A jet like no other.
The Blackbird’s design reflected the fact that it was pushing the limits. The crew wore pressure suits like those used on space missions to withstand the high altitudes they were flying at, and were treated to a medical exam and a high-protein steak and egg meals before each mission. The SR-71’s J58 engines could only start through use of two vehicle-mounted V8 starter engines, and the triethylborane used in the fuel would belch green flames during ignition. The J58s would switch to a partial ramjet mode at high speeds, such that the SR-71 actually became more fuel efficient when it went faster.
The sleek and sinister SR-71 Blackbird looks like it belongs in a science fiction movie, though in fact the jet black spy plane proved far more successful at outrunning enemy missiles than any of the spaceships depicted in Star Wars. Though retired in the 1990s in favor of spy satellites and recon drones, it doesn’t look like any modern designs are likely to challenge the Blackbird’s record as the fastest manned aircraft ever.
As Cold War tensions heightened during the 1950s, the CIA began flying the U-2 spy plane to keep tabs on the Soviet Union’s fast expanding nuclear weapons capabilities. Ungainly and relatively slow-moving, the U-2 relied upon its ability to fly at extremely high altitudes to avoid enemy fighters and early surface-to-air missiles.
The intelligence provided by U-2s in 1962 uncovered the Soviet nuclear missiles deployed to Cuba, leading to the dramatic events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the U-2s also provoked diplomatic incidents because they simply couldn’t fly high enough to avoid Russian missiles SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. A U-2 was shot down in 1960, and its pilot, Gary Powers, captured, triggering an embarrassing diplomatic row. Another U-2 was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, killing the pilot and escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington at a critical moment. Five Taiwanese U-2s were shot down over China.