22 December 1964: Lockheed test pilot Robert J. “Bob” Gilliland made a solo first flight of the first SR-71A, 61-7950, at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. The “Blackbird” flew higher than 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) and more than 1,000 miles per hour (1,609 kilometers per hour) before landing at Edwards Air Force Base, 22 miles (35 kilometers) northeast, to begin the flight test program.
Bob Gilliland made the first flight of many of the Lockheed SR-71s. It is reported that he has logged more flight time in excess of Mach 3 than any other pilot.
The SR-71A Blackbird is a Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft designed and built by Lockheed’s famous (but Top Secret) “Skunk Works” for the United States Air Force. It was developed from the Central Intelligence Agency’s A-12 Oxcart program.
The SR-71A is a two-place aircraft, operated by a Pilot and a Reconnaissance Systems Officer (“RSO”). It uses electronic and optical sensors. The fuselage has a somewhat flattened aspect with chines leading forward from the wings to the nose. The wings are a modified delta, with integral engine nacelles. Two vertical stabilizers are mounted at the aft end of the engine nacelles and cant inward toward the aircraft centerline.
The SR-71A is 107 feet, 5 inches (32.741 meters) long with a wingspan of 55 feet, 7 inches (16.942 meters), and overall height of 18 feet, 6 inches (5.639 meters). Its empty weight is 67,500 pounds (30,620 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight is 172,000 pounds (78,020 kilograms).
The Blackbird is powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT11D-20 (J58-P-4) turbo-ramjet engines, rated at 25,000 pounds of thrust (111.21 kilonewtons) and 34,000 pounds of thrust (151.24 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The exhaust gas temperature is approximately 3,400 °F. (1,870 °C.). The J58 is a single-spool, axial-flow engine which uses a 9-stage compressor section and 2-stage turbine. The J58 is 17 feet, 10 inches (7.436 meters) long and 4 feet, 9 inches (1.448 meters) in diameter. It weighs approximately 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms).
The SR-71A has a maximum speed of Mach 3.3 at 80,000 feet (24,384 meters)—2,199 miles per hour (3,539 kilometers per hour). Its maximum rate of climb is 11,810 feet per minute (60 meters per second), and the service ceiling is 85,000 feet (25,908 meters). The Blackbird’s maximum unrefueled range is 3,680 miles (5,925 kilometers).
Lockheed built 32 SR-71As. They entered service with the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (later redesignated the 9th SRW) in 1966 and were initially retired in 1989. Several were reactivated in 1995, but finally retired in 1999.
23 October 1911: For the first time, the airplane is used in warfare. Capitán Carlo Maria Piazza, a pilot commanding an aviation unit of the Regio Esercito (the Italian Royal Army), flew a Blériot Type XI on a reconnaissance mission over the Zanzur oasis, south west of Tripoli, Libya, during the Italo-Turkish War (1911–1912).
Aviation author Walter J. Boyne wrote that, “The world’s first combat flight took place on October 23, when the Commander of the Air Fleet, Captain Piazza, took off at 6:19 a.m. to reconnoiter Turkish positions. In a sixty-one minute flight, he discovered several enemy encampments. . . .”
—The Influence of Air Power Upon History, Walter J. Boyne, Pen & Sword Books Limited, 2005, at Page 37.
The Blériot XI was a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, designed by Raymond Saulnier and built by Louis Charles Joseph Blériot. It was 24 feet, 11 inches (7.595 meters) long with a wingspan of 27 feet, 11 inches (8.509 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 10 inches (2.692 meters). It had an empty weight of 507 pounds (229.9 kilograms).
(Sources give conflicting specifications for the Blériot XI, probably because they were often changed in an effort to improve the airplane. Dimensions given here are from the three-view drawings, below.)
In its original configuration, the Type XI was powered by an air-cooled, 3.774 liter (230.273 cubic inches) Robert Esnault-Pelterie (R.E.P.) two-row, seven-cylinder fan engine (or “semi-radial”), which produced 30 horsepower at 1,500 r.p.m., and drove a four-bladed paddle-type propeller. The R.E.P. engine weighed 54 kilograms (119 pounds). This engine was unreliable and was soon replaced by an Alessandro Anzani & Co. W-3.
The Blériot XI Militaire was powered by a normally-aspirated, air-cooled, 7.983 liter (487.140-cubic-inch-displacement) Société des Moteurs Gnome Omega 7-cylinder rotary engine which produced 50 horsepower at 1,200 r.p.m. The direct-drive engine turned a two-bladed wooden propeller in a left-hand, pusher configuration. The Omega 7 is 79.2 centimeters (2 feet, 7.2 inches) long, 83.8 centimeters (2 feet, 9.0 inches) in diameter, and weighs 75.6 kilograms (166.7 pounds). The prototype of this engine is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air & Space Museum.
The Blériot XI had a maximum speed of 76 kilometers per hour (47 miles per hour) and its service ceiling was 1,000 meters (3,281 feet).
Captain Piazza was killed in action in 1917, during the First World War.
31 July 1944, famed French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint Exupéry), flying for the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres (the Free French Air Force), departed Borgo Airfield on the island of Corsica. He on a reconnaissance mission of the Rhône Valley. His aircraft was a Lockheed F-5B-1-LO Lightning, serial number 42-68223, an unarmed photo reconnaissance variant of the P-38J Lighting twin-engine fighter.
Saint-Exupéry was never seen again.
In 1998 a fisherman found his silver identity bracelet on the sea floor south of Marseilles. Parts of the aircraft were recovered in 2003.
“Saint-Ex” wrote Night Flight, Flight to Arras, Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince, as well as many other works. He was a gifted writer.
1 May 1960: Near Degtyansk, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia, a Central Intelligence Agency/Lockheed U-2C, 56-6693, “Article 360,” flying at approximately 80,000 feet (24,384 meters) on a Top Secret reconnaissance mission, was hit by shrapnel from an exploding Soviet V-750VN (S-75 Desna) surface-to-air missile.
With his airplane damaged and out of control, pilot Francis Gary Powers bailed out and parachuted safely but was immediately captured. A trailing MiG-19 fighter was also shot down by the salvo of anti-aircraft missiles, and its pilot killed.
Gary Powers was interrogated by the KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti, the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union, a military intelligence/counterintelligence service) for 62 days. He was held at the notorious Lubyanka Prison in Moscow then prosecuted for espionage. Found guilty, Powers was sentenced to three years imprisonment and seven years of hard labor.
After almost two years, he was exchanged for William August Fisher, (AKA Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) a long-time Soviet intelligence officer who had been captured in the United States in 1957. [This story was recounted in the Steven Spielberg motion picture, “Bridge of Spies,” which starred Tom Hanks. The film received six Academy Award nominations in 2015.]
Francis Gary Powers entered the United States Air Force as an aviation cadet in 1950. He graduated from pilot training and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1952. Powers was then assigned to the 468th Strategic Fighter Squadron, 506th Strategic Fighter Wing at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia, where he flew the Republic F-84G Thunderjet fighter bomber. He received special training in the delivery of the Mark 7 variable-yield tactical nuclear bomb.
In 1956, 1st Lieutenant Powers was released from the U.S. Air Force to participate in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Project Aquatone. He was now a civilian government employee, although he was promised that he could return to the Air Force and that he would keep his seniority and would be promoted on schedule.
After his release from the Soviet Union, Powers was employed as a test pilot for Lockheed, 1962–1970. He then became an airborne traffic and news reporter for several Los Angeles-area radio and television broadcast stations.
Powers was killed in the crash of a Bell 206B JetRanger helicopter at Van Nuys, California, 1 August 1977.
On 24 November 1986, the Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded posthumously to Powers “For Extraordinary Achievement While Participating in Aerial Flight 1 May 1960.”
After reviewing his record at the request of his son, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., on 15 February 2000, the U.S. Air Force retroactively promoted him to the rank of Captain, effective 19 June 1957, and further credited his military service to include 14 May 1956–1 March 1963, the time he was with the CIA. The award of the Prisoner of War Medal was also authorized.
On June 15, 2012, General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, awarded Captain Francis Gary Powers the Silver Star (posthumous).
Article 360 had been built as a U-2A, the last aircraft of the initial production block. It was delivered to Groom Lake, Nevada, 5 November 1956, and was used for test and development until May 1959, when it was converted to the U-2C configuration.
The Lockheed U-2C was a very high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the United States Air Force. It was 49 feet, 7 inches (15.113 meters) long with a wingspan of 80 feet, 2 inches (24.435 meters) and height of 15 feet, 2 inches (4.623 meters). Its empty weight was 14,250 pounds (6,464 kilograms) and gross weight was 24,150 pounds (10,954 kilograms).
The U-2C was powered by a Pratt & Whitney J75-P-13B turbojet engine rated at 17,000 pounds of thrust (75.62 kilonewtons) at Sea Level. Two-spool axial-flow turbojet with 15-stage compressor (8 low- and 7 high-pressure stages) and 3-stage turbine (1 high- and two low-pressure stages).
The U-2C’s cruise speed was 400 knots (460 miles per hour, 741 kilometers per hour) at 65,000 feet (19,812 meters) and its maximum speed was 0.87 Mach at 62,000 feet (18,898 meters), though the airplane was placarded for 0.80 Mach, maximum. The maximum range was 4,600 nautical miles (8,519 kilometers). It could operate at 76,000 feet (23,165 meters).
The В-750ВН (13Д) Десна (V-750VN 13D Desna) (NATO designation: SA-2B Guideline) is a two-stage ground-controlled anti-aircraft missile. The two-stage rocket is 10.841 meters (35 feet, 6.8 inches) long, and its loaded weight is 2,283 kilograms (5,033 pounds). First built at Plant N41, it became operational in 1959.
The missile could reach an altitude of 30,000 meters (98,425 feet) and had a maximum range of 34 kilometers (21 miles). It carried a 191 kilogram (421 pound) blast fragmentation warhead.
The missile had a Circular Error Probability (CEP) of 65 meters (213 feet), meaning that 50% of the missiles launched could be expected to come within 65 meters of the target. Early warheads produced approximately 8,000 fragments, each with an initial velocity of 2,500 meters per second (5,592 miles per hour). The maximum blast radius against a high altitude target was about 250 meters (820 feet).
The rocket’s first stage had a maximum diameter of 0.654 meter (2 feet, 3.6 inches) and fin span of 2.586 meters (8 feet, 5.8 inches). It was powered by a solid fuel Kartukov PRD-18 engine. The engine burned for 3–5 seconds and produced a maximum 455 kilonewtons (102,288 pounds) of thrust.
The second stage was 8.139 meters (26 feet, 8.4 inches) long with a maximum diameter of 0.500 meters (1 foot, 7.7 inches). The maximum fin span was 1.691 meters (5 feet, 6.6 inches). Its loaded weight was 1,251 kilograms (2,758 pounds). The second stage was powered by a C2.711B1 (S2.711V1) hypergolic liquid-fueled rocket engine which produced 30.4 kilonewtons (6,834 pounds) of thrust.
30 April 1962: Though it had been airborne briefly just a few days earlier, “Article 121”, the first Lockheed A-12, serial number 60-6924, took off from a Top Secret facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, on its “official” first flight. Lockheed test pilot Louis Wellington (“Lou”) Schalk, Jr. was in the cockpit.
The 72,000-pound (32,659 kilogram) airplane lifted off the 8,000-foot (2,438 meters) runway at 170 knots (196 miles per hour, 315 kilometers per hour).
During the 59-minute test flight, Schalk kept the airspeed to just 340 knots (391 miles per hour, 630 kilometers per hour), but climbed to 30,000 feet (9.144 meters) while he tested systems and handling characteristics. He described the airplane as very stable and extremely responsive.
The A-12 was a top secret reconnaissance airplane built for the Central Intelligence Agency under the code name “Oxcart.” It was the replacement for the Agency’s high-flying but subsonic U-2 spy plane which had become vulnerable to radar-guided surface-to-air missiles. (A U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers had been shot down with an SA-2 Guideline missile while over Russia exactly one year before.)
The A-12 could fly faster than Mach 3 and higher than 80,000 feet—so fast and so high that no missile could reach it. By the time missile site radar locked on to an A-12 and a missile was prepared to fire, the Oxcart had already flown beyond the missile’s range.
The Lockheed A-12 was a single-place, twin-engine hypersonic reconnaisance aircraft. It was 101.6 feet (30.97 meters) long, with a wingspan of 55.62 feet (16.95 meters) and overall height of 18.45 feet (5.62 meters). It had an empty weight of 54,600 pounds (24,766 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 124,600 pounds (57,878 kilograms).
The A-12 was powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT11D-20 (J58-P-4) turbo-ramjet engines, rated at 25,000 pounds of thrust (111.21 kilonewtons) and 34,000 pounds of thrust (151.24 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The exhaust gas temperature is approximately 3,400 °F. (1,870 °C.). The J58 is a single-spool, axial-flow engine which uses a 9-stage compressor section and 2-stage turbine. The J58 is 17 feet, 10 inches (7.436 meters) long and 4 feet, 9 inches (1.448 meters) in diameter. It weighs approximately 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms).
The A-12’s speed was Mach 3.2 (2,125 miles per hour/3,118 kilometers per hour) at 75,000 feet(22,860 meters). Its cruise altitude was 84,500–97,600 feet (25,756–29,748 meters). The range was 4,210 nautical miles (4,845 miles/7,797 kilometers)
Article 121 was the first of thirteen A-12s built by Lockheed’s “Skunk Works.” They were operational from 1964–1968, when they were phased out in favor of the U.S. Air Force two-man SR-71A “Blackbird.”
Today, the first Lockheed A-12 is on display at Blackbird Airpark, an annex of the Air Force Flight Test Museum, Edwards Air Force Base, California. It has made 322 flight and accumulated a total of 418.2 flight hours.