed one minute late.
So that’s flying at a pretty high speed, but it’s a far cry from what Major James Sullivan achieved on September 1, 1974. He piloted his aircraft from New York City to London (roughly 3,500 miles) in 1 hour, 54 minutes, and 56 seconds. Of course, Sullivan wasn’t flying a Canadair CRJ900. He was strapped into a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. We’ve talked about that plane – no, it’s really not a plane, it’s a faster-than-a-bullet missile that can be steered by man – on a couple of occasions. That amount of distance in that period of time translates to well over twice the speed of sound…nearly 1,450mph.
Keep in mind that, at that speed, the Blackbird burns fuel at a prodigious rate, so a slowdown (to about 350mph) was required for in-flight refueling. It’s not unlike Usain Bolt (the world’s fastest human) running the 100-meter dash, stopping to tie his shoes, and still finishing in 9.70 seconds. For the sake of comparison, the Concorde (the world’s fastest passenger jet) requires an additional hour to make the trip, and a standard passenger jet takes twice as long as the Concorde.
Highway speeds in many places are 60mph, but at “maximum warp” (the term is strangely appropriate here), the Blackbird is covering 33 miles…per minute. Thirty-three miles in one minute. At Lenscrafters, you can get eyeglasses “in about an hour.” Have 20/20 vision? Borrow a Blackbird and travel from New York City to LA in the same time. Des Moines to Chicago in 10 minutes. It’s sickeningly fast. Speeds like this are really, really hard to comprehend.
But for an SR-71 Blackbird, it’s just another day at the office.
Recommended Reading: SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story