Built and designed in the 1960s after the A-12 Oxcart, the SR-71 Blackbird is still the fastest, most vanguardist air-breathing airplane in the history of aviation. These once classified photos reveal how Lockheed built both birds in secret, in California. They look taken at the Rebel base in Hoth.

"Everything had to be invented"

The A-12 and the SR-71 were a completely different design from anything else before it—and everything after, as time has demonstrated. At the time, many of the technologies needed to make these airplanes were considered "impossible." And yet, thanks to Kelly Johnson and the amazing team at engineers and scientists at Lockheed's Skunk Works, they were invented from scratch—in twenty months.

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According to Lockheed Martin's official account, Kelly Johnson—the engineer who made the A-12 Oxcart and the SR-71 Blackbird—"everything had to be invented. Everything." From the The Pratt & Whitney J58 engines—a technological feat still unsurpassed by today's mass manufactured airplanes—to its titanium skin—capable of surviving temperatures from 315C (600F) to more than 482C (900F)—and composite materials. Its landing gear, for example, is "the largest piece of titanium ever forged in the world." Ironically, the United States did not have enough titanium to build these airplanes, so they have to buy it from the Soviet Union. Imagine that: Buying the only material in the world that could make an spy plane from the country you wanted to spy.

Major Brian Shul, one of the SR-71 pilots and author of Sled Driver, tells more about the manufacturing process:

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Lockheed engineers used a titanium alloy to construct more than 90 percent of the SR-71, creating special tools and manufacturing procedures to hand-build each of the 40 planes. Special heat-resistant fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids that would function at 85,000 feet and higher also had to be developed.

Thanks to these technologies and his skills, Shul survived many surface-to-air missile attacks (check out this amazing story about how the Blackbird saved his neck over the skies of Libya.) No Blackbird was ever shot down.

These photos are a testimony to this amazing engineering and manufacturing feat:

Cutaway illustrations of the twin cockpit variant of the SR-71. Notice the inlet funnels that increased the air speed in front of the J58 engines.

Lockheed's Skunk Works's manufacturing plant in Burbank, California. Later, both the Oxcart and the Blackbird would be coated with an special black paint that reduced the temperature by 23C (75F) and had radar absorbing capabilities.

Notice the titanium panels forming the skin of these birds.

Only 50 Blackbird airframes were built. "The dies or molds were destroyed as directed by then Secretary of Defense McNamara to prevent any other nation from building the aircraft."

Final A-12 Oxcart ever produced: Article 133

Close up of one of the SR-71s in manufacturing

Another angle, from the other side

Production schedule for the SR-71

The J-58 engines

This is the exhaust of the J-58 engine. It could reach temperatures of 1760C (3200F).

The Blackbirds kept flying long after their retirement from the USAF. One of them stayed at NASA: Here's a photo from the Armstrong Flight Research Center (then Dryden) of an SR-71 being retrofitted for test of the Linear Aerospike SR Experiment (LASRE).

The finished Blackbirds

And now more Blackbird porn because I know you love it

The analog cockpit was the only thing that, compared to the rest of futuristic technologies used in the Oxcart and Blackbird, seems completely out of place:

You can see it in ultra-high definition here. And get the explanation of how it works from a SR-71 pilot here.

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One last factoid:

478 total people have flown the Blackbirds. More people have climbed to the top of Mount Everest than has flown this aircraft. Although a few Lockheed crewmembers were killed during the testing stages of the Blackbird, the U.S. Air Force never lost a man in the entire 25 years of active service. The SR-71 flew for 17 straight years (1972-1989) without a loss of plane or crew. Considering the environment the Blackbirds flew in, that is an enviable safety record.

According to Kelly Johnson, no SR-71 was ever touched by any of the more than 1,000 missiles launched at these birds since its first mission to 1981.


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