The Blackbird

Museum Location: 
T. A. Wilson Great Gallery
Exhibit Type: 
Permanent Exhibits
Exhibit Status: 
Current Exhibits

Blackbird “Mother Ship”
The Blackbird family of aircraft cruised at speeds of more than Mach 3 and altitudes of over 85,000 feet (25,500 m). Conceived more than 45 years ago and retired from active service since the late 1990s, Blackbirds remain the fastest piloted jets ever built.

The M-21 is a variant of the A-12, the earliest Blackbird type. Built for a CIA program code-named “Tagboard,” the M-21 carried unpiloted drones for intelligence gathering. These D-21 drones were intended for launch from the M-21 “mother ship” for flights over especially hostile territory considered too “hot” for piloted Blackbird overflights. Unique design features of the M-21 compared to other Blackbird variants include the second seat for the launch control officer and the launch pylon on which the drone is mounted.

The Museum's M-21, built in 1963, and is the sole survivor of two M-21s constructed. The other one was lost in a drone-launching accident that led to the cancellation of the program.

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson
When a young engineer named Kelly Johnson came to Lockheed in 1933, one of the first things he told his new employers was that their new airplane design, the Electra, was inherently unstable. Instead of firing him, Lockheed asked Johnson to work on the problem. A double vertical tail configuration cured the Electra's woes and became a familiar trait of other Lockheed planes that Kelly helped design, including the Lightning, the Lodestar and the Ventura. In the early 1940s, Johnson established and led Lockheed's “Skunk Works”—an advanced development department that built some of America's most radical and fascinating aircraft, including the P-80, the U-2, the F-104 and the Blackbird family of spyplanes.

Revolutionary Design
In 1959, Lockheed's “Skunk Works” won the contract to build a new spyplane for the CIA and Air Force. Because of the extreme operating altitudes, speeds and temperatures envisioned for the new plane, practically everything on the new Blackbird had to be “reinvented,” including tires, oil, fuel and even paint. Kelly Johnson claimed that he offered $50 to any one of his engineers who could find something easy or conventional to do on the project. “I might as well have offered $1,000,” he said, “because I still have the money.” In spite of the unprecedented difficulties, Lockheed prevailed. Within 26 months, the Skunk Works had developed hundreds of revolutionary components and a 95-percent titanium structure necessary to withstand the high temperatures of the Blackbird's Mach 3 flight.

Flight Fact
An SR-71, the most numerous and successful Blackbird variant, set absolute world speed and altitude records for air-breathing production aircraft in 1976. The records of 85,000 ft. (25,500 m) and 2,193 m.p.h. (3,509 kph) were broken only in 2004 by NASA's experimental, unpiloted X-43A. The Blackbird remains the fastest, highest-flying piloted jet in history.

This aircraft is on loan from the U.S. Air Force Heritage Program.