SR-71 Blackbird: America’s Old Super Spyplane Is Still the World’s Fastest Jet

    Dave Majumdar


    Even in retirement. 

    As the Air Force’s budgets declined toward the end of the Cold War, the service could no longer justify keeping the expensive SR-71 in its inventory—especially as new threats started to emerge. The service expected that a combination of satellites and other technical means would replace the venerable jet.

    Capable of cruising at speeds in excess of Mach 3.2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft to ever to see operational service. But even though its performance has never been matched, the SR-71 was retired as the Cold War drew to a close.

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    The Blackbird was initially retired in 1990, even before the fall of the Soviet Union. Eventually, however, three of the jets were reactivated by the Air Force—at the insistence of Congress—for a brief period between 1995 and 1998. Meanwhile, NASA flew research missions with the aircraft until 1999. In the end, the Blackbird was retired without a true replacement. But why?

    Ultimately, while the SR-71 delivered unparalleled performance, it was its operating costs that condemned the Blackbird to early retirement. Moreover, the U.S. Air Force had doubts about the aircraft’s survivability versus a new generation of Soviet (and later Russian) air defenses and interceptors—like the SA-10 Grumble (and other advanced S-300 derivatives) and MiG-31 Foxhounds. In fact, the Air Force actively resisted congressional attempts to revive the program during the 1990s because of those very reasons.

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    As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1989,

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    The National Interest



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