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Few weapon systems have ever entered the military arena with such blinding superiority as did the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. No weapon system has ever maintained that same degree of superiority over a period of four decades. Today, the Blackbird is still the fastest, highest-flying, most-effective reconnaissance aircraft in history, even though budgetary considerations have caused it to be withdrawn from active service.
Like the U-2, a product of the U.S. government's super-secret Skunk Works research & development center, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is a perfect expression of Kelly Johnson's genius and his leadership of a brilliant team of fewer than 200 engineers.
The USAF's SR-71 was a two-seat development of the earlier A-12 aircraft used by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird first flew on December 22, 1964, and by December 1967, all 31 of the Blackbirds had been delivered to the USAF.
The Blackbird was both a miracle of design and of production, for its performance (speed of Mach 3.2, more than 90,000 feet of altitude, a 4,000-mile range) had to overcome not only the sound barrier, but also the heat barrier. Skin temperatures of the craft exceeded 1,050 degrees Fahrenheit. Special fuels, hydraulic fluids, electronics, and glass had to be developed to match the strength of the aircraft's titanium structure.
A Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, flown invariably by a highly skilled crew, became an invulnerable, invaluable reconnaissance aircraft. Unlike satellites in fixed orbits, the SR-71 could be deployed within hours to anywhere in the world.
The usefulness of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird went beyond military applications to diplomatic roles. During the 1973 Middle East Yom Kippur War, reconnaissance photos taken by the SR-71 determined the positions of the advancing Israeli forces, and were used during subsequent peace negotiations. And as a research instrument, the SR-71 has few peers; although officially retired, Blackbirds are rumored to be occasionally flown -- "unofficially" -- in NASA research.
Blackbirds set many records for speed and altitude, the last one a transcontinental speed record of less than 68 minutes -- on the delivery flight of a retired SR-71 to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.