Cold War Relics: SR-71 Blackbird Published July 1, 2013 By Senior Airman Allen Pollard 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The SR-71, unofficially known as the Blackbird, is a long-range, supersonic, advanced high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft designed by Kelly Johnson and developed by Lockheed. The aircraft was capable of flying above 80,000 feet and more than 2,000 mph. The first flight of the Blackbird was Dec. 22, 1964, and enterd service here in January 1966. According to the National Museum of the Air Force on March 21, 1968, Maj. Jerome F. O'Malley and Maj. Edward D. Payne conducted the first operational SR-71 sortie. The same aircraft accumulated 2,981 flying hours and flew 942 total sorties which is more than any other SR-71. Also, it flew 257 operational missions and was used extensively in the Vietnam War. In 1970, the SR-71 provided strategic imagery for the Son Tay prison camp raid when the United States identified the names of more than 500 American Prisoners of War who were being held captive by the North Vietnamese. With aid from the SR-71 the mission was deemed a tactical success due to its near flawless execution. After the Vietnam War, the SR-71 established a level-flight-at-altitude record at 85,131 feet and a straight-course speed record of 2,194 mph. In order to achieve extreme speeds the Blackbird required two Pratt & Whitney J-58 turbojet engines. To ignite, these engines utilized the AG330 start cart to achieve 3,200 rpm. The cart used two Buick Wildcat V-8 racing engines, each of 425 cubic inch displacement. Together the engines produced more than 600 horsepower and were tied to a common gear box to deliver torque through the starter drive shaft to the J-58s. The Air Force retired the SR-71 fleet on Jan. 26, 1990, due to the decreasing defense budget and high cost of operation. However, the Air Force returned the SR-71 to its active inventory in 1995, and began flying operational missions in January 1997. The SR-71 was permanently retired in late 1998 and through its 24 year career the SR-71 remained the world's fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft.