On its final flight, a Blackbird showed the world what it does best.

Lieutenant Colonel Ed Yeilding shot across the sky above California at 2,000 miles per hour. It was 4:30 in the morning on March 6, 1990, and the view from the cockpit of his Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was calm, serene, and beautiful.

Until he looked down.

The fuel pumps for the aircraft’s rear-most tank shut down unexpectedly. The “empty” light blinked on. “We might have to abort,” Yeilding remembered thinking. Tank 6 appeared to be short 6,000 pounds of fuel, with an indication of only 1,200 pounds remaining. “I manually selected tank 5 pumps, hoping the electrical impulse might jar loose the tank 6 valves,” said Yeilding. The valves came on for a few seconds. Yeilding flipped the switches again. A few more seconds. Eventually, the faulty fuel readings were no longer a problem.

The hardware glitches behind them, Yeilding and Major Joe Vida, the SR-71’s reconnaissance systems officer, set not one but four world speed records before landing at Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. Their mission that day was to deliver the SR-71 to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum—and why not do it in style? The records set by Yeilding and Vida still stand: St. Louis to Cincinnati in eight minutes, 32 seconds; Kansas City to Washington, D.C., in 25 minutes, 59 seconds; Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 64 minutes, 20 seconds; and the United States west coast to east coast in 67 minutes, 54 seconds. The record-setting aircraft is now on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

In addition to optimizing it for blazing speed, the Lockheed engineers who designed the Blackbird wanted to make the aircraft less detectable by radar. Today we call that technology “stealth.” The Lockheed A-12—a CIA reconnaissance airplane that was later modified into the SR-71—was the first aircraft to incorporate stealth features in its original design. The effect, however, was limited. The technology of the early 1960s did reduce the SR-71’s radar signature, but not enough to make it truly stealthy. But the knowledge gained from the effort was a key step to developing full-stealth aircraft like Lockheed’s F-117, the Northrop B-2, and the recently revealed Northrop Grumman B-21.

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Tearing through the sky at record speed isn’t just for fun, though; it’s a core aspect of the Blackbird’s mission. The SR-71 played a pivotal role in U.S. diplomacy and military strategy throughout the Cold War. Unarmed, the Blackbird took pictures and used a combination of sensors to intercept communications and electronic signals. The SR-71 delivered photos and other intelligence information to decision-makers at all levels—from military commanders to the White House. When choosing military targets, developing tactical plans, finding lost ships, and monitoring key events—if there was a geopolitical crisis between 1968 and 1989, chances are there were Blackbirds overhead.

The SR-71’s operational missions began in 1968, during the Vietnam War. The Museum’s Blackbird was no exception. It arrived at Japan’s Kadena Air Base in late September 1969, and flew its first mission over Vietnam on October 4. The pilot on that mission was Captain Bob Spencer. His reconnaissance systems officer, Captain Richard Sheffield, remembered: “We went right downtown [to Hanoi] on [the] first pass.”

The Museum’s Blackbird continued to fly all over the world until 1983, when it went to Lockheed’s facility in Palmdale, California, where it served many years as a test-flight vehicle. The aircraft has logged more than 2,795 hours in 900 total flights, 197 of which were combat missions. The airplane has spent 652 hours at speeds above Mach 3, including the final flight in 1990 when Yeilding and Vida delivered it to the Smithsonian.

I’m the curator of the Blackbird. Understandably, it’s one of my favorite artifacts. On the days when I’m working at the Udvar-Hazy Center, I often stand near the SR-71 so I can observe visitors’ reactions to the airplane. The SR-71 stops traffic, literally. Many of the people walking into the Museum come to a sudden halt when they first see the aircraft. Their jaws drop and their eyes grow wide at the sight of this massive, futuristic, black knife of titanium. I can’t blame them. The first time I saw the Blackbird, I had the same reaction.

Michael W. Hankins is the curator of U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II aviation at the National Air and Space Museum.

Photographer Jim Preston finds the majesty of an early morning balloon launch in Albuquerque.

This article is from the Spring 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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Related Topics Aviation Military aviation Reconnaissance War and Conflict Cold War
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