The Lockheed SR-71, designed in secrecy in the late 1950s, was able to cruise near the edge of space and outfly a missile. To this day, it holds the records for the highest altitude in horizontal flight and the fastest speed for a non-rocket powered aircraft.
It was part of a family of spy planes built to venture into enemy territory, without being shot down or even detected, in a time before satellites and drones.
The black paint job, designed to dissipate heat, earned it the nickname Blackbird, and paired with the sleek lines of the long fuselage, made the plane look unlike anything that had come before — a design that hasn’t lost any of its brilliance.
“It still looks like something from the future, even though it was designed back in the 1950s,” Peter Merlin, an aviation historian and author of “Design and Development of the Blackbird,” said in a phone interview.
“Because of the way the fuselage bends and the wing curves and twists, it looks more organic than mechanical. Most conventional airplanes look like someone built them — this one almost looks like it was grown.”
A CIA spy
In May 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace while taking aerial photographs. Initially, the US government said it was a stray weather research aircraft, but the story fell apart once the Soviet government released photos of the captured pilot and the plane’s surveillance equipment.
The incident had immediate diplomatic repercussions for the Cold War and reinforced the need for a new type of reconnaissance plane that could fly faster and higher, safe from anti-aircraft fire. “The CIA wanted a plane that could fly above 90,000 feet or thereabouts, at high speed and as invisible to radar as it was feasible,” said Merlin.
The task of designing such an ambitious machine fell on Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, one of the world’s greatest aircraft designers, and his secret division of engineers at Lockheed, called Skunk Works. “Everything had to be invented. Everything,” recalled Johnson, who died in 1990, the same year the Blackbirds were first retired from service.
The original plane in the Blackbird family was called the A-12 and made its maiden flight on April 30, 1962. In total, 13 A-12s were produced, and the plane was a top secret, special access program operated by the CIA.