The backseater later indicated a slow speed of 155 knots; the pilot saw 152 knots or 175 mph. The SR-71 at that point was gently floating down; control certainly would have been lost completely had not Blackbird pilot Brian Shul firewalled the throttles
One of the most sophisticated members of the Blackbird family, the SR-71 (along with the A-12 and YF-12) was created by a team of Lockheed personnel under the direction of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who was vice president of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Company Projects at the time. Known as the “Skunk Works,” this unit is now part of Lockheed Martin.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the A-12 reconnaissance aircraft—which made its first flight in April 1962 and remained classified until 1976—served as the model for the Blackbird. The YF-12A interceptor variant was first made public by President Lyndon Johnson on February 29, 1964, which was more than six months after it made its first flight. The SR-71 completed its first flight on Dec. 22, 1964.
The Blackbird was built to reach altitudes of up to 85,000 feet and cruise at “Mach 3+,” which is just over three times the speed of sound or more than 2,200 miles per hour.
Probably the most common question regarding the “Blackbird family” when discussing them is how high and fast they actually fly.
But what about the slowest Blackbird speed ever recorded?
‘I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England, with my backseater, Walt Watson. We were returning from a mission over Europe and the Iron Curtain when we received a radio transmission from home base,’ remembers Brian Shul, former SR-71 Blackbird pilot, in his book Sled Driver.
‘The aircrew was asked to make a low level pass of a British airfield where cadets were training. Having difficulty actually sighting the field, though navigation was dead on, the pilot, Brian Shul, realized the aircraft was below advertised flying airspeed, he lit the burners and darted off. The backseater later indicated slow speed of 155 knots, pilot saw 152 knots or 175 mph. The aircraft at that point was gently floating down, control certainly would have been lost completely had not Shul firewalled the throttles.’
This is most likely the slowest Lockheed Blackbird has ever flown.
However, after landing, Shul and Watson were met by their commander.
‘We were both certain he was reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 fly-past he had ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. […]Walt and I both understood the concept of “breathtaking” very well that morning and sheepishly replied that they were just excited to see our low approach.’
Photo by courtesy of Robin Harbour