The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest airplane ever put into production. An iconic symbol of the Cold War, the Blackbird was more like a spaceship than an aircraft; flying at three times the speed of sound so high that the curvature of the Earth could be seen from the cockpit, the pilots had to wear pressurised suits that were later adapted for Space Shuttle crews. The spy plane’s sleek lines were an early form of stealth technology, reducing the plane’s radar cross-section, while even its paint (containing specks of iron) helped it evade enemy radar.
When it entered service in the late 1960s, the Blackbird was at the bleeding edge of technology; when it left US Air Force ranks some 25 years later, there was no aircraft that could replace it. Nearly two decades after its retirement, the speed and height records it set have yet to be bettered by a manned, air-breathing aircraft.
The Blackbird was an expensive, strategic tool – only 32 were made, flying mission from bases in California, the Japanese islands of Okinawa or the east of England. Those that survived the rigours of flying at 80,000-odd feet have become popular museum attractions, including one which has made its way to the American Air Museum at Duxford, a former US airbase in Cambridgeshire turned into a military aviation museum. In May, I travelled out there to interview one of their pilots for a short film for one of the BBC’s websites, filming him in front of one of the aircraft he used to fly.
Colonel Rich Graham flew the Blackbird on reconnaissance missions in the 1970s, taking covert snaps of secret Soviet bases in far eastern Russia, among others. The plane he used to pilot is the Blackbird which sits in the hangar full of former USAF planes, including those which served in World War II, flying from aerodromes in this part of the world.
Before an after the interview with Col Graham – a charismatic sort who has written several well-received books about his time flying the Blackbird – I made the most of having the hangar with the Blackbird pretty much to myself, the cameraman/director and the pilot who’d flown some 700 hours in the cockpit. Expecting some cool, overcast weather, I’d packed a few rolls of expired Kodak Elite Chrome 400 slide film.
The sunshine, it turned out, was nothing less than blinding, but the expired Elite Chrome, with a touch of grain and colours slightly muted from age, gave the pics an aged feel, like they could have been taken in a hangar some decades back.
The Blackbird is a beautiful aircraft, all smooth curves and soft contours. Such was its uniqueness – everything from its fuels to its tyres were one-of-a-kind due to its extraordinary capabilities – that the plane will never fly again. Seeing one at rest in a museum is as close as aircraft fans will get to seeing one in the air.
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