I stopped by SR-71A #17959 on 2/17/2014 at Air Force Armament Museum during a trip to Panama City. This Habu was retrofitted with a nine foot tail extension (shown in the bottom photograph) which housed an optical bar camera. The OBC was meant to enhance the bird’s ability to detect missile attack, but actually didn’t help much. Luckily, there was no major performance loss due to the addition.

     The museum was closed due to President’s Day, but luckily the SR was outside. It was actually a blessing in disguise because I got to photograph the bird without any general public clogging the shot. The two top shots were captured with my iPhone 5s, the rest with the Canon s110.


     On July 4th, 2014, I photographed A-12 #06938, on display at the USS Alabama Museum in Mobile, Alabama. Even though I’ve photographed #06938 numerous times, I always attempt to create fresh, interesting photos. This time, I photographed the two the liquid nitrogen tanks in the nose gear bay, shown in the final photo. The liquid nitrogen was stored in these tanks, converted into gaseous nitrogen, and used to inert the atmosphere in the aircraft’s fuel tanks. This inert nitrogen atmosphere was required, because the fuel heated 350° Fahrenheit inside the tank during flight. At that temperature, an ambient air environment could have caused combustion inside the fuel tank. If the nitrogen environment could not be achieved during flight, there was a danger of combustion inside the fuel tank.

     The Blackbird aircraft has what we call “wet wings”, which means that the skin panels of the wings and fuselage double as a fuel tank. There is no bladder inside the aircraft to hold the fuel, and every joint and screw has to be sealed from the inside, to prevent fuel leakage. When the aircraft flew at full speed, Mach 3.2, the compression of the air against the surface of the aircraft would cause serious heating, up to 620° Fahrenheit in some places. This heating would cause the entire length of the aircraft to grow about five inches in flight.

     When the aircraft would constantly contract and expand, it would cause the sealant in the fuel tanks to wear out, and fuel leaks would take place. These leaks were monitored by maintenance crews, measuring them in drips per minute (DPM). If the DPM reached its tolerance in a certain area, maintenance crews would go inside the fuel tanks, and reseal the area, which was a nightmarish process.

     Nearly every time I photograph a Blackbird in a museum, I hear a museum guest mistakenly saying, “The Blackbird had to refuel mid-air immediately after takeoff, because it leaked so badly.” This is not true. The real reason they refueled after takeoff was, when the Blackbird was fueled on the ground, the atmosphere inside the tank was ambient air. This had to be replaced with gaseous nitrogen before they reached full speed. When the tanker aircraft topped off the Blackbird’s tanks, all of the ambient air would be expelled from the tanks through relief valves. Then, as the aircraft consumed fuel, the space created in the fuel tanks would be replaced with gaseous nitrogen. This created a safe, inert atmosphere in the fuel tanks. If the aircraft, for some reason, could not create this 100% nitrogen atmosphere, the flight could not exceed 2.6 Mach. 

     It was possible to fully fuel, then defuel the aircraft to a partial load on the ground, before flight, to create this inert nitrogen tank environment, but this was a maintenance nightmare. This procedure was called a “maintenance yo-yo.” When you put the gaseous nitrogen head pressure in the fuel tanks on the ground, it caused excessive leaking, so maintenance always preferred to perform this procedure in the air, after takeoff.


     A-12 #06927, visited on 1/12/2014, was a particularly interesting specimen. This bird was the only A-12 trainer built, and logged over twice the flight time than any other A-12s. Kelly Johnson, the team leader behind the creation of the whole program, actually flew in this plane. Most of the bird is unpainted, which made for some interesting shots.

     I came to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California to see this Habu and Space Shuttle Endeavor, which was quite an emotional experience. Moreover, this was the first aircraft that I photographed with this project in mind. The top shot was taken with my iPhone 5s. The rest were shot with the Canon s110.


     Each bird in the Blackbird family of aircraft tells a different story. Some convoluted, some straight-forward. This SR-71A, #17967, on display at Barksdale Global Power Museum on Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, Louisiana, first flew on August 3, 1966. She was deactivated, along with the rest of the fleet, in 1990.

     After a hiatus of the program, #17967 was one of three birds reactivated in 1995. In July of 1999, the Air Force transferred its four flying Blackbirds to NASA, for research operations out of Dryden Flight Research Center, now called Armstrong Flight Research Center, in honor of the recently late Neil A. Armstrong. 

     #17967 flew for NASA, performing experimental research flights, along with four remaining Blackbirds, until 1999, when those four aircraft were transferred to museums. Of that group, this bird was the first to retire, with a total of 2765.5 hours of flight time. But, she didn’t move to the museum immediately. Instead, she sat in a hangar at Dryden until 2003, while the museum raised money for transportation of the aircraft. She was the last Blackbird aircraft to be transported from her base to a museum, finally resting here on December 17, 2003. She wears the paint scheme that was current when the Air Force last flew the Blackbird aircraft.

     We’re offered a unique view inside the engine nacelle (shown in the second-to-last photo), as the engines have been removed. Before the Blackbird, nobody had ever built an aircraft out of titanium. It was too difficult to work with. 92% of the Blackbird, by weight, is titanium. The titanium struts, shown in that photograph, are a reminder of the Skunk Works team who meticulously milled the insanely tough material. The word, “tough” would be a good way to describe the materials used, pilots who dared to fly the bird, and the engineers who thought such an aircraft could be designed, and set out to make it happen.

This image shows Blackbird 963 on the ground after setting the world Sustained Altitude record on 28 July 1976. Wilbur Wright had set the world’s first altitude record of eighty-two feet on 13 November 1908. The record Capt. Bob Helt (pilot) and Capt. Larry Elliott (RSO) set was more than an order of magnitude better—85,069 feet. 


SR-71A #17959 was covered in a previous post. Click here to view.

     I went back to visit #17959 at the Air Force Armament Museum on March 22, 2014 during a birthday weekend trip. This photo set contains a shot of inside an inlet, as well as some local wildlife. I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon (almost literally) a Black Racer snake under the B-25 near the SR. Eglin Air Force Base is known for its reptile population. Our favorite plane, the “Habu”, is named after a snake, so I thought it appropriate to include a photo of the little beauty.


This A-12 #06938 was covered in a previous post. Click here to view.

     A-12 #06938, on display at the USS Alabama Battleship Museum, is shown along side a pristine J-58 engine with less than an hour test run time, and a very worn landing gear tire. Because the landing gear had to fit in such a thin, low aspect ratio wing, they had to be extremely compact. For the small landing gear to support the enormous landing weight of the 52,000 lb aircraft, the tires were inflated to 415 Psi with nitrogen. Comparatively, your car tires are probably inflated to somewhere around 40 Psi.

     The skin of the aircraft heated up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit in flight. To keep the tires from melting, they were constructed from aluminium powder and latex, which gave the tires their distinctive silver color. If the tires were pressurized with air, they would have exploded under such intense heating. Thus, the tires are inflated with nitrogen.

     Because of the high tire pressure, if the aircraft ran over any debris, the tire would cut rather than give. This had the potential to cause a mission abort before the aircraft even left the ground. To avoid tire damage, a car driven by the mobile crew (backup crew) preceded the aircraft everywhere it went on the ground searching for FOD (foreign object debris). It drove along the taxi way in front of the aircraft and down the length of the takeoff roll down the runway runway before each flight. Regardless, each tire was replaced after just 10 flights. Each tire cost $2,000.

     The final two photos in the set were shot with my cell phone camera. It’s important to remember that the photographer makes the photo. Not the camera.