Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is this the strangest looking aeroplane?


This is a Lockheed SR71 “Blackbird”, displayed on public view at the air museum in Duxford, England. The Blackbird was a high-altitude supersonic spyplane used in the later part of the cold war. The Americans started using the Blackbird after Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR in his U2 – the SR71 flew higher and faster – but pensioned it off after it became clear that advances in missile technology meant it was at risk of shooting down from the installations it was sent to observe. Now, of course, we all use satellite technology thanks to Google Earth. As a kind of postscript, the U2 is still flying over Iraq and other hot spots, long after the aircraft designed to replace it has gone to the museums.

The Blackbird flew at over Mach 3, at heights of over 75,000 ft. It took off and landed – of course – at sea level, so its engines and airframe needed to be able to deal with low speeds as well as its cruising altitude. The engines would only burn subsonic air, so the inlets of the engines had to be complex and vary in shape to slow the air enough when the plane was going fast. That’s the purpose of the cones pointing forward out of the engines – the cones moved in and out depending on the aircraft speed. Even so, the SR71 would sometimes suffers what the US military quaintly called an “unstart” while at cruising speed and altitude. Both engines would go out, meaning that the aircraft would have to descend and decelerate while trying to restart the engines nearer sea level. That’s not something you would want to have to do over enemy territory!

Even so, not a single Blackbird was lost to enemy action. But 12 out of the 32 that were made crashed in accidents. It’s not technology that you’d want to use in airliners.

But I still think it’s a wonderful, if strange, looking aircraft.

posted by colin at 9:42 pm  


  1. I had a poster of this amazing aeroplane stuck to my bedroom wall in the 70s. I thought, and still do, that it looks awesome. Only two other planes I like as much are Concorde and the Avro Vulcan, a delta-winged bomber used by the RAF.

    Comment by Peter Lynch — 19 August 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  2. Zero X FTW!

    —Gerry Anderson fan

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 20 August 2009 @ 8:10 pm

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