WARPLANE: A Century of Military Aviation Advances
Parts One and Two: Wednesday, November 8th, 9-11pm   |   Parts Three and Four: Wednesday, November 15, 9-11pm

The Warplanes That Changed The World

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
Type: Strategic Reconnaissance
Crew: One
Length: 107 feet 5 inches
Wingspan: 55 feet 7 inches
Range: More than 2000 miles
Maximum Speed: Mach 3+
Ceiling: Over 85,000 feet
Armament: None (some experimental variants carried missiles)
Dates in Service: 1966-1998

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Even before Francis Gary Powers' U-2 was shot down, the US Air Force realized that the Soviets would eventually design missiles that could down the high-flying spy plane. So Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works came up with an even more impressive aircraft -- one that could avoid interception by flying high and extremely fast.

The technological challenges of building such a plane -- designed to travel more than three times the speed of sound -- were incredible. To generate the enormous thrust needed, the plane incorporated two huge Pratt & Whitney J58-1 ramjet engines, equipped with special conical intakes. To power them, the plane used specifically formulated JP-7 jet fuel, which also acted as a coolant and lubricant (and according to one designer, was more expensive than single-malt Scotch). To deal with the heat generated at such immensely high speeds, the SR-71's airframe was built of titanium. It was also one of the first airplanes to incorporate "stealth" design features to minimize its visibility to radar, although its massive, very hot engine exhaust was easy to detect.

Throughout a service life of more than 30 years, no SR-71s were lost to enemy action. Although the Soviets frequently fired missiles at the Blackbirds, the pilot could avoid them simply by accelerating.

The SR-71 is still the fastest active service warplane ever built, and was only rendered obsolete by the advent of reconnaissance satellites and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).