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The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was a high-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance aircraft that became the ultimate tool for the American Central Intelligence Agency throughout the Cold War. It maintained an excellent operational service record, though a dozen were lost to accidents.
The SR-71 Blackbird was the result of the YF-12A interceptor program, which was developed into the A-12 program and then the SR-71 system. Its specialized heat-absorbing and radar-dissipating color scheme gave it a sleek and stealthy appearance, making it ideal for reconnaissance of enemy Cold War facilities in the Western Bloc.
Crewed by two personnel who were required to wear astronaut-type flight suits, the SR-71 was designed for the rigors of high-altitude flight. It had a streamlined delta-type design with a smooth elongated fuselage housing instrumentation and fuel. Its twin continuous-bleed turbojet engines were held out mid-wing and were the bread and butter of the series, helping the system achieve flight speeds in excess of Mach 3 at well over 70,000 feet. At the time of its inception, the SR-71 was the world’s fastest conventionally-powered aircraft.
The initial SR-71 series was developed from experimental YF-121-A interceptor aircraft. From that development, the A-12 series produced 15 of its type, which became a favorite of the CIA for its Mach 3.6 capability and its usefulness in launching the D-21 reconnaissance drone. The ultimate version became the well-known SR-71, achieving full operational status in 1966 with a total of 30 aircraft being produced.
Training for SR-71 pilots was handled via a single SR-71B series model and a single SR-71C series model, the latter based highly on a converted A-series model. The SR-71 faced full retirement status in 1989. However, two SR-71s were activated out of retirement in the middle of the 1990s, with the whole series once again seeing full retirement in April of 1998.
Despite its incredible capabilities, the SR-71 was not without risk. A dozen were lost to accidents during its Cold War tenure. Nevertheless, the Blackbird’s legacy remains strong, as it was an important asset for intelligence gathering during a time of intense global tension.
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