No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated globally in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71, the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft. The Blackbird’s performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War.
When the Blackbird was retired in 1990, not everyone was thrilled with the idea. Much of the debate around the SR-71’s mission and usefulness was because of political infighting, not because of any actual military need the plane couldn’t fill.
Still, the program was derided by Congressional military and budget hawks as being too costly for its designated mission. Some speculate the old guard of Air Force Cold Warriors had long since retired and newer generals couldn’t explain the plane’s mission in the post-Soviet order.
An advancement in satellite technology, the cost of flying the aircraft, and more all resulted in the aircraft’s retirement.
Here are the reasons why U.S. Air Force retired SR-71 Blackbird
Number one was perhaps the fact that the SR-71 was incredibly expensive to operate. The Blackbird cost a staggering $85,000 to operate per hour. And around $300 million to support the aircraft per year. Another reason was the fact that spy satellites could now do the same job as the SR-71. But they could also photograph a larger swathe of Soviet territory, and quicker and in the end cheaper than what it cost to operate the SR-71 fleet. These satellites simply started to eat into the work of the SR-71.
The SR-71 also lacked a data link, unlike the U-2 that had come before it. This meant that most of the imagery and radar data from the SR-71 were not available in real-time. And the aircraft would have to return to the base for its information to get downloaded.
Pentagon politics had also likely played a role in its Blackbird retirement, as despite the cost to operate there was clearly still a use for the Blackbird. Highlighted by the fact three were then reactivated. There was unease over political situations in both the Middle East and North Korea. So US Congress reexamined reactivating the SR-71 in 1993. Despite meeting some resistance, three SR-71s would fly again and enter service with the Air Force in 1995. These three Blackbirds would fly on with the US Air Force until 1998. This was before the Air Force finally retired them for good. NASA though would operate two of them until 1999.