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What It Was Like To Fly the SR-71 Blackbird

A veteran U.S. Air Force pilot and current volunteer at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. has given us a small glimpse of what it was like to fly the SR-71 Blackbird.

You love badass planes. So do we. Let’s nerd out over them together.

Adelbert “Buzz” Carpenter accumulated 4,400 flight hours in various airplanes during his military career, from the T-38 Talon trainer to the C-141 Starlifter. Carpenter also has more than 300 hours in strategic reconnaissance aircraft, including the U-2 and SR-71, and flew missions from Beale Air Force Base in California, Kadena Air Base in Japan, and Mildenhall Air Base in the U.K.

Now retired, Carpenter volunteers as a docent at the Air & Space Museum, explaining to kids who were born after the SR-71 was retired what it was like to fly the fastest jet ever built. Carpenter is a fountain of knowledge about the “Blackbird” on everything from the cameras to navigation.

The SR-71 was the result of a requirement for a high-speed, high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft. The U.S. military, anticipating a time when the high-flying U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane could be shot down by the Soviet Union, requested an aircraft that not only flew at high altitudes, but could also outrun enemy interceptors and surface-to-air missiles.

In the video below, Carpenter is standing in front of 61-7972, the last SR-71 to ever fly. On March 6, 1990, 61-7972 flew from Palmdale, California to Washington, D.C., covering the distance in 64 minutes and 20 seconds, with a top speed of 2,242 miles per hour.

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One of the things you begin to understand listening to Carpenter is how much heat was factored into the aircraft. The SR-71 got hot at Mach 3, to the point where the average skin temperature was over 600 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, 93 percent of the aircraft is made from titanium, which has better heat-resisting qualities than aluminum and was sourced, ironically, from the Soviet Union itself.

SR-71b ''Blackbird'' aerial reconnaissance aircraft

NASA SR-71 flying in 1997.

NASAGetty Images

Carpenter says the pilot’s glass canopy regularly reached 620 degrees and was made from 1.5-inch thick “oven glass.” The SR-71 also had a thermal expansion issue, as the titanium expanded when heated. To solve the problem, the aircraft was built with joints designed to fill in as the plane grew up to 4 inches in length during flight.

Anyone can give a lecture on a sophisticated piece of engineering like the SR-71, but a pilot who has actually flown the aircraft and placed his faith in it can explain the intricacies like no one else.


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