Posts Tagged ‘Lockheed Skunk Works’

When the U.S. military buys aircraft, they sort of subscribe to the “Alton Brown” philosophy of “no uni-taskers in the kitchen”.  Our armed services tend to favor multi-role aircraft that can do lots of missions well rather than simply excelling at one thing.  It keeps the runways uncluttered.

It’s why aircraft like Lockheed’s F-16 Fighting Falcon remain such a strong presence in flight lines on U.S. bases…it does a very good job at a lot of things.  It’s why the F-15 Eagle, even with the F-22’s arrival, will continue to be in front-line service when it approaches 50 years old.  It’s still a formidable fighter and, in its Strike Eagle configuration, poses a serious threat to enemy ground forces.  And it’s the reason the F-18E/F Super Hornets now serve on carrier decks and the F-14 Tomcats don’t…Hornets were more versatile (well, that’s not exactly the reason the Hornet replaced the Tomcat, and maybe someday we’ll talk about it).

Anyways, in general, versatility is better.  But the military, again like Alton Brown, understands the need for single-purpose devices.  Alton’s is a fire extinguisher.  For years, the military’s “uni-tasker” has been its spy planes.  They don’t bomb, they don’t strafe, they don’t fire missiles, they don’t suppress enemy defenses, and they don’t offer close air support.  They do one thing:  take pictures.

All kinds of pictures.  Standard, telephoto, super-close-up, infrared, wide-angle, oblique, read-the-label-on-the-cigarette-pack-from-100-miles-away photos.

For 35 years, the SR-71 Blackbird was America’s primary airborne uni-tasker, and it was exceptional.  All of its missions were flown under the strongest shroud of secrecy.  Faster than a bullet and able to outrun the Earth’s rotation, it spent a good percentage of its flying life at more than 2,000 miles per hour in the rarefied air above 80,000 feet.

But fire extinguishers for your home are relatively cheap, bullet-planes are not.  On more than one occasion, funding for the Blackbirds was eliminated.  But political pressures and world events always conspired to bring it back into service.

Until the 1990’s.

The technology to remotely pilot small unmanned drone aircraft gave the military a site-specific reconnaissance ability without the need for Mach-3+ speed, special fuel, and space-suited pilots.  And funding the pride of Lockheed’s Skunks Works had finally become too expensive (and maybe they weren’t Y2K-compliant…remember that?!?).  So the SR-71 was retired and, on October 9, 1999, the Blackbird lifted off for the very last time.

The reconnaissance side of the military is still largely handled by uni-taskers.  Survellience satellites, UAV’s, and probably other top-secret equipment still get the data needed to keep U.S. assets (whatever or wherever they are) safe.  But none of them does it with the same combination of beauty and ramjet-powered brute-force speed as the SR-71 Blackbird.

Sometimes, uni-taskers rock!

Recommended Reading: SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story

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It’s an airplane that spent most of its life shrouded in secrecy.  The missions it flew were even more top secret.  It leaked fuel like a sieve when it sat on the ground, but it could tear through the air!!  It flew faster than the rotational velocity of the earth, giving it the appearance of out-pacing the sun.  You could eat breakfast in New York City, fly to LA in this plane, and eat another breakfast earlier (time-wise) than you ate in New York.  At full chat, this airplane covered 33 miles a minute, making it faster than the bullet fired from a 30-06 rifle.

That’s the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in a nutshell.  Developed by Kelly Johnson’s “Skunk Works”, the SR-71 was another in Lockheed’s rather unconventional designs that just flat-out worked, such as the P-38 Lightning and U-2. Like the U-2, the Blackbird was designed for high-altitude reconnaissance.  Unlike the U-2, it was meant to fly at extremely high speed.

The designation “SR-71” is actually connected with another plane we’ve discussed:  the XB-70 Valkyrie (see?…70…71).  After its failure to reach full production, the Valkyrie was considered as a recon plane, but when Lockheed showed off its aircraft (called the A-12), the Air Force chose it, calling it the SR-71.

In order to fly so quickly, Lockheed used special engines.  At lower speeds, they operated like a standard turbojet engine.  But they became ramjets at extremely high speed, as the cone on the front of the engine would slide back, allowing air to pass into the engine.  When the air went around the cone, it was compressed, generating heat that, when combined with fuel and exploded, produced even more power.  It takes a scientist to fully understand it…and I’m not one of those.

The intense heat of air friction expanded the plane several inches as it flew (and heated the skin to well over 500°F), so at rest, the panels were gapped slightly, sort of like expansion joints on the Interstate.  The fuel cells were similar, so they leaked on the ground.  The plane would take off and, after sufficiently warming up the skin (and sealing the tanks), the Blackbird would refuel for its missions.

The plane was packed full of cameras and sensors and recorders for use in its spy work, which it did for nearly 25 years.  From its first test flight on December 22, 1964 until its final retirement in 1998, the SR-71 was the primary spy plane of the United States.  Only 32 were built (the tooling was destroyed in 1968).  12 were lost in accidents, but only 1 crew member perished.

Though now retired, the Blackbird’s mission is still important.  Satellites provide good coverage, but their regular orbits provide the enemy a “satellite schedule”.  Aircraft provide additional, on-the-spot coverage for which the enemy cannot plan.

Maybe the SR-71’s successor is already flying…maybe it’s the Lockheed Aurora…maybe it’s not.  Whatever the case, that successor has a most formidable reputation to uphold.

Recommended Reading:  SR-71 Revealed:  The Inside Story – Ok, this is one I don’t have in the inventory, but is it too late to get it on my Christmas list?

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