(Pictured: SR-71 on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum)
The Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird (also known as the Habu, after a pit viper found on the island of Okinawa, Japan, where the aircraft were based) is by far the most famous spy plane in the world. Part of the Blackbird family of aircraft, which include the A-12 OXCART, M-21 drone launcher, YF-12 interceptor prototype (which carried the AIM-47 nuclear air-to-air missile, the ancestor of the F-14’s AIM-54 Phoenix, and the famous SR-71, this Mach 3 spyplane from the Skunk Works program has captivated the imagination of countless aviation buffs around the world.
The SR-71’s predecessor, the A-12, first flew at the infamous Groom Lake facility (better known as Area 51) in 1962. A series of overflights of the Soviet Union and Vietnam followed, including the M-21/D-21 project, in which Blackbirds would launch supersonic reconnaissance drones which would overfly the military facilities of North Vietnam. The A-12 evolved into the two-seat SR-71, which served until 1989, then was reactivated in 1993 and served until its final retirement in 1998.
The SR-71 runs on a special type of fuel, JP7, which is carried by specially modified KC-135Q tanker aircraft. An interesting thing is that the Blackbird has parts designed to expand at high speeds and temperatures to fit together; as a result, it leaks fuel continuously on the ground and must be refueled in the air shortly after takeoff. Similarly, the aircraft’s paint, which appears black on the ground, begins to turn a slight bluish color at operating speed and altitude. The SR-71’s top speed has never been specified, but is suspected to be north of Mach 3.3 (2,200 mph at 80,000ft), with some estimates breaking Mach 4. It has a service ceiling of 85,000ft and carries a vast array of cameras and other sensors.
Fun fact: the SR-71 technically should be called the RS-71, and initially was, but lobbying on the part of General Curtis LeMay got the name changed for “Strategic Reconnaissance”.