The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” is a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft that was operated by the United States Air Force.
It was developed as a black project from the Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance aircraft in the 1960s by Lockheed and its Skunk Works division. American aerospace engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was responsible for many of the design’s innovative concepts.
During its career, the SR-71 Blackbird gathered intelligence in some of the world’s most hostile environments. The SR-71 was conceived to operate at extreme velocities, altitudes, and temperatures: actually it was the first aircraft constructed with titanium, as the friction caused by air molecules passing over its surface at Mach 2.6 would melt a conventional aluminum frame.
The SR-71 served with the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1998. A total of 32 aircraft were built; 12 were lost in accidents with none lost to enemy action.
Less than two years later and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the 13th of September, 2001, the Pentagon asked if the SR-71 could be brought back. Not only was the answer yes, but the now-scattered Blackbird community could reconvene and provide intelligence products within 60 to 90 days at a cost of 45 million dollars for startup and one year of operations. The proposal went on to outline that year two costs would be reduced to 40 million dollars.
The role for the SR-71 Blackbird in the Global War On Terror was purported by Major William Michael Zimmerman, SR-71 Reactivation Program Manager, to be wide-area mapping in addition to the ongoing strategic deterrent of making non-lethal shows of force in the form of sonic booms over or near enemy territory as directed by elected leaders and combatant commanders.
Three SR-71As remained available at Edwards AFB as of September 13th, 2001. Those included 61-7980, 61-7971, and 61-7967. If the proposal to return SR-71 Blackbirds to service in the 2000s would have been pursued further, SR-71B 61-7956 more likely than not would have been pressed into duty for crew training and any combination of SR-71A tail numbers 61-7967, 61-7971 and 61-7980 would have been returned to the Air Force for operational missions.
Limited support from Air Force leadership and the perceived high cost of operation, which had been the bane of its existence for much of its later life, doomed the SR-71 Blackbird for a final time. Beyond the request to look into whether it could be brought back and the production of the subsequent proposal for doing so, the matter was not pursued any further. The reality was that the nature of airborne reconnaissance was deeply in flux at the time, which you can read about in detail here, here, and here, and spy satellites and the U-2s still in service could provide similar products as what the SR-71 could provide in many circumstances.
The four remaining flyable SR-71 Blackbirds were disposed of by the end of 2003. 61-7980 stayed at Edwards AFB and was moved to a display near the Armstrong Flight Research Center in March of 2002. The other Blackbirds required shipping to their final resting places which necessitated their wings being sawed off by Worldwide Aircraft Recovery.
These events are well documented, but few people know that the Blackbirds actually had a chance at joining coalition efforts in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. No matter why it would have or didn’t come back that final time in 2001, it’s noteworthy that the Blackbird’s capabilities were still missed, at least to a limited degree, even in a new millennium it was never designed for.