A History of the Untouchable Spy Plane

James Hamilton-Paterson

Pegasus, New York, 2017, 232 pages

Book Review published on: October 20, 2017

In Blackbird, his eleventh work of nonfiction, award-winning poet and author James Hamilton-Paterson offers an outstanding accounting of one of the most technologically advanced jet aircraft the United Stated has ever produced—the SR-71 Blackbird. Hamilton-Paterson deftly traces the history and service of the Blackbird from its inception in the early 1960s through its retirement in the 1990s.

Originally designed to meet strategic reconnaissance objectives in the aftermath of the 1960 Soviet Union downing of a U-2 aircraft piloted by Gary Powers, Lockheed Corporation manufactured four variants of the aircraft. At a cost of $20 million each (roughly $165 million today), the A-12 variant was the first ordered by the Central Intelligence Agency under the code name “Oxcart.” Lockheed built thirteen of these single-seat spy planes. The U.S. Air Force ordered a prototype for a high-speed, high-altitude fighter/interceptor. The two-seat YF-12A, the second variant, followed until budget delays caused its demise. Recognizing the potential of unmanned aircraft in reconnaissance roles, the Air Force ordered a drone-launching platform, the M-21. The M-21 was a short-lived program due to cost and schedule issues, and a crewmember fatality when the drone failed to properly separate from the mother ship. Finally, as a follow-on to the YF-12A, the Air Force ordered thirty-two SR-71 surveillance/reconnaissance aircraft.

The most striking aspect of the book is its discourse on the technological challenges associated with designing, building, and flying a seventy-eight-ton aircraft at over three times the speed of sound at over eighty thousand feet in altitude. Operations at those speeds and altitude present unique problems in physics. For example, ordinary jet fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids do not function at high altitudes. Surface temperatures of the aircraft at cruising speed ranged from 230 to 510 degrees Celsius (440 to 950 degrees Fahrenheit). Only a skin made of titanium supports operations at those temperatures. Even the tires required special manufacturing at a cost of $2,300 per tire ($18,600 in today’s dollars).

The demands on the pilots were equally challenging. Given lower boiling points of liquids at high altitude, pilots had to wear pressurized suits, much like the ones used by astronauts. Expert flying skills were required. Depending on altitude, the difference between stable flight and a fatal stall could be as little as six knots in airspeed. Pilots endured extensive physical and emotional screenings. Over the thirty-year duration of the program, only 141 pilots met the exacting standards and earned the nickname Habus (a Habu is a venomous pit viper, which the Blackbird pilots adopted as their icon).

While the SR-71 is the fastest manned aircraft in the history of aviation (2,193.2 miles per hour), it also represented the advances in technology, aviation, and automation that our country demonstrated in the same decades to land men on the moon. Unfortunately, it is those same advances that made the Blackbird obsolete—namely, satellites. Why risk a hugely expensive aircraft and crew when satellites can provide equal or better reconnaissance?

Blackbird is a great read. Hamilton-Paterson masterfully tells the story of this engineering marvel. One needs no background in aviation to appreciate the aircraft and what it did for our nation during its short period of service.

Book Review written by: David D. Haught, Fort Belvoir, Virginia