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.
Whatever the reason for its retirement, the Air Force’s most glorious bird was headed for the sunset — but not before making history and setting a few more records.
When it was operationally retired in 1990, a Blackbird piloted by Lt. Col. Raymond E. Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph T. Vida was tasked to fly one last time from Palmdale, Calif. to its new home at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Apparently, they had somewhere to be in the D.C. area that day, too.
During that Blackbird’s final flight on Mar. 7, 1990, the plane and its pilots set four new speed records:
- West Coast of the United States to the U.S. East Coast – 2,404 miles in 68:17.
- Los Angeles, Calif., to Washington, D.C. – 2,299 miles in 64:20
- Kansas City, Mo., to Washington, D.C. – 942 miles in 25:59
- St. Louis, Mo., to Cincinnati, Ohio – 311 miles in 8:32
The SR-71 refueled in mid-air over the Pacific Ocean before beginning its transcontinental journey. It arrived at Dulles International Airport to a throng of onlookers and well-wishers who knew a good thing when they saw one.
Addressing the full Senate after the historic, record-setting 1990 flight, Senator John Glenn told the assembly that the flight would be remembered as “a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”
The interesting video in this post features The U.S. Air Force SR-71 Blackbird Plane That Holds SIX World Records. In the video Museum Docent, Scott Willey describes the final record-setting flight of the National Air and Space Museum’s SR-71.
This Blackbird accrued about 2,800 hours of flight time during 24 years of active service with the U.S. Air Force.
On its last flight, March 6, 1990, Lt. Col. Ed Yielding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida set a speed record by flying from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging 3,418 kilometers (2,124 miles) per hour.
At the flight’s conclusion, they landed at Washington-Dulles International Airport and turned the airplane over to the Smithsonian.
The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird also broke the world’s record for sustained altitude in horizontal flight at 25,929 meters (85,069 feet).
The same day another SR-71 set an absolute speed record of 3,529.6 kilometers per hour (2,193.2 miles per hour), approximately Mach 3.3.