SR-71 Blackbird Spy Plane

It is the fastest, highest-flying plane on record. It's a mysterious spy plane developed in secret and flown on missions that may never be made public. It's 18 feet, six inches tall, 107 feet, 5 inches long with a wingspan of 55 feet, seven inches. It can fly 3200 miles before refueling. It's a rare SR-71 Blackbird - Air Force tail number 61-7968 - and it's now at the Virginia Aviation Museum on permanent loan from the U. S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

"On April 26, 1971, our Blackbird flew a 10 hour, 15,000-mile nonstop flight to set the world endurance record for that type of aircraft," says Science Museum of Virginia Director Dr. Walter R.T. Witschey. "The flight included aerial refueling at subsonic speeds. That's quite an accomplishment when you realize that 15,000 miles is about three-quarters of the way around Earth. Other Blackbirds hold world records for speed and height. They can reach speeds faster than Mach 3.3 - more than three times the speed of sound. They can fly more than 85,000 feet - that's more than 16 miles up. They have flown from London to Los Angeles is less than four hours. Even standing still they're impressive."

"Not only was the SR-71 record-breaking when it was built," continues Witschey, "It's record-holding still. In 30 years of aviation advances, this is still the most advanced aircraft technology in its class on the planet. I've seen two up close and personal. I could feel the adrenaline rush both times. I can only imagine how exciting it's going to be to put 968 on display in front of the Aviation Museum."

"The SR-71 is the most technologically significant aircraft built since World War II. It's a great addition to our collection," says Virginia Aviation Museum Executive Director Mike Boehme. "With it we span the history of flight from the Wright Brothers to the cutting edge of technology shown in the Blackbird. The Aviation Museum was initially founded to hold a collection of planes donated by the family of Sidney Shannon. These planes are some of the finest examples of the Golden Age of Aviation - the period between World War I and World War II."

The plane arrived at the Aviation Museum on tractor-trailers. "This may be our Blackbird's slowest trip," says Boehme. "It's been housed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Thanks to a $94,000 donation from the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society, we hired a contractor to disassemble the aircraft, drive it across country, and reassemble it in front of the museum. Why didn't we just fly the plane here? It would've cost somewhere in the neighborhood of several million dollars."

The Aviation Museum's Blackbird is believed to have the most complete cockpit of any Blackbird to go on display - but it is missing several key elements. Its cameras and sensors have been removed - they're still classified. Each of the plane's two engines has also been removed by the Air Force for other projects. Each of the engines weighs 6500 pounds. Even if they came along with the plane, they would put undue stress on the wings and landing gear. "I don't think we'll get the flight log of 968," says Witschey. "We are still dealing with a piece of technology sufficiently advanced that what it does and where it does it don't get discussed widely."



Flying three times faster than the speed of sound and higher than 80,000 feet, the SR-71 is the most technologically significant aircraft built since WW II. They flew thousands of hazardous reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, North Korea, the Middle East and many other hot spots throughout the world. 29 A Models, two B Models (two-seat pilot trainers), one C Model (two-seat trainer built from two different airframes) were produced in the 1960's. Out of the total of 32 SR-71's built, 21 are still in existence most serving in museums. Of the 12 SR-71s lost, no USAF pilots or RSOs lost their lives nor were any shot down by hostile fire.

Virginia Aviation Museum's aircraft, USAF tail number 61-7968, set the endurance record on April 26, 1971. Majors Thomas B. Estes and Dewain C. Vick, flew 61-7968 over 15,000 miles in 10 hrs. 30 min. Non-Stop (Time includes aerial refueling at subsonic speeds). Awards for this flight include the 1971 Mackay Trophy for the "most meritorious flight of the year" and the 1972 Harmon Trophy for the "most outstanding international achievement in the art/science of aeronautics".

The following information is provided more technical information on one of aviation's most famous aircraft--the Black Bird:

  • Mission: High Speed, High Altitude Reconnaissance
  • Crew: 2 (Pilot and Reconnaissance System Officer)
  • Construction: Titanium monocoque with some super-high-temperature plastics
  • Length: 107 feet, 5 inches
  • Wingspan: 55 feet, 7 inches
  • Height: 16 feet, 6 inches
  • Landing Weight: 68,000 pounds
  • Maximum Gross Take-off Weight: 140,000 pounds
  • Maximum Speed: 3.2+ Mach
  • Maximum Altitude: over 85,000 feet
  • Maximum Unrefueled Range: 3,200 nautical miles
  • Armament: None
  • Powerplant: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58 High-bypass-turbojets with 34,000 pounds of thrust

Program Information (as of Jan 1990):

  • Total Flight Hours 53,490
  • Total Mach 3+ Time 11,675
  • Total Sorties 17,300
  • Operational Sorties 3,551
  • Operational Hours 11,008
  • Total Air Refuelings 25,862
  • Total Crew Members 284 (8 aircrew had 1000 hours +, high time 1,392.7 hours)
  • Powerplant: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58 High-bypass-turbojets with 34,000 pounds of thrust
  • Program Information (as of Jan 1990):
  • Total Flight Hours 53,490
  • Total Mach 3+ Time 11,675
  • Total Sorties 17,300
  • Operational Sorties 3,551
  • Operational Hours 11,008
  • Total Air Refuelings 25,862
  • Total Crew Members 284 (8 aircrew had 1000 hours +, high time 1,392.7 hours)

The aircraft is on loan from the United States Air Force Museum. (Serial #61-7968)



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