- Scale guide
No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated globally in more hostile airspace or with such complete freedom than the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. With a futuristic organic design that originated back in the 1950s, it remains the world's fastest jet-propelled aircraft more than two decades after its final retirement. The Blackbird's performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War.
In May 1960, the CIA were flying the Lockheed U-2 spy plane. Lockheed themselves were already working on their submitted proposal for a new reconnaissance aircraft, codenamed A-12 that would fly faster than any aircraft before or since, at greater altitude, and with a minimal radar cross section, avoiding interceptors and missiles. However, the 1960 U-2 Incident, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in Soviet airspace, ruthlessly reinforced the vulnerability of the subsonic U-2 and spurred on the development of the A-12.
Lockheed's clandestine 'Skunk Works' division, headed by the gifted design engineer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, worked on the A-12, attempting to develop an aircraft, for which everything had yet to be invented, in just twenty months. The A-12 was designed to cruise at Mach 3.2 and fly well above 60,000 feet (18,288 m). To meet these challenging requirements, Lockheed engineers overcame many daunting technical challenges. Titanium alloy was used to build the airframe, combatting the extreme external heat that would melt conventional airframes when travelling at three times the speed of sound. Special titanium tooling was fabricated when it was realised conventional tools embrittled the metal alloy on contact. A complex air intake and bypass system was designed for the twin afterburning turbine engines to prevent supersonic shock waves from moving inside the engine intake causing flameouts. Later in development, black paint was applied to the exterior of the aircraft to dissipate the heat across the entire airframe, earning the A-12 its nickname: “Blackbird”. The U.S. government requested an even smaller radar profile, so a radar-absorbing element was added to the paint, whilst the airframe was carefully reshaped to reflect as little radar energy as possible. This treatment became one of the first ever applications of stealth technology.
The original single seater A-12 ‘Blackbird’ made its first official test flight on April 30, 1962, not counting an unintentional lift-off the week prior during high-speed taxi trials. Experience gained from the A-12 program convinced the Air Force that flying safely required two crew members, and the design evolved into the larger SR-71, the SR standing for “Strategic Reconnaissance”. The SR-71 had room for a pilot and a Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO), who would operate the wide array of monitoring and defensive systems installed on the aircraft, including a sophisticated Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) system that could jam most acquisition and targeting radar.
After the SR-71’s first flight on December 22 1964, the Blackbird nearly broke records every time it flew. In 1976, the SR-71 set the records it still holds to this day: flying at a sustained horizontal altitude of 85,069 feet (25,929m), and reaching a top speed of 2,193.2 mph (3,529.6 km/h), or Mach 3.3, the fastest speed for a manned and non-rocket powered aircraft. At that speed and altitude, even the best air defence systems had no hope of catching the Blackbird.
Piloting the Blackbird was an exacting endeavour, requiring a full operational staff for each mission and demanding complete concentration from all involved, much like a space mission did. Pilots were giddy with their complex, adrenaline-fueled responsibilities, with one describing the act of flying the Blackbird as “almost a religious experience”. Zooming across the sky at 3,000 feet per second required the rules of navigation to be rewritten: visual references for conventional flying, like roads, rivers, and urban areas, were rendered obsolete, giving way to mountain ranges, coast lines, and large bodies of water. The pilots also wore specialised pressure suits, similar to those of astronauts, due to the extreme conditions found at high altitude. These suits were required to protect the crew in the event of sudden cabin pressure loss while at operating altitudes.
The SR-71 was retired twice in the 1990s, after a brief politicalised reactivation in 1995. In total, 50 Blackbirds were built, 32 in the SR-71 variation. 13 original A-12s were also constructed including one training variant nicknamed the “Titanium Goose”, together with two of the M-21 variant, which carried unmanned drones, and three YF-12 prototype interceptors. Most importantly to the US government, the aircraft delivered on its strategic responsibilities globally, providing the United States detailed, mission-critical reconnaissance for more than two decades across a number of theatres. Only a select few know the true extent of the role the Blackbird’s intelligence played in the Cold War, but it is known that the Blackbirds and their crews provided information that proved vital in formulating successful US foreign policy on many occasions, particularly in the Middle East, filling the intelligence gaps left from the orbiting reconnaissance satellites. Its legacy as a technological masterpiece will be admired for generations to come.
This fine scale model will be based upon US Air Force SR-71 A (SN 61-17972) as it was on its record-breaking final flight in the hands of pilot Lieutenant Colonel Ed Yielding and reconnaissance systems officer Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Vida. SN 61-17972 accrued about 2,800 hours of flight time during 24 years of active service with the U.S. Air Force. On its last flight on 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 2,124mph (3,418 km/h) per hour. At the flight's conclusion, they landed at Washington-Dulles International Airport and turned the aircraft over to the Smithsonian. It is now exhibited at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. At that time, Lt. Col. Vida had logged 1,392.7 hours of flight time in Blackbirds, more than that of any other crewman.
Designed and assembled completely from scratch in our Bristol Workshop, this model is the result of a powerful combination of art and technology; the use of technical drawings and archival imagery have allowed us to perfectly recreate every detail at scale to create a model indistinguishable from the real aircraft in photographs. Individual panels and finishes were extrapolated from original technical drawings and images of the plane exhibited at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. 3D printing technology is used to produce the majority of the components, before our model makers use traditional machining and hand working techniques to create the most precise, accurate and faithfully detailed pieces. Multiple paint techniques and materials have been used to accurately replicate real life patination. It will be reproduced at 1:40 scale, meaning the model will measure 820mm long. The model will be mounted as if in flight, held above a base by aluminium columns.
The Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ is limited to just 10 editions.
This precise replica is one of several in the Amalgam Aircraft Collection.
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