In the early 60s, the Cold War was intensifying between the United States and the Soviet Union. Because of rising tensions between the two superpowers, the threat of a nuclear war was a genuine concern for both sides. So naturally, spying and reconnaissance became valuable tactics.
The main asset that the United States had in its arsenal for reconnaissance in the 60s was the U2 spy plane, designed to stealthily penetrate enemy airspace and monitor events on the ground. However, on May 1, 1960, the US lost a little faith in its beloved U2 when one was shot down over the Soviet Union. It was at this point that the US realized the need for a spy plane that couldn’t be shot down and could get in and out of enemy territory very quickly.
Luckily for the US, the CIA had approached defense contractor Lockheed to design and build a completely undetectable spy plane just a few years prior, in 1957. By 1960, the CIA had approved a single design and granted Lockheed a $96 million contract to build a dozen of them. These would come to be known as the A-12.
The A-12 ended up flying multiple missions over North Korea and Vietnam before ultimately being retired in 1968 due to budget concerns. Out of the A-12’s ashes, the SR-71 rose to become the US’ quintessential spy plane.
Developed for the USAF as a reconnaissance aircraft, the SR-71 instantly became the highest-flying and fastest aircraft in the world by a long shot. Capable of achieving speeds over 2,200 mph, more than three times the speed of sound, and traveling at altitudes of over 85,000 feet, it was perfect.
The first test flight of the SR-71 Blackbird took place on December 22, 1964. Production of the SR-71 came to 32 aircraft in total, consisting of 29 SR-71As, two SR-71Bs, and a single SR-71C.
All testing for the SR-71 had to be scheduled during particular times to avoid Soviet satellite observations, but the results were amazing. Lockheed had not only built a plane that could travel fast and high, but it also had a minimal radar cross-section due to its radar-absorbing paint, making it virtually undetectable.
To this day, the Blackbird remains the world’s fastest and highest-flying manned aircraft. Unfortunately, the plane no longer flies any missions as it was retired from service back in 1988. During its retirement flight from Los Angeles to Washington in 1990, the SR-71 gave us one more demonstration of its prowess, making the coast-to-coast flight in just 67 minutes.