Looking like it might have come from Q’s workshop in a James Bond film, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is in fact from the same period, completing its maiden flight in December 1964 and entering service with the U.S. Air Force in January 1966. Commissioned by the CIA, it was developed in the legendary secret “Lockheed Advanced Development Project Unit,” better known as “Skunk Works.” Only 32 of these stealth reconnaissance aircraft were built. In 1976, it set the world record for fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, flying at 3,529.6 kilometers per hour, or just under Mach 3.2, and it still holds this record today. The Blackbird escaped discovery and avoided threats by simply accelerating and climbing higher, up to a service ceiling of 25 kilometers. Flying across the entire continental U.S. took roughly 70 minutes.
But just as revolutionary as the aircraft design were the materials used in it. The airframe consisted of 85 percent titanium; the rest was made up of a variety of materials, including polymer composites. While the aircraft’s unusual form provided camouflage, adding cesium to the fuel also helped mask it by changing the radar echo from the exhaust fumes.
The SR-71 was powered by two JT11D-20 turbojet engines from Pratt & Whitney (military designation J58) with ram jet function. Channeling part of the inflowing air through six tubes directly into the afterburner and bypassing the compressor increased efficiency.
Only 86 carefully selected pilots were permitted to fly the two-seater; the second person on board was a reconnaissance officer whose job entailed photographing and filming, preferably behind the Iron Curtain. The last SR-71 flight—then on a mission for NASA—took place on October 9, 1999. Now the futuristic-looking aircraft can be admired in various aviation museums, including the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, England, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.