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Why Was This Plane Invulnerable: The SR-71 Blackbird Story

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Aug 09, 2018

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Why Was This Plane Invulnerable: The SR-71 Blackbird Story
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  • Thanks to SquareSpace for making this video possible and for helping launch my
  • new Mustard store. More on that after this video. In the midst of the Cold War,
  • two Mig-25s race to intercept a threat along the Soviet border. They're the
  • fastest interceptors ever built, and if they really push their engines, they can
  • reach an incredible Mach 3.2. But it's not enough. Because what they're chasing
  • can outrun and out-climb any threat. A plane engineered to be invulnerable.
  • The Cold War locked the United States and Soviet Union into a tense a struggle
  • for global influence and control. Both sides poured enormous resources into
  • military technologies. But getting an upper hand means knowing your opponent's
  • next move. And in the 1950s, little was known about facilities deep within the
  • Soviet Union. An extensive network of radar stations, surface-to-air missile
  • sites, and interceptor air bases kept the Americans away. Until 1956, when U-2
  • spy planes began flying over the Soviet Union. Neither fast nor stealthy, the U-2s had
  • one critical advantage. At 70,000 feet, they could fly above Soviet air defenses.
  • U.S. President Eisenhower was even assured, Soviet radars couldn't detect
  • the U-2 at such high altitudes. But it turns out, the Americans were wrong. The
  • Soviets had tracked the U-2 since day one, and it was only a matter of time before
  • they'd be able to shoot one down. Simply flying high wasn't enough. Even before
  • the U-2 began its surveillance missions, there were already plans underway to
  • replace it. Because true impunity over Soviet airspace would need a combination
  • of incredible speed, altitude, and stealth. And this led the Americans to explore
  • some pretty radical spy plane concepts, like a ramjet powered aircraft that
  • would be deployed from the bottom of a supersonic B-58. But in 1959 the CIA
  • chose Lockheed to develop the next generation of spy plane.
  • Meanwhile, the U-2 continued to fly over the Soviet Union. But not for very long,
  • because in the spring of 1960, a Soviet surface-to-air missile finally managed
  • to bring one down. The captured pilot and wreckage were paraded around the Soviet
  • Union used as proof of Western aggression. As tensions rose, now more
  • than ever the US needed a replacement for the U-2.
  • And what Lockheed developed, would be unlike any aircraft ever built. A plane
  • that nearly 60 years after its first flight, remains the fastest air-breathing
  • jet to ever fly. Lockheed's highly-classified spy plane would be
  • known as the A-12. Originally used by the CIA for reconnaissance, the A-12 was also
  • developed into an interceptor prototype, armed with air-to-air missiles, along
  • with a variant that could launch an unmanned reconnaissance drone. But it was
  • the SR-71 Blackbird, a variant developed for the Air Force that would go on to
  • serve for decades, while earlier versions were quickly retired. The Blackbird could
  • cruise at Mach 3.2 right near the edge of space, and do it for hours on end.
  • To achieve this, Lockheed's engineers had to innovate pretty much everything from
  • scratch. To sustain such incredible speeds the SR-71 and its predecessors
  • were powered by engines often described as turboramjets. Below Mach 2 they
  • functioned like conventional after-burning jet engines. But above that,
  • they behaved more like ramjets, as an inlet cone adjusted to bypass air around
  • the engine and directly into the afterburner. At mach 3.2 the SR-71's
  • exterior would heat up to beyond 500 degrees Fahrenheit, easily hot enough to
  • soften aircraft aluminum. Lockheed engineers used titanium for 92 percent
  • of the aircraft, and in the 1960s this required inventing entirely new
  • fabrication technologies. It's unusual shape did more than just spook UFO
  • enthusiasts, it helped reduce its radar signature as did its special black paint,
  • which earned the SR-71 its Blackbird name.
  • The A-12 and SR-71 were first deployed over North Korea and Vietnam, where they
  • were unsuccessfully targeted by over 800 surface-to-air missiles. But the spy
  • plane never flew into Soviet airspace. At least not officially, because another
  • shoot-down over the Soviet Union would be catastrophic.
  • So instead, the SR-71 flew along its borders, using its powerful side-looking
  • radar and cameras to peer hundreds of miles into Soviet territory. And that
  • frustrated the Soviets. In 1976, Viktor Belenko defected to the west, by escaping
  • the Soviet Union in his Mig-25. He described the frustration of trying to
  • intercept Blackbirds. The MiG's were Mach 3 capable, but only for a few
  • minutes at a time. Not for hours like the Blackbird. Nor could they climb to reach
  • the SR-71's incredible altitude. Even their enormous R40 missiles lacked the
  • guidance needed to strike the SR-71 head-on. For years, the Blackbirds were
  • practically invulnerable. They could out fly and out-climb any threat. But by the
  • 1980s, Mig-31s were roaming the skies, equipped with sophisticated radar
  • and long-range R33 missiles. They posed a legitimate threat, as did a new
  • generation of Soviet surface-to-air missiles. But the greatest threat to the
  • Blackbird wasn't an enemy missile or jet. It was itself. No Blackbird was ever lost
  • on a mission, but more than a third of the 50 built were destroyed in accidents.
  • One literally disintegrated around its pilots. They were also enormously
  • expensive to operate. Each one siphoning about 300 million dollars a year out of
  • America's defense budget. A fleet of special aerial refuelers and a small army
  • of support and maintenance staff were needed just to keep these planes mission
  • ready. And advances in spy satellites aerial drones and the SR-71 s inability
  • to deliver surveillance data in real time, diminished some of the plane's
  • utility. Add to that, politics and infighting for defense budgets and by
  • the late 1980s, the SR-71's days were numbered.
  • They were officially retired in 1998, with two sent to NASA for testing. The
  • technology behind the A-12 and SR-71 is now well over fifty years old. Yet
  • somehow these incredible planes still speak to us. Not about the past, but
  • the future. Leaving us with a sense of wonder unlike any other in aviation
  • history. A few months ago, I launched my Mustard site with SquareSpace. It was fun,
  • easy, and I did it literally in a few hours. But now it's time to take it to
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  • integration with Prtintiful, it took me only a few hours to get up and running.
  • Be sure to check out the store, and let me know if you have any requests for
  • Mustard swag. From start to finish, using SquareSpace has been incredibly seamless,
  • intuitive, and fast. Whether you're a photographer, blogger Youtuber, or run a
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  • first purchase.

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Description

The Cold War locked the United States and Soviet Union into a tense struggle for global influence and control. The first purpose-built American spy plane to fly over the Soviet Union was the Lockheed U-2. Neither fast nor stealthy, the U-2’s tactical advantage was that it could supposedly fly above soviet radar and air defenses.

Yet even before the U-2 began surveillance missions, there were already plans for the next generation of spy plane. The need for a U-2 successor became more pressing as Soviet radars had tracked the U-2 since the very first reconnaissance flight. In 1960, a Soviet surface to air missile downed a U-2 deep within soviet airspace, heightening tensions between the two Cold War rivals. If America was to continue vital reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union, it would need an aircraft with a combination of incredible speed, altitude and stealth.

In 1959, the CIA chose Lockheed over rival Convair to build the next generation of spy plane. Lockheed’s highly classified spy plane would be known as the A-12. Originally designed for the CIA for reconnaissance, the A-12 was also developed as an interceptor prototype, along with a variant that could launch an unmanned reconnaissance drone. The SR-71 Blackbird, a later variant developed for the Air Force would go on to serve for decades while the other variants were quickly retired. Nearly 60 years after their first flight, the SR-71 and its A-12 successors remain the fastest air breathing jets to ever fly. Lockheed’s engineers had to innovate many aspects of the aircraft from unique engine characteristics, stealth features, to the extensive use of titanium for the first time in an aircraft.

For years, the SR-71 Blackbirds were practically invulnerable, being able to outfly and out climb any threat, but by 1980s, Mig-31s and a new of generation of surface to air missiles began to erode the aircraft’s impunity. The SR-71 Blackbirds were finally retired from service in 1998. These reconnaissance aircraft were enormously expensive to operate and politics and infighting for defense budgets eventually had the SR-71s days numbered. Advances in spy satellites, aerial drones and the SR-71’s inability to deliver surveillance data in real time, diminished some of the plane’s utility.

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Special thanks to Nick Arehart for helping clean up our audio:
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Special thanks to: Coby Tang, Christian Altenhofen, Razvan Caliman, Xan Daven, Joseph Zadeh, Felix Wassmer, and Colin Millions for supporting us on Patreon and helping Mustard grow: https://www.patreon.com/MustardChannel

Music (reproduced under license):

Intro: "Heartbeat Suspense" - https://www.pond5.com/stock-music/35398806/heartbeat-suspense.html

Main Song: "Not Who You Think - Full Track" - https://www.pond5.com/stock-music/79573803/not-who-you-think-full-track.html

Extro: "Wake Up Instrumental (80S Film Synth Movie Soundtrack)" - https://www.pond5.com/stock-music/39981638/wake-instrumental-80s-film-synth-movie-soundtrack.html

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