The SR-71 is a long range, Mach 3 (2,450 miles per hour), reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft was known for maneuvering, this aircraft has never been shot down. The Air Force used the plane for 34 years (1964 – 1998). Only 32 aircraft were made before the cancellation of the program.
The Archangel project necessitated the research and development of a reconnaissance aircraft. The prototype needed to be undetectable. Archangel was part of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program (alias Skunk Works). The primary goal of the project was to build an aircraft that could succeed the Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady” (used primarily during the Cold War). In the 1960’s, two U-2 pilots were shot down, prompting the need for an aircraft with better stealth.
Multiple designs were created for the new aircraft. Ultimately the A-12 design was selected for production. A $96 million dollar contract was assigned to Skunk Works for 12 aircraft. On 25 April 1962, the first functional A-12 was flown at Area 51. The first few aircraft used a Pratt & Whittney J75 engine, later they were updated to the J58. Budget concerns and the development of the SR-71 led to the cancellation of the program in 1966.
The SR-71 lived on as the CIA continued the working on developing a better reconnaissance aircraft. Many in the administration wanted to move forward with an aircraft based on the XB-70, but the A-12 had startlingly better performance. The Air Force was using a variation of the A-12, designated the R-12, to perform reconnaissance missions. Lockheed created the YF-12A Air Force Interceptor, which served as the publicly announced version of the A-12. The A-12 was first flown 30 April 1962.
To add to the confusion, the aircraft was then designated the RS-71. General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force Chief of Staff, preferred SR-71 (Strategic Reconnaissance) thus changing the designation for the last time.
The first flight of the SR-71 took place 22 December 1964. During test flights, the Blackbird was able to reach Mach 3.4. On 7 January 1966, the SR-71 entered service at Beale Air Force Base. Beale’s host unit is the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, responsible for collection of intelligence for National Defense. Reconnaissance missions began in Southeast Asia in 1968. The aircraft operated from Kadena Air Base in Japan. The SR-71 was used to gather photographic intelligence surrounding Vietnamese prison camps.
The SR-71 was flown, on average, once per week over a two year period. The aircraft required maintenance after returning to base, which was not a quick process. As time progressed, the SR-71 were flown more frequently, almost daily.
In 1968 the F-12 Interceptor program ceased. All the equipment used to make the YF-12 and SR-71 were destroyed. For the duration of the program, 3 different types of SR-71’s were created: 29 reconnaissance aircraft, 2 training aircraft, and 1 hybrid.
Due to funding concerns, the SR-71 program ended in October 1989. Much of the financial concerns were difficult to address because of the secrecy of the program. Estimates claimed that the SR-71 cost over $400 million to operate and maintain annually. Six aircraft were stored in flyable condition.
As tensions between with North Korea and the Middle East mounted in 1993, the Armed Forces looked to the Blackbird. Senators and Armed forces personnel alike felt that there was no suitable replacement for the SR-71. Three SR-71’s were reactivated by Skunk Works. 28 June 1995 the first reactivated SR-71 returned to service. The aircraft were flown for 4 years until the final flight of the SR-71 on 9 October 1999.