American Spy Plane Drama at Duxford

| 23 April 2001

The Imperial War Museum at Duxford, near Cambridge, has just taken delivery of a rather special Blackbird.

This Blackbird flies a bit higher than the average garden species - over 80,000 feet higher in fact. It's a supersonic American spy plane - the Lockheed SR71 Blackbird.

When the 2,200 mph Blackbird first took to the skies in the 'Sixties it flew so high, so fast, that no jet fighter in the world could catch it. Many records set by the plane have yet to be beaten today. Some aviation insiders think it capable of much higher speeds, but authorities refuse to reveal more about the craft.

32 SR71 jets were designed and built in total secrecy and then flown on clandestine missions over hotspots worldwide: including North Vietnam, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Iran and Cuba.

"The acquisition of this truly remarkable aircraft really confirms our position as the leading museum in this field," said Ted Inman, Director of Duxford.

American (and, it is rumoured, British) pilots were able to watch over every corner of the Earth; every secret installation, every airfield, every naval dockyard. For three decades the SR71 fleet gathered intelligence from high in the sky all over the world, until retirement in the 1990's.

Capable of flying at least three times faster than the speed of sound, or 2,200 miles per hour, the example now on show at Duxford set a record for sustained high altitude level flight at 85,069 ft in 1976.

To reach these altitudes, pilots like Rogers E. Smith, above had to wear special pressure suits almost identical to those worn by astronauts.

Aircraft like the Duxford example, serial number 962, flew discretely from nearby Mildenhall airbase. Blackbird 962 last flew in 1989 and was then stored for ten years in California, before making a last journey across the Atlantic - by sea and road this time.

Although some Duxford aircraft fly regularly for the benefit of visitors during displays, it is unlikely SR 71 962 will fly again.The Imperial War Museum at Duxford is open daily at 10 am. Call 01223 835000 for information or look at the website at: www.iwm.org.uk

Photos courtesy of the Dryden Flight Research Centre Image Gallery, at NASA.

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