The SR-71, an aircraft that first flew some 50 years ago next Monday, still holds the public's imagination like no other flying machine. It could lob a couple of guys, some cameras, radars and jammers through the air at Mach 3.2. Yet seeing it perform down-low at an air show was something akin to watching Darth Vader cook a turkey with force lightning then carve it with his lightsaber.
It was both awe inspiring and sort of awkward at the same time.
Although the Blackbird was a fairly maneuverable machine considering its intended purpose, it was not at home under 250 knots doing turns and low approaches in front of air show crowds. Yet this is what made the jet so amazing to watch, the fact that this 107 foot long titanium jet-sled could still put on a show down in the thick air, and what a spectacle it was.
With its bus sized afterburner plumes and high angle of attack slow maneuvering, the Blackbird looked like a sci-fi god performing in a mortal's world. Sometimes this 'bottom of the envelope' maneuvering combined for some sporadic engine effects. The SR-71's finicky J-58 turbojets had their airflow issues up high and at supersonic speed, with 'unstarts' being a major hurdle during the genesis of the Oxcart program, down low these same engines could backfire and were susceptible to intermittent compressor stalls at high angles of attack, especially when the throttle was advanced. The results of which were huge fireballs erupting out the back of the big black jet. When they happened they were a real crowd pleaser to say the least.
The whole SR-71 air show affair looked like something of a fish out of water, an aircraft trying to show what it can do on someone else's terms and this is what made it so damn thrilling. 1999 was the year of the last SR-71 air show performance. It occurred during the Edwards Open House and was nothing near to the ungainly performances and nerve wracking shows of the 1980s, although it did include a sonic boom flyby at 80,000 feet. Still, in the decade and a half that has passed since the Blackbird last graced the skies, her presence has been sorely missed. Maybe, in the not so distant future, we will finally have something as outrageous to replace her, although with a more diverse mission set. Until then, at least we have some videos to remember just how crazy she looked doing her thing in front of air show crowds around the globe.
Here are some bonus SR-71 air show videos, and let's not forget some epic flybys:
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com