Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane by James Hamilton-Paterson

Review published on August 19, 2017.

Of all the aircraft ever developed, the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ is probably one of the most distinctive. Conceived by Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson along with a team of brilliant engineers at ‘Skunk Works’, Lockheed Martin’s highly secret military development site, the design first saw the light of day in the late 1950s. That is seventy years ago and it still looks futuristic now. Built to replace the U2 spy plane, it was designed to be the fastest and highest flying aircraft. When development finished in the mid-1960s it was the pinnacle of aero and jet development; it could fly at 85,000 feet at a speed of Mach 3 (approximately 2000mph) for a range of 3200 miles. The various versions of the plane flew missions over the world from then until the end of the nineties and it was never shot down. It was only retired as the job it was designed to do could now be done better with satellites.

The Blackbird is an engineering marvel. The engineering team had to solve so many problems in using titanium, then an exotic material, even finding that the cadmium plating on their tools would affect it. The pilots had to be dressed as astronauts as the plane flew so high and the fuselage was mostly fuel tanks. They had a reputation for leaking fuel all over the place, but that was not entirely true. The plane holds various speed records including one for travelling from New York to London in just 1 hour 54 minutes, which is just staggering. It is a plane that looks fast even on the ground.

Hamilton-Paterson has managed to bring us a distilled history of an aircraft that is eminently readable and full of details and anecdotes on the development and challenges that the creation of this aircraft too. There is a limited amount of detail on the operations that the SR-71 undertook, probably because most are still classified. It is a good introduction to the aircraft, with some interesting photos as well, but if the book has one flaw, it was that it was too short.

Paul Cheney 4/3

Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane by James Hamilton-Paterson
Pegasus 9781681775050 hbk Sep 2017

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