SR-71 Blackbird was so fast it outran every missile, Mig fighter jet encountered over enemy territory

Dec 04 2013 - 42 Comments

Even if the development of the hypersonic strike aircraft dubbed SR-72 has been recently announced, its predecessor, the iconic Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird, remains one of the fastest planes ever flown operationally.

When the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was built, its designer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson already knew that it would have become vulnerable to enemy defenses.

So, to gather intelligence in the skies of foreign countries, in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the Lockheed Advance Development Projects, also known as the Skunk Works, built another strategic reconnaissance aircraft, so fast that no other airplane could reach it: the SR-71 Blackbird.

When the SR-71 entered the active service with the U.S. Air Force, its flight characteristics were incredible: it was able to fly at more than three and a half times the speed of sounds at 88,000 feet, over sixteen miles up.

To give an idea of such altitude, the Blackbird took photos from three times the height of Everest and its pilots dressed full pressure suits like astronauts.

During its career, which ceased on Oct. 9 1999 with its last flight, no SR-71 was lost due to hostile actions.

In fact, neither enemy fighters nor enemy surface to air missiles (SAM) were ever able to shoot down or to damage a SR-71.

But the aircraft was never shot down also because it was hardly detected by enemy radars, being the first aircraft featuring stealth technology. Indeed, for the first time a special paint was used for Blackbird’s wings, tail and fuselage: since it contained iron ferrites, this paint absorbed radar energy instead of returning it to the sender.

With an RCS (Radar Cross Section) of a small light aircraft, when the SR-71 was found on radar it was too late for a SAM computer to estimate its direction for a successful kill.

The range and the bearing of the SR-71 was also denied to the enemy by jamming its devices with the use of the sophisticated electronic countermeasures (ECM) transported by the Blackbird.

SR_71 3

Not only SAMs failed to catch the Blackbird: even the the fastest Soviet fighter jets lacked the necessary speed to reach the SR-71.

Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko, who defected to Japan in a MiG-25 on Dec. 6, 1976, confirmed it in its “MiG Pilot” book.

“American reconnaissance planes, SR-71s, were prowling off the coast, staying outside Soviet airspace by photographing terrain hundreds of miles inland with side – angle cameras. They taunted and toyed with the MiG-25s sent up to intercept them, scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach, and circling leisurely above them or dashing off at speeds the Russians could not match,” Belenko explained.

However, according to the Mig pilot, Russians tried to intercept and shoot down a Blackbrid, but they always failed this task: “[The Soviets] had a master plan to intercept an SR-71 by positioning a MiG-25 in front of it and one below it, and when the SR-71 passed they would fire missiles. But it never occurred. Soviet computers were very primitive, and there is no way that mission can be accomplished.”

“First of all, the SR-71 flies too high and too fast. The MiG-25 cannot reach it or catch it. Secondly…the missiles are useless above 27,000 meters [88,000 feet], and as you know, the SR-71 cruises much higher. But even if we could reach it, our missiles lack the velocity to overtake the SR-71 if they are fired in a tail chase. And if they are fired head-on, the guidance systems cannot adjust quickly enough to the high closing speed”.

Moreover, as recently told by the former Blackbird pilot Col. Richard H. Graham in his book “SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest , Fastest Plane”, Belenko’s missiles would have not worked because “Most air- to-air missiles are optimized to maneuver in the thicker air below around 30,000 feet in order to shoot down an enemy plane. Firing at the SR-71, cruising at 75,000 feet, the air is so thin that any maneuvering capability of the missile is practically nonexistent.”

Speed is the new stealth is Lockheed Martin’s new slogan. But has worked well for the last 60 years….

David Cenciotti contributed to this story.

SR-71 4

Image credit: U.S. Air Force via SR-71 FB page

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  • TheRedLeaf

    Thanks for this, I’d forgotten how much speed can be its own defence and the sheer altitude does make a hell of difference on maneuverability. I’m curious if there were any seekers designed specifically in mind for high altitude flyers. The SM (standard missiles) and Arrow come to mind in terms of service ceiling but regardless, the range and lack of atmosphere makes this arena a challenge for attacker and defender.

  • FoilHatWearer

    The media typically reports that Blackbird flew around 80,000 feet. The highest published altitude that I’ve ever seen is 96,000 feet. If the Blackbird could stay comfortably higher than a MiG-25 in a zoom climb (approx 37,000 meters, or 120,000 feet), it’s operational altitude was much higher than what’s published.

    • Brad Chang

      The Blackbird unofficially flew way above 80,000 ft. 80,000 ft was about the ceiling for the U-2’s. The Blackbirds started where the U-2’s left off…120,000 was never a problem for the Blackbirds (because it flew higher). My dad flew them from 1963 to 1979.

    • Mastro63

      Couldn’t Soviet SAM’s go above 100,000 feet?

      • FoilHatWearer

        Yes. The problem is that they couldn’t maneuver much once they got up there.

    • pfbonney

      I was talking to a retired Air Force radar operator a couple of months ago. He said that he saw an SR-71 coming back from Asia, on his radarscope, flying to Beale AFB (I believe he said). His radar scope reported 120,000 ft.

      Thanks for the confirmation.

    • Trevor Dinsmore

      There was a sign on the wall in the ready-room used by SR-71 pilots in Japan. “Yea though I fly through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because I’m at 90,000 feet and climbing.”

  • FoilHatWearer

    Various enemies shot at Blackbird over 4000 times and never got a hit.

  • BehindEL

    The best plane ever built! I wish I was alive back when it was in service to see it fly.

    • Axle

      No one ever saw the SR71 fly. I used to work with a guy that was in the Air Force. He was stationed at a facility that serviced the Blackbird. He told me that security was so high that he only saw the Blackbird once and that was a favor. He was allowed the opportunity to watch one take off just once. What he saw, blew his mind. The Blackbird got rolling and as soon as it’s wheels left the ground. The pilot pointed the craft straight up and was gone in a matter of seconds. It was explained to him that the pilots are instructed to take off in this manner to prevent anyone from spotting the craft or photographing the craft. This all happened during the late 60’s. You have a better chance of seeing one now at an air museum. We had a Blackbird here at the Minneapolis International Air Museum for awhile. As I was told. The craft was on lone and at some point was taken back to where it came from.

      • joexzy

        Instead of posting bullsh!_t. why not go to Air National Guard Museum and check it out. The plane on display there is an A-12, not a SR-71.

        • Axle

          REALLY! I never said it was an SR-71 or and A-12, but it was a Blackbird that we had here at the Minneapolis airport and I was very disappointed when it was removed. The aircraft was here on display back in the 90’s.
          You were most likely playing video games or jerking off in the mom’s basement back then.

      • Darren Thrasher

        Do you actually believe all the nonsense you just wrote? For God’s sake, I was in the Navy and saw an SR-71 take off in Kadena! You don’t think the USAF boys would be allowed to see them???

        • Axle

          The story I shared was a story I was told by a co-worker who was in the Air Force. I have no reason to not believe his story. This happened during the height of the cold war back in the early 60’s. During those early years that the CIA was using the Blackbird, security was very tight around the bases that they flew out of. Later on it did become more common to spot one, which was still rare considering how few there were.

          • Scott Johnson

            Years ago…want to say I was 8th grade.ish. My Boy Scout troop leader took us on a field trip to where he worked at Beale AFB . the highlight of the trip was going in a hanger to see the SR. At 12 years old that aircraft looked huge. As a kid i had know idea the importance of this craft.

            When i got home that day, my father asked me what i had seen. Of course I told him about the plane. He didn’t believe me at first. I described the plane over and over and over. I thought … Jesus Christ dad,I had just seen it 2 hours before.

            Now my father being in the Army Air Corp, say 1940 to 1941…this didn’t set well with him. Not at all. He called my scout leader and let him have it. First and only time I ever heard my father swear.

      • Wayne Stemple

        When you say that no one ever saw it fly, what about ground crews or even better, the crews on the 135Q’s that had to refuel it right after it took off!

  • Mike

    The SR-71 BlackBird is still very nice plain!

    I hope the United States will be superior in the future with the newest nuclear weapons, supersonic cruise-missiles and for example the X-43.

    China (and Russia)/ terrorists are a lot more dangerous today…

    • Kemijoen Rantarosvo

      Oh bugger off! The only living terrorists are a product of D.C. hubris. Thank God “W” had the sense (and balls) to kick Rumsfeld and deploy troops in 2006 or the all of us, not only US, would be far worse off…

      Regarding military planes, F4 Phantom was my favourite before I read about F-15 and IDF bombed one reactor-in-progress to smithereens. MiG-25 was rude and rough but a real deal. And then I learned what SAAB is made of. Having personally witnessed J-35 Draken, AJ-37 Viggen and mind-blowingly agile JAS-39 Gripen in action I have to say this: Dude or Comrade, if You ever come across a SAAB, You’re going down!

  • dude

    If -according to Lock Mart- speed is the new stealth does that mean they realize they’ve designed a lemon with the F-35.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo

      That would mean stelth is nullified. Speed means heat. Ultra hot engines, and very very hot aircraft exteriors. There’s no hiding when you’re high super sonic or hypersonic. What I’m betting is LockMart is pining for dollars, with stealth technologies losing the edge they had against the newly deployed radar systems.

  • Victor

    Can’t you see that the summary of this article is bullshxt? I like Blackbird, but: Before MiG-25 was released SR-71 flied above Soviet Union freely, but then it could fly only near borders in international zones. Because they knew if they enter to soviet air space they’ll be shoot down by MiG-25. And don’t forgot that Belenko is a traitor who just wanted to earn some money by publishing bullshxt.

  • Muppen

    Swedish Viggen pilots had many encounters with SR-71

    General Lennart Petterson is the chief of the Tactical Flight Command but also he was a fighter pilot back in the days. He clearly remembers how fast everything went which missions against the SR-71 involved and describes these events as the highlights of his career.

    “Each time was just as exciting and interesting. Intercepting the aircraft was tremendously difficult because of the high speeds and altitudes but it was one of the most extreme missions you could be a part of. When we succeeded, which we did most of the time, and afterwards could conclude that we actually would be able to shoot the SR-71 down if it were a live mission, it was quite pleasing since it was at the same time an evaluation of our professionalism.”

    Her is the story:

    • Räv

      I know very well the kind of missions to which General Petterson is referring. However, I doubt the Swedes locked on to the Blackbird. More likely, they locked onto Soviet Foxbat(s), which were always trying to intercept the Blackbird also. The service ceiling of the Viggen was about 18,000 meters (about 59,000 feet to the non-metric types), and its cruise speed was about Mach 2. Foxbats regularly flew at 20,000 meters (about 66,000 feet), but went higher, and could cruise at Mach 2.8 for a short period of time (it was a gas HOG!!). The Blackbird went much higher, and much faster than either plane. Even IF a Viggen did achieve lock on, it would have been a MUCH more difficult task to shoot the plane down, as the pilots had various ways to outmaneuver a missile.

      • Muppen

        Well. One of the Pilots explains in the link i provided how he did it. I also know a person who had been at one of the pilots home and seen a letter from pentagon/usaf framed, and put on the wall. In the letter the pilots was congratulated for his radar lock. This was must have been 1989 when i heard it the first time, and i think the pilots name was Lars Rådeström from Arboga, because i lived there then.
        So, yes i belive it…

    • Observer79

      That happened when the blackbird was at Mach 2.5 in a turning cycle, way below its operational ceiling and over ‘friendly’ territory. Blackbirds used Swedish airspace as a wavepoint before charging into Soviet airspace.

  • There is a grammatical error “confirmed it in its “MiG Pilot” book.” That should be “in his”.

  • Fix4RSO

    Umm, having worked on her, and knowing what has been printed, any claims that someone would be able to shoot down an SR-71 are “hogwash”!!! And, to “Victor”, the SR-71 was operational for 30+ years … Soviets had NUMEROUS opportunities and failed (every, every, time). Puff all ya want … and I know an ex-Soviet Radar guy who had the task of tracking and targeting the SR-71. There was a standing 30-day vacation for anyone who successfully bracketed the Blackbird … no one got a vacation on the back of a Blackbird!!!

    She was a sight to see, a pleasure to work on, and the most amazing experience of my career! When people ask me what my dream job would be, I just chuckle … I already had my dream job, the rest is all GRAVY! :)

    • Brad Chang

      Where were you stationed when you worked on the Blackbirds?

      My dad flew them out of Edwards AFB.


        Your dad flew SR-71s on the Sega Master System. No need to lie, kiddo.

  • Peter Bonfil

    That’s why Russia made Mig 31.

  • gshiver

    on seeing this discussion. i have talked to people that are in the military, and they have told me that the SR 71 is still in use. but still classified.

    • Axle

      I guess you never know. But by most accounts. All the Blackbirds have been taken out of service. Mostly due to the lack of repair parts. All the original molds and tooling where said to have been destroyed.
      I would be surprised if it where true that the military was still using them. Satellites are so advanced now that it’s not necessary to put a pilot in harms way.

      I would ask my military friends that if it’s “classified” why are they telling you about it.

    • Scott Johnson

      yes it is…saw it 3 weeks ago …week of 2/5/16

  • awwwasdwada

    so…….. it cant shoot?

  • Ronnie Fairley

    The Mig25/31 and the Viggen both did something to the SR71 that no other fighter could do at the time. The intercepted an SR71. The foxbat cruised at 2.8 and ran of Mach 3.2 for a 2 min time span. Stealth dispates with closer. Your rcs 30 miles out is not the same when it is 100 miles out. Though the sr71 had a superior advantage in speed and service height ceiling the mig had tricks or its own too. Manvuerability, IRST, powerful radar of its time, the most important was missiles. There is a wise saying that goes, you might be able to outrun me but you can’t outrun a bullet. What comes out next is a AA6 Acrid aka R40 missile which is a dervative of the Tomcats Phoenix missile. The rest is history and the Black bird with it. ITs not a SAM; 15kft is a big difference than than 90kft. The missile now has the range to pursue the blackbird and fly way faster than the plane ever did. Jammars is irrevlant of some missiles by the way.

  • I’m currently making a short film that recalls the Swedish intercept of the Blackbird! Check out our Kickstarter campaign where you can see a trailer for the film –

    • cencio4

      Hi Andy,

      we’ve recently backed your movie via Kickstarter :) It’s the first time we do that, but we found it extremely interesting so we pledged some money for it.

      Still, keep in touch, we can be interested in something more!

      • Awesome! Glad you enjoyed our campaign and thank you so much for your contribution! Is there an email address where I can reach you?

        • cencio4

          Hi Andy,

          you can contact me at cencio4(at)

  • fkozerski

    “SR-71 Day July 30, 2016!! Help Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Absolute World Speed Record of our “Blackbird”! Century Of Flight Hangar, Museum Of Aviation”

  • Andyj

    Belenko was speaking of 1970’s missiles. Things changed.