Many of the world’s most spectacular aircraft have been developed and tested in secrecy in the Nevada desert, including a family of spy planes known as the Blackbirds.
The first of these planes were flown at a formerly unknown base called Area 51. Now, a new book about those lays bare the inside story of the best known Blackbird, the SR-71.
The sleek futuristic planes looked like they flew in from another planet and set many records that still stand, years after they were taken out of service.
No one has spent more time digging up secrets and photos of the SR-71 than aviation writer Jim Goodall.
“I was 18 years old the first time I saw a Blackbird,” said Goodall. “I got goosebumps just thinking about it. It was 3:15 in the afternoon March 10, 1964. I have never been the same.”
Jim Goodall’s got it bad — a case of love at first sight. He was smitten more than half a century ago, and this — his 24th book — is essentially a love letter written to a machine.
“This is a Buck Rogers airplane that was developed in the 1950s and you look at it today, if you knew nothing about the Blackbird and you saw one at Nellis or an air show, you’d be dumfounded.”
Goodall is well known in aviation circles. For decades, he and his pals, including famed pilot John Lear, have prowled the outskirts of once obscure air bases, including Area 51 and Area 52 trying to catch a glimpse of the newest and best technology under development, but nothing has ever come close.
His book chronicles how the engineers of Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works team developed the three planes in the Blackbird family — the YF-12, the A-12 and the magnificent SR-71. The first two were both flown out of Groom Lake, aka Area 51. Included in the 710 photos in the book are dozens which have never been published because of the secrecy surrounding the planes, and the places they flew.
“I’ve been collecting stuff for 50 years,” Goodall said. “I’ve interviewed everybody from Kelly Johnson to Ben Rich, all the original test pilots, all the surviving oxcart A-12 pilots, and a lot of SR-71 pilots. My ex-wives, I’ve had multiple of them, they said it’s not a hobby, it’s an obsession.
Skunk Works engineers had to design and build, from scratch, a spy plane that could cruise 2,100 miles per hour at 80 to 90,000 feet. They did it in a mere 32 months, using slide rules instead of computers.
The planes proved an invaluable tool during the cold war. Hostile adversaries tried to shoot them down but never did, though Blackbird pilots knew the risks every time they took off.
“They built 50 Blackbirds total, and over that 25 to 30 years they were operational, they crashed 20 of them.
They crashed three in 10 days in 1967 but because it was a black program, the press and public didn’t know anything about it.
The SR-71 still holds may aviation records. It flew from the West Coast to the East Coast in one hour and seven minutes. That’s in excess of 2,100 miles per hour. There is likely a project flying around that could beat that project, but whatever it is, it’s still classified.
You can find more information on Goodall’s book here.
Jim Goodall managed to acquire an SR-71, though finagle might be a better word. Here is that story.