sr71-blackbird

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     This SR-71 Blackbird cockpit got more flight time than all of the other Blackbird aircraft put together, and every single SR pilot, at one point or another, had their hands on these stick and throttles. This is the one and only SR-71 simulator, used for crew selection and training, on display at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas.

     Even though this is a simulator, this is truly a Blackbird cockpit. Every component is the same, and the only visual difference are the windows are not transparent. At one point, the Air Force considered installing a virtual reality display system in the windows, but it was decided that the Blackbird simulator did not need a visual reference to the world surrounding them, because in this bird, you were more of a systems operator than a pilot. 

     This simulator, operating from 1965 to 1999, was just as top secret as any of the Blackbird aircraft, for obvious reasons. Every Blackbird pilot went through a selection process, and a year of training. During the selection process, applicants spent 30 hours in the simulator. If you were lucky enough to be selected as a pilot, you spent 100 hours in the sim before you would even touch one of the two-seat SR-71B or SR-71C trainer aircraft. This training process was longer and more intensive than any aircraft in the world, excluding the space shuttle. This was because each Blackbird was truly a national asset, and there were so few of them.

     Nearly every Blackbird pilot author, at one point or another, has mentioned this simulator in their book. They recount tales of sweating bullets during the selection process, spending hours in the sim at a time, learning hard lessons. They also tell about how good the sim was, and how once they finally flew an actual Blackbird, they felt right at home.

     The Frontiers of Flight Museum was gracious enough to let Project Habu inside the cockpit to photograph up close, which is typically not open to the public. It was truly surreal to sit in this cockpit and touch the controls, knowing every one of the pilots whom I admire so much, started right here. You can view the outside of the simulator in a previous post (click here to view). 

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     Titanium Goose #06927, the most unique of the Blackbird fleet, was the only two-seat A-12 trainer ever built. The first five A-12 aircraft, this being the fourth, were initially flown with J75 engines, because the A-12 airframe was ready for testing, the J58 was bogged down with developmental problems. These less powerful J75 engines would allow the aircraft to reach a maximum Mach 2, and 60,000 feet. Once the J58 was available, all of the A-12 aircraft were upgraded, allowing them to reach a maximum of Mach 3.35 and 95,000 feet, except this one. Our Titanium Goose kept the J75 engines through her total time of service, retiring with 1076.4 hours in the air, spanning 614 individual flights, over double that of any other A-12. Once retired, she spent years in storage at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, until August 2003, when she was put on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. She was the last A-12 to be put on display to the public.

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     No project in the first three decades of Lockheed Skunk Works history was more stealthy, or more secret, than the D-21 reconnaissance drone. A brief history of the D-21 can be read in a previous article (click here to view).

     The D-21 was made of many exotic materials, some of which are potentially dangerous to come in contact with. Many of the D-21 aircraft in museums have had their asbestos components removed. Engines are often stripped from the D-21 because they contain Mag-Thor, a magnesium alloy that includes radioactive thorium.

     In 1994, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong) acquired D-21 537 for hypersonic research projects that were never performed. Eventually, NASA removed the engine containing radioactive materials, so the drone could be displayed at March Field Air Museum, located on March Air Reserve Base in California.

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     As you can see, Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, California is home to not one, but two Blackbird aircraft. In the first photo, you can see SR-71A #17973 on the left, and A-12 #06924 on the right, which I covered in a previous post (click here to view). On the far right side of the photo, you can see D-21B #525, and U-2D 56-6721 is in the background. 

     On May 24, 1987, SR-71A #17973 was flying in the RAF Mildenhall Air Fete Airshow, when the pilot, flying too slowly, pulled up just as the afterburner ignited, overstressing the airframe. The aircraft landed safely at RAF Mildenhall, where temporary repairs were made. On June 21, she was flown to Palmdale for permanent repairs, but it was decided that the aircraft was essentially totaled. She was retired with a total of 1,729.9 flight hours, then put on display at Blackbird Airpark in September 1991, alongside A-12 #06924, creating probably the most stunning Blackbird museum display.

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     SR-71A 17963 now rests on display at the former home of the program, Beale Air Force Base, California. She first took to the air on June 9, 1966, with pilot Bill Weaver and RSO Steven Belgau at the controls. During her active career, she gained 1604.4 hours of flight time, making her final flight on October 28, 1976.

     On July 28, 1976, three months before her final flight, she flew a profile called “High Flight”, meant to officially set the world absolute record for sustained horizontal flight at 85,069 feet with Pilot Captain Robert Helt and RSO Major Larry Elliott aboard. This flight began at Beale Air Force Base and broke the record on a test range over Edwards Air Force Base, where Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) officials were monitoring the record setting attempt, then landed back home at Beale. At no point during this flight did the SR-71 exceed any normal operating speeds or altitudes. This flight broke the former altitude record of 80,257 feet previously set by a YF-12 on May 1, 1965.

     This record breaking flight was part of Operation Glowing Heat, in which blackbird aircraft would break three world records on July 27 and 28, 1976. All three records were supposed to be performed by SR-71A 17958, but when it was time to perform “High Flight”, she had mechanical problems and she was swapped for 17963. More information about 17958’s records can be found in my previous article (click here to view)

     I must thank retired USAF Tech Sergeant Daniel Freeman for giving Project Habu a tour of Beale and making these photos possible. As Supervisor and Chief of Metals Technology for the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale, Daniel worked closely with the SR-71 program. When this SR-71 was put on display, he fabricated brackets for the landing gear suspension to rest on (shown in the sixth photo.) Now, he fashions rings out of titanium Blackbird parts. You could own a ring that once flew at Mach 3+ if you visit Mach3ti.com.