sr71-blackbird

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     No cockpit demands as much intense focus as an SR-71 Blackbird’s, and in frustrating irony, no cockpit offers a better view. There was no time to look out the window. The plane knew when your eyes started to wander to the spectacle of earth from 85,000 feet; that’s when something would go wrong. There was much to monitor. The many “steam gauge” instruments reflect a bygone era, giving the pilot information ranging from heading to compressor inlet temperature, each dial representing a critically important system.

      Even though this cockpit was operated through 2,854 flight hours, it looks brand new. That’s because it was only ever flown using the gloved hands of a crew member wearing the essential high altitude pressure suit. Every control is large enough to be adjusted with those bulky pressure suit gloves. 

     You sit atop your throne, the SR-1 ejection seat, which carries a rare 100% success rate. To operate the circuit breakers, you must reach beside and behind your seat, outside your field of view through the pressure suit helmet. To make sure you actuate the correct breaker, you count down the rows and columns by feel.

     March Field Air Museum in Riverside, California, is kind enough to display SR-71A 17975 with her cockpit open. This gives us a rare peek inside the world of the Blackbird, allowing us to look inside something that was formerly top secret and reserved only for a privileged few crew members. These photos were captured using a camera extended into the cockpit via monopod. At no point did I or my equipment come in contact with the artifact.

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     The final time an SR-71 Blackbird ever flew was over an Edwards Air Force Base open house on October 9, 1999. Its familiar sonic booms and thunderous roar would no longer tear through the Antelope Valley. Though, on the night of September 12, 2002, a single J58 engine would once more light up the High Desert with its bright afterburner plume. The engine that powered the Blackbird through four decades high speed, high altitude flight had its final firing that summer night, attached to a test stand at the edge of Rogers Dry Lake. Pratt & Whitney staff disposed of Edwards’ stockpile of the specialized JP7 fuel by running the engine in afterburner for hours. Some bystanders shed tears during this final firing. Some filled ziploc bags with the fuel, then tossed them by hand into the plume, watching them ignite and sparkle as they disturbed the sonic flow.

     Following this last hurrah, many J58 engines remain on display in museums. The photos above show examples of these at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, and Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona.