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No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated globally in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71, the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft. The Blackbird’s performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War.
This Blackbird accrued about 2,800 hours of flight time during 24 years of active service with the U.S. Air Force. On its last flight, March 6, 1990, Lt. Col. Ed Yielding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida set a speed record by flying from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging 3,418 kilometers (2,124 miles) per hour. At the flight’s conclusion, they landed at Washington-Dulles International Airport and turned the airplane over to the Smithsonian.
Transferred from the United States Air Force.
Lockheed Aircraft Corporation
Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson
Country of Origin:
United States of America
Overall: 18ft 5 15/16in. x 55ft 7in. x 107ft 5in., 169998.5lb. (5.638m x 16.942m x 32.741m, 77110.8kg)
Other: 18ft 5 15/16in. x 107ft 5in. x 55ft 7in. (5.638m x 32.741m x 16.942m)
Twin-engine, two-seat, supersonic strategic reconnaissance aircraft; airframe constructed largley of titanium and its alloys; vertical tail fins are constructed of a composite (laminated plastic-type material) to reduce radar cross-section; Pratt and Whitney J58 (JT11D-20B) turbojet engines feature large inlet shock cones.
No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71 Blackbird. It is the fastest aircraft propelled by air-breathing engines. The Blackbird’s performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War. The airplane was conceived when tensions with communist Eastern Europe reached levels approaching a full-blown crisis in the mid-1950s. U.S. military commanders desperately needed accurate assessments of Soviet worldwide military deployments, particularly near the Iron Curtain. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s subsonic U-2 (see NASM collection) reconnaissance aircraft was an able platform but the U. S. Air Force recognized that this relatively slow aircraft was already vulnerable to Soviet interceptors. They also understood that the rapid development of surface-to-air missile systems could put U-2 pilots at grave risk. The danger proved reality when a U-2 was shot down by a surface to air missile over the Soviet Union in 1960.
Lockheed’s first proposal for a new high speed, high altitude, reconnaissance aircraft, to be capable of avoiding interceptors and missiles, centered on a design propelled by liquid hydrogen. This proved to be impracticable because of considerable fuel consumption. Lockheed then reconfigured the design for conventional fuels. This was feasible and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), already flying the Lockheed U-2, issued a production contract for an aircraft designated the A-12. Lockheed’s clandestine ‘Skunk Works’ division (headed by the gifted design engineer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson) designed the A-12 to cruise at Mach 3.2 and fly well above 18,288 m (60,000 feet). To meet these challenging requirements, Lockheed engineers overcame many daunting technical challenges. Flying more than three times the speed of sound generates 316° C (600° F) temperatures on external aircraft surfaces, which are enough to melt conventional aluminum airframes. The design team chose to make the jet’s external skin of titanium alloy to which shielded the internal aluminum airframe. Two conventional, but very powerful, afterburning turbine engines propelled this remarkable aircraft. These power plants had to operate across a huge speed envelope in flight, from a takeoff speed of 334 kph (207 mph) to more than 3,540 kph (2,200 mph). To prevent supersonic shock waves from moving inside the engine intake causing flameouts, Johnson’s team had to design a complex air intake and bypass system for the engines.
Skunk Works engineers also optimized the A-12 cross-section design to exhibit a low radar profile. Lockheed hoped to achieve this by carefully shaping the airframe to reflect as little transmitted radar energy (radio waves) as possible, and by application of special paint designed to absorb, rather than reflect, those waves. This treatment became one of the first applications of stealth technology, but it never completely met the design goals.
Test pilot Lou Schalk flew the single-seat A-12 on April 24, 1962, after he became airborne accidentally during high-speed taxi trials. The airplane showed great promise but it needed considerable technical refinement before the CIA could fly the first operational sortie on May 31, 1967 – a surveillance flight over North Vietnam. A-12s, flown by CIA pilots, operated as part of the Air Force’s 1129th Special Activities Squadron under the "Oxcart" program. While Lockheed continued to refine the A-12, the U. S. Air Force ordered an interceptor version of the aircraft designated the YF-12A. The Skunk Works, however, proposed a "specific mission" version configured to conduct post-nuclear strike reconnaissance. This system evolved into the USAF’s familiar SR-71.
Lockheed built fifteen A-12s, including a special two-seat trainer version. Two A-12s were modified to carry a special reconnaissance drone, designated D-21. The modified A-12s were redesignated M-21s. These were designed to take off with the D-21 drone, powered by a Marquart ramjet engine mounted on a pylon between the rudders. The M-21 then hauled the drone aloft and launched it at speeds high enough to ignite the drone’s ramjet motor. Lockheed also built three YF-12As but this type never went into production. Two of the YF-12As crashed during testing. Only one survives and is on display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The aft section of one of the "written off" YF-12As which was later used along with an SR-71A static test airframe to manufacture the sole SR-71C trainer. One SR-71 was lent to NASA and designated YF-12C. Including the SR-71C and two SR-71B pilot trainers, Lockheed constructed thirty-two Blackbirds. The first SR-71 flew on December 22, 1964. Because of extreme operational costs, military strategists decided that the more capable USAF SR-71s should replace the CIA’s A-12s. These were retired in 1968 after only one year of operational missions, mostly over southeast Asia. The Air Force’s 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (part of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing) took over the missions, flying the SR-71 beginning in the spring of 1968.
After the Air Force began to operate the SR-71, it acquired the official name Blackbird– for the special black paint that covered the airplane. This paint was formulated to absorb radar signals, to radiate some of the tremendous airframe heat generated by air friction, and to camouflage the aircraft against the dark sky at high altitudes.
Experience gained from the A-12 program convinced the Air Force that flying the SR-71 safely required two crew members, a pilot and a Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO). The RSO operated with the wide array of monitoring and defensive systems installed on the airplane. This equipment included a sophisticated Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) system that could jam most acquisition and targeting radar. In addition to an array of advanced, high-resolution cameras, the aircraft could also carry equipment designed to record the strength, frequency, and wavelength of signals emitted by communications and sensor devices such as radar. The SR-71 was designed to fly deep into hostile territory, avoiding interception with its tremendous speed and high altitude. It could operate safely at a maximum speed of Mach 3.3 at an altitude more than sixteen miles, or 25,908 m (85,000 ft), above the earth. The crew had to wear pressure suits similar to those worn by astronauts. These suits were required to protect the crew in the event of sudden cabin pressure loss while at operating altitudes.
To climb and cruise at supersonic speeds, the Blackbird’s Pratt & Whitney J-58 engines were designed to operate continuously in afterburner. While this would appear to dictate high fuel flows, the Blackbird actually achieved its best "gas mileage," in terms of air nautical miles per pound of fuel burned, during the Mach 3+ cruise. A typical Blackbird reconnaissance flight might require several aerial refueling operations from an airborne tanker. Each time the SR-71 refueled, the crew had to descend to the tanker’s altitude, usually about 6,000 m to 9,000 m (20,000 to 30,000 ft), and slow the airplane to subsonic speeds. As velocity decreased, so did frictional heat. This cooling effect caused the aircraft’s skin panels to shrink considerably, and those covering the fuel tanks contracted so much that fuel leaked, forming a distinctive vapor trail as the tanker topped off the Blackbird. As soon as the tanks were filled, the jet’s crew disconnected from the tanker, relit the afterburners, and again climbed to high altitude.
Air Force pilots flew the SR-71 from Kadena AB, Japan, throughout its operational career but other bases hosted Blackbird operations, too. The 9th SRW occasionally deployed from Beale AFB, California, to other locations to carryout operational missions. Cuban missions were flown directly from Beale. The SR-71 did not begin to operate in Europe until 1974, and then only temporarily. In 1982, when the U.S. Air Force based two aircraft at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall to fly monitoring mission in Eastern Europe.
When the SR-71 became operational, orbiting reconnaissance satellites had already replaced manned aircraft to gather intelligence from sites deep within Soviet territory. Satellites could not cover every geopolitical hotspot so the Blackbird remained a vital tool for global intelligence gathering. On many occasions, pilots and RSOs flying the SR-71 provided information that proved vital in formulating successful U. S. foreign policy. Blackbird crews provided important intelligence about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its aftermath, and pre- and post-strike imagery of the 1986 raid conducted by American air forces on Libya. In 1987, Kadena-based SR-71 crews flew a number of missions over the Persian Gulf, revealing Iranian Silkworm missile batteries that threatened commercial shipping and American escort vessels.
As the performance of space-based surveillance systems grew, along with the effectiveness of ground-based air defense networks, the Air Force started to lose enthusiasm for the expensive program and the 9th SRW ceased SR-71 operations in January 1990. Despite protests by military leaders, Congress revived the program in 1995. Continued wrangling over operating budgets, however, soon led to final termination. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration retained two SR-71As and the one SR-71B for high-speed research projects and flew these airplanes until 1999.
On March 6, 1990, the service career of one Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird ended with a record-setting flight. This special airplane bore Air Force serial number 64-17972. Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and his RSO, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Vida, flew this aircraft from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging a speed of 3,418 kph (2,124 mph). At the conclusion of the flight, ‘972 landed at Dulles International Airport and taxied into the custody of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. At that time, Lt. Col. Vida had logged 1,392.7 hours of flight time in Blackbirds, more than that of any other crewman.
This particular SR-71 was also flown by Tom Alison, a former National Air and Space Museum’s Chief of Collections Management. Flying with Detachment 1 at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, Alison logged more than a dozen ‘972 operational sorties. The aircraft spent twenty-four years in active Air Force service and accrued a total of 2,801.1 hours of flight time.
Weight: 170,000 Lbs
Reference and Further Reading:
Crickmore, Paul F. Lockheed SR-71: The Secret Missions Exposed. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996.
Francillon, Rene J. Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1987.
Johnson, Clarence L. Kelly: More Than My Share of It All. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
Miller, Jay. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Leicester, U.K.: Midland Counties Publishing Ltd., 1995.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird curatorial file, Aeronautics Division, National Air and Space Museum.
Whether known as the Warhawk, Tomahawk, or Kittyhawk, the Curtiss P-40 proved to be a successful, versatile fighter during the first half of World War II. The shark-mouthed Tomahawks that Gen. Claire Chennault’s "Flying Tigers" flew in China against the Japanese remain among the most popular airplanes of the war. P-40E pilot Lt. Boyd D. Wagner became the first American ace of World War II when he shot down six Japanese aircraft in the Philippines in mid-December 1941.
Curtiss-Wright built this airplane as Model 87-A3 and delivered it to Canada as a Kittyhawk I in 1941. It served until 1946 in No. 111 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. U.S. Air Force personnel at Andrews Air Force Base restored it in 1975 to represent an aircraft of the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Air Force.
Donated by the Exchange Club in Memory of Kellis Forbes.
Curtiss Aircraft Company
Country of Origin:
United States of America
Overall: 330 x 970cm, 2686kg, 1140cm (10ft 9 15/16in. x 31ft 9 7/8in., 5921.6lb., 37ft 4 13/16in.)
Single engine, single seat, fighter aircraft.
Whether it was the Tomahawk, Warhawk, or Kittyhawk, the Curtiss P-40 was a successful and versatile fighter aircraft during the first half of World War II. The shark-mouthed Tomahawks that General Claire Chennault led against the Japanese remain among the most popular airplanes of the war. In the Phillipines, Lt. Boyd D. Wagner became the first American ace of World War II while flying a P-40E when he shot down six Japanese aircraft during mid-December 1941. P-40s were first-line Army Air Corps fighters at the start of the war but they soon gave way to more advanced designs such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning (see NASM collection for both aircraft). The P-40 is not ranked among the best overall fighters of the war but it was a rugged, effective design available in large numbers early in the war when America and her allies urgently required them. The P-40 remained in production from 1939 to the end of 1944 and a total of 13, 737 were built.
Design engineer Dr. Donovan R. Berlin layed the foundation for the P-40 in 1935 when he designed the agile, but lightly-armed, P-36 fighter equipped with a radial, air-cooled engine. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation won a production contract for 210 P-36 airplanes in 1937-the largest Army airplane contract awarded since World War I. Worldwide, fighter aircraft designs matured rapidly during the late 1930s and it was soon obvious that the P-36 was no match for newer European designs. High altitude performance in particular became a priceless commodity. Berlin attempted to improve the P-36 by redesigning it in to accommodate a turbo-supercharged Allison V-1710-11 inline, liquid-cooled engine. The new aircraft was designated the XP-37 but proved unpopular with pilots. The turbo-supercharger was not reliable and Berlin had placed the cockpit too far back on the fuselage, restricting the view to the front of the fighter. Nonetheless, when the engine was not giving trouble, the more-streamlined XP-37 was much faster than the P-36.
Curtiss tried again in 1938. Berlin had modified another P-36 with a new Allison V-1710-19 engine. It was designated the XP-40 and first flew on October 14, 1938. The XP-40 looked promising and Curtiss offered it to Army Air Corps leaders who evaluated the airplane at Wright Field, Ohio, in 1939, along with several other fighter proposals. The P-40 won the competition, after some modifications, and Curtiss received an order for 540. At this time, the armament package consisted of two .50 caliber machine guns in the fuselage and four .30 caliber machine guns in the wings.
After production began in March 1940, France ordered 140 P-40s but the British took delivery of these airplanes when Paris surrendered. The British named the aircraft Tomahawks but found they performed poorly in high-altitude combat over northern Europe and relegated them to low-altitude operations in North Africa. The Russians bought more than 2,000 P-40s but details of their operational history remain obscure.
When the United States declared war, P-40s equipped many of the Army Air Corps’s front line fighter units. The plucky fighter eventually saw combat in almost every theater of operations being the most effective in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. Of all the CBI groups that gained the most notoriety of the entire war, and remains to this day synonymous with the P-40, is the American Volunteer Group (AVG) or the Flying Tigers. The unit was organized after the Chinese gave former U. S. Army Air Corps Captain Claire Lee Chennault almost 9 million dollars in 1940 to buy aircraft and recruit pilots to fly against the Japanese. Chennault’s most important support within the Chinese government came from Madam Chiang Kai-shek, a Lt. Colonel in the Chinese Air Force and for a time, the service’s overall commander.
The money from China diverted an order placed by the British Royal Air Force for 100 Curtiss-Wright P-40B Tomahawks but buying airplanes was only one important step in creating a fighting air unit. Trained pilots were needed, and quickly, as tensions across the Pacific escalated. On April 15, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt quietly signed an Executive Order permitting Chennault to recruit directly from the ranks of American military reserve pilots. Within a few months, 350 flyers joined from pursuit (fighter), bomber, and patrol squadrons. In all, about half the pilots in the Flying Tigers came from the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps while the Army Air Corps supplied one-third. Factory test pilots at Bell, Consolidated, and other companies, and commercial airline pilots, filled the remaining slots.
The Flying Tigers flew their first mission on December 20. The unit’s name was derived from the ferocious fangs and teeth painted on the nose of AVG P-40s at either side of the distinctive, large radiator air intake. The idea is said to originate from pictures in a magazine that showed Royal Air Force Tomahawks of No. 112 Squadron, operating in the western desert of North Africa, adorned with fangs and teeth painted around their air intakes. The Flying Tigers were the first real opposition the Japanese military encountered. In less than 7 months of action, AVG pilots destroyed about 115 Japanese aircraft and lost only 11 planes in air-to-air combat. The AVG disbanded on July 4, 1942, and its assets, including a few pilots, became a part of the U. S. Army Air Forces (AAF) 23rd Fighter Group in the newly activated 14th Air Force. Chennault, now a Brigadier General, assumed command of the 14th AF and by war’s end, the 23rd was one of the highest-scoring Army fighter groups.
As wartime experience in the P-40 mounted, Curtiss made many modifications. Engineers added armor plate, better self-sealing fuel tanks, and more powerful engines. They modified the cockpit to improve visibility and changed the armament package to six, wing-mounted, .50 caliber machine guns. The P-40E Kittyhawk was the first model with this gun package and it entered service in time to serve in the AVG. The last model produced in quantity was the P-40N, the lightest P-40 built in quantity, and much faster than previous models. Curtiss built a single P-40Q. It was the fastest P-40 to fly (679 kph/422 mph) but it could not match the performance of the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang so Curtiss ended development of the P-40 series with this model. In addition to the AAF, many Allied nations bought and flew P-40s including England, France, China, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Turkey.
The Smithsonian P-40E did not serve in the U. S. military. Curtiss-Wright built it in Buffalo, New York, as Model 87-A3 and delivered it to Canada as a Kittyhawk IA on March 11, 1941. It served in No. 111 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). When the Japanese navy moved to attack Midway, they sent a diversionary battle group to menace the Aleutian Islands. Canada moved No. 111 Squadron to Alaska to help defend the region. After the Japanese threat diminished, the unit returned to Canada and eventually transferred to England without its P-40s. The RCAF declared the NASM Kittyhawk IA surplus on July 27, 1946, and the aircraft eventually returned to the United States. It had several owners before ending up with the Explorer Scouts youth group in Meridian, Mississippi. During the early 1960s, the Smithsonian began searching for a P-40 with a documented history of service in the AVG but found none. In 1964, the Exchange Club in Meridian donated the Kittyhawk IA to the National Aeronautical Collection, in memory of Mr. Kellis Forbes, a local man devoted to Boys Club activities. A U. S. Air Force Reserve crew airlifted the fighter to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on March 13, 1964. Andrews personnel restored the airplane in 1975 and painted it to represent an aircraft of the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Air Force.
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Quoting from Wikipedia | Curtiss P-40 Warhawk:
The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was an American single-engine, single-seat, all-metal fighter and ground attack aircraft that first flew in 1938. It was used by the air forces of 28 nations, including those of most Allied powers during World War II, and remained in front line service until the end of the war. It was the third most-produced American fighter, after the P-51 and P-47; by November 1944, when production of the P-40 ceased, 13,738 had been built, all at Curtiss-Wright Corporation‘s main production facility at Buffalo, New York.
The P-40 design was a modification of the previous Curtiss P-36; this reduced development time and enabled a rapid entry into production and operational service.
Warhawk was the name the United States Army Air Corps adopted for all models, making it the official name in the United States for all P-40s. The British Commonwealth and Soviet air forces used the name Tomahawk for models equivalent to the P-40B and P-40C, and the name Kittyhawk for models equivalent to the P-40D and all later variants.
The P-40’s lack of a two-stage supercharger made it inferior to Luftwaffe fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in high-altitude combat and it was rarely used in operations in Northwest Europe. Between 1941 and 1944, however, the P-40 played a critical role with Allied air forces in three major theaters: North Africa, the Southwest Pacific and China. It also had a significant role in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Alaska and Italy. The P-40’s performance at high altitudes was not as critical in those theaters, where it served as an air superiority fighter, bomber escort and fighter bomber.
P-40s first saw combat with the British Commonwealth squadrons of the Desert Air Force (DAF) in the Middle East and North African campaigns, during June 1941. The Royal Air Force‘s No. 112 Squadron was among the first to operate Tomahawks, in North Africa, and the unit was the first to feature the "shark mouth" logo, copying similar markings on some Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighters. [N 1]
Although it gained a post-war reputation as a mediocre design, suitable only for close air support, more recent research including scrutiny of the records of individual Allied squadrons indicates that the P-40 performed surprisingly well as an air superiority fighter, at times suffering severe losses, but also taking a very heavy toll on enemy aircraft. The P-40 offered the additional advantage of low cost, which kept it in production as a ground-attack fighter long after it was obsolete in the air superiority role.
As of 2008, 19 P-40s were airworthy.