Tag Archives: Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “One such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

The Blackbird NASA Used For Validating The SR-71 Linear Aerospike Experiment Configuration

The iconic SR-71 was used by NASA to undertake a series of experiments. To carry out some of these testing activities the Blackbird was installed an interesting pod.

According to official records, NASA has operated a fleet of seven Blackbirds:

YF-12A (60-6935) – December 1969 to November 1979
YF-12A (60-6936) – March 1970 to June 1971
SR-71A/YF-12C (61-7951/“06937”) – July 1971 to December 1978
SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) – January 1995 to June 1996
SR-71A (61-7967) – August 1995 to January 1996
SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) – July 1991 to October 1997
SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) – September 1992 to October 1999

The last SR-71 flight was made on Oct. 9, 1999, at the Edwards AFB air show. The aircraft used was NASA 844 that flew to 80,100 feet and Mach 3.21 in the very last flight of any Blackbird. Actually, the aircraft was also scheduled to make a flight the following day, but a fuel leak grounded the aircraft and prevented it from flying again. The NASA SR-71s were then put in flyable storage, where they remained until 2002. Then, they were sent to museums.

Throughout their career at NASA, Blackbirds have served as test beds for a series of high-speed and high-altitude research programs:

“As research platforms, the aircraft can cruise at Mach 3 for more than one hour. For thermal experiments, this can produce heat soak temperatures of over 600 degrees Fahrenheit (F). This operating environment makes these aircraft excellent platforms to carry out research and experiments in a variety of areas — aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, thermal protection materials, high-speed and high-temperature instrumentation, atmospheric studies, and sonic boom characterization,” says NASA Dryden’s Blackbird website.

“The SR-71 was used in a program to study ways of reducing sonic booms or over pressures that are heard on the ground, much like sharp thunderclaps, when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound. Data from this Sonic Boom Mitigation Study could eventually lead to aircraft designs that would reduce the “peak” overpressures of sonic booms and minimize the startling affect they produce on the ground.”

This close-up, head-on view of NASA’s SR-71A Blackbird in flight shows the aircraft with an experimental test fixture mounted on the back of the airplane. (1999 NASA /Photo Jim Ross)

Among the major experiments flown with the NASA SR-71s, there was a laser air data collection system that used laser light, instead of air pressure measured by pitot tubes and vanes extending into the airstream, to determine airspeed, angle of attack, vertical speed, and other attitude reference data.

Another project involved a Dryden’s SR-71 as a platform to film with an ultraviolet video camera, celestial objects in wavelenghts that are blocked to ground-based astronomers. Moreover, the SR-71 was also a testbed in the development of Motorola’s IRIDIUM commercial satellite-based, instant wireless personal communications network, acting as a surrogate satellite for transmitters and receivers on the ground.

Between 1997 and 1998, one NASA Blackbird was used for the Linear Aerospike Rocket Engine, or LASRE Experiment, whose goal was to provide data to validate the computational predictive tools used to foresee the aerodynamic performance of future single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicles (SSTO RLVs).

SR-71 #844 taking off for a LASRE experiment. (NASA)

As part of the LASRE experiment, the Blackbird completed seven initial research flights from Edwards. The first two flights were used to determine the aerodynamic characteristics of the LASRE apparatus (pod) on the back of the SR-71 whereas five later flights focused on the experiment itself.

The LASRE experiment itself was a 20-percent-scale, half-span model of a lifting body shape (X-33) without the fins. It was rotated 90 degrees and equipped with eight thrust cells of an aerospike engine and was mounted on a housing known as the “canoe,” which contained the gaseous hydrogen, helium, and instrumentation gear. The model, engine, and canoe together were called a “pod.” The experiment focused on determining how a reusable launch vehicle’s engine flume would affect the aerodynamics of its lifting-body shape at specific altitudes and speeds. The interaction of the aerodynamic flow with the engine plume could create drag; design refinements looked at minimizing this interaction. The entire pod was 41 feet in length and weighed 14,300 pounds.

Two test flights were used to cycle gaseous helium and liquid nitrogen through the experiment to check its plumbing system for leaks and to test engine operational characteristics. During the other three flights, liquid oxygen was cycled through the engine. Two engine hot-firings were also completed on the ground. A final hot-fire test flight was canceled because of liquid oxygen leaks in the test apparatus.

The experimental pod was mounted on NASA’s SR-71 #844. Lockheed Martin may use the information gained from the LASRE and X-33 Advanced Technology Demonstrator Projects to develop a potential future reusable launch vehicle.

This is a rear/side view of the Linear Aerospike SR Experiment (LASRE) pod on NASA SR-71, tail number 844. This photo was taken during the fit-check of the pod on Feb. 15, 1996, at Lockheed Martin Skunkworks in Palmdale, California. (NASA)

NASA and Lockheed Martin were partners in the X-33 program through a cooperative agreement but the program was cancelled in 2001.

A rendering of the X-33 concept (NASA)

Throughout its career, the high-altitude SR-71s, involved in test flights as well as operative missions, have probably contributed to fuel UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) conspiracy theories. For instance, according to CIA high-altitude testing of the then new and secret U-2 led to an increase in reports of UFOs:

“According to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U-2 project and the OXCART (SR-71, or Blackbird) project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States. This led the Air Force to make misleading and deceptive statements to the public in order to allay public fears and to protect an extraordinarily sensitive national security project. While perhaps justified, this deception added fuel to the later conspiracy theories and the coverup controversy of the 1970s. The percentage of what the Air Force considered unexplained UFO sightings fell to 5.9 percent in 1955 and to 4 percent in 1956.”

Flash forward to 2017, we can’t but notice that, among the theories surrounding the footage of an unidentified flying object (UFO) filmed by an F/A-18F Super Hornet in 2004, there is also the one that the weird “capsule-shaped” object might have been some sort of secret aerial vehicle during a test mission rather than an alien spacecraft…. And it would not be the first time.

Well Before The SR-72 Was Conceived, The Iconic SR-71 Blackbird Proved “Speed Is The Real Stealth”

The SR-71 Blackbird was so fast it outran every missile shoot against it and every interceptor scrambled to intercept it.

The aviation “side” of the Web went abuzz following the rumor that an SR-72 prototype was spotted performing flight tests at the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, California.

Back in 2013, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the legendary division that designed airplanes which represented a giant leap for their times such as the F-104, the U-2, the Blackbird family or the F-117A stealth fighter jet, reveled the existence of a project for a Hypersonic strike aircraft dubbed SR-72.

This graphic is the U.S. Air Force’s first graphic of the SR-72. All the previous concept images were relased by Lockheed Martin.

The SR-72 is an unmanned hypersonic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike platform designed for Mach 6.

Based on the concept images released by the U.S. Air Force (the first official one can be found above) is coherent with the most recent hypersonic designs and it is quite similar to at least one of the configurations studied since the early ’60s for an SR-71 Blackbird replacement.

Anyway, regardless to whether an SR-72 prototype has already started flight testing somewhere between California and Nevada, the hypersonic strike aircraft will be able to fly about twice as fast as its predecessor, the iconic Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird, one of the fastest planes ever flown operationally.

The first concept artwork of the SR-72 released by Lockheed Martin in 2013.

The Blackbird was the first aircraft to feature stealth capabilities: a special paint that contained iron ferrites and absorbed radar energy instead of returning it to the sender was used for SR-71’s wings, tail and fuselage. The reduced RCS (Radar Cross Section) made any reaction to an SR-71 overflight almost useless: the aircraft was so fast that once the radar detected it, the SAM battery’s guidance system was not able to compute the right parameters for a successful kill. Moreover, the range and bearing of the SR-71 was also denied to the enemy by jamming the radars with the use of the sophisticated electronic countermeasures (ECM) that equipped by the Blackbird.

However, in spite of its radar-evading features, what made the SR-71 almost impossible to intercept, were its incredible flight characteristics: it was able to fly at more than 3.5 Mach at 88,000 feet. The aircraft could climb higher than that and according to some sources the Blackbird could reach 120,000 feet and above. At that altitude, Soviet SAMs would have been unable to maneuver to hit an SR-71: the air is so thin that any maneuvering capability of a missile is practically nonexistent, as explained 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.

In 2012 a DARPA statement stated that America was gradually losing the “strategic advantage” that its stealth warplanes had long provided, as other countries’ stealth and counter-stealth capabilities continued to improve. For this reason, “speed is the new stealth” is a slogan that accompanied the unveiling of the SR-72 in 2013. However, the SR-71’s story is a proof that speed has always been the key to stealth.

Indeed, throughout its career, that came to an end on Oct. 9, 1999, no SR-71 was reportedly lost nor damaged due to hostile actions.

Not only did SAMs fail to catch the Blackbird but even the fastest Soviet fighter jets, including the MiG-31 Foxhound, lacked the necessary speed to reach the SR-71.

A Blackbird at night on the ramp at Beale Air Force Base, California.

Here below you can find an excerpt from “MiG Pilot,” a book for Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko, who defected to Japan in a MiG-25 on Dec. 6, 1976, that we have already posted in the past. Here’s what Belenko recounts :

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.”

“[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”.

As the above footage shows, NASA flew the Blackbird as well.

Four SR-71 airplanes operated from NASA Dryden during the 1990s. According to the Agency, two were used for research and two to support Air Force reactivation of the SR-71 for reconnaissance missions. Although the Air Force retired the Blackbirds in 1990, Congress reinstated funding for additional flights several years later. SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) arrived at Dryden on Feb. 15, 1990. It was placed into storage until 1992 and served as a research platform until its final flight on Oct. 9, 1999. SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) arrived at Dryden on March 19, 1990, but was returned to Air Force inventory as the first aircraft was reactivated in 1995. Along with SR-71A (61-7967), it was flown by NASA crews in support of the Air Force program. SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) arrived at Dryden on July 25, 1991, and served as a research platform as well as for crew training and proficiency until October 1997.

The story of the Soviet pilot who defected to Japan with a secretive MiG-25 Foxbat 40 years ago today

Viktor Belenko, a pilot who “stole” a MiG-25 and landed in Japan on Sept. 6, 1976.

The then Lieutenant Belenko was a pilot with the 513th Fighter Regiment, 11th Air Army, based in Chuguyevka, Primorsky Krai, in the east of the country.

When he brought his Mig-25 “Foxbat” to Hakodate he gave the Western intelligence officers the opportunity to give a first close look at one of the most secretive airplanes of those years: a supersonic interceptor featuring a powerful radar, four air-to-air missiles and a top speed above Mach 3.

In order to assist the American experts in evaluating the aircraft, Belenko brought with him the pilot’s manual for the MiG-25 “Foxbat”, expecting to assist American pilots in evaluating and testing the aircraft.

Even if the Japanese government didn’t originally give full access to the plane, the Americans were later invited to examine the aircraft extensively: the Mig was dismantled for such purpose and later returned to the Soviet Union.

In his “Mig pilot” book (1983) John Barron claims that Viktor Belenko’s defection was completely voluntary and was the result of Belenko’s distrust on communist regime.

The MiG was delivered to Japan without the missiles, which were to be introduced in the Belenko’s training later on.

The mission was launched earlier than initially planned, because the KGB was about to stop Viktor Ivanovich Belenko from defection.

Although pilot defections during the Cold War were not a rarity, what made Belenko’s defection unique was the fact that the MiG-25 was largely unknown in the West.

This is the main point to bear in mind when thinking about Belenko and, unfortunately, this fact is often forgotten.

The ideological background for the events which took place in 1976 is deeply rooted in the beginnings of the post-war period.

As the Cold War was in progress there were many incidents and crises which closely led to a confrontation between the two superpowers.

One of these events was Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy flight on of May 1, 1960.

Power’s U-2 took off from USAF Peshawar Air Base in Pakistan for a GRAND SLAM mission, to investigate the Soviet missile and plutonium production plants. Targets were Sverdlovsk, Plesetsk (ICBM sites) and Mayak – a plutonium plant.

The U-2 was a plane designed to fly well above the Soviet air defense Surface to Air Missile systems. Its operational ceiling was out of the range of the Soviet interceptors and missiles but Powers’ flight was expected, all of the units and surface-to-air defenses were put on alert. The MiG pilots were ordered to ram the aircraft if necessary.

The U-2 was eventually shot down by an S-75 Dvina missile near Degtayrsk in the Ural region.  Because of high g-force Powers had no chance of reaching the airplane’s self-destruction button and had to eject.

What is interesting is the fact that SAM crews did not know that the plane had already been shot down because the MiGs’ IFF transponders were not updated (May 1st is a national holiday), therefore several Soviet aircraft were also shot down by S-75 rockets.

The political consequences of the spy flight were severe.

Shortly after the incident the Americans created a cover up story for Powers’ failure. NASA had announced in a very specific press release that the pilot, having lost consciousness due to the problems with the oxygen equipment, had strayed into the Soviet territory with his autopilot engaged while carrying out a weather flight.

On May 7, Khrushchev announced that Powers had survived the crash and, nine days later, on May 16, 1960, during a Four Powers Paris Summit meeting with Harald MacMillan, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower he called the U-2 incident an act of a “deliberate aggression.”

Eisenhower refused to apologize for the incident, claiming that the U-2 flight was not of aggressive nature, having only a purpose of ensuring US safety. The meeting collapsed.

At the time, Eisenhower was a proponent of so-called Open-Sky Policy, according to which both sides would allow for reciprocal reconnaissance flights over their territories. Khrushchev did not agree. Powers was sentenced to 7 years of hard labor in a Gulag, but he was exchanged for a Russian spy Rudolf Abel on the famous Glinecke Bridge in Potsdam, connecting West and East Germany.

Gary Powers incident sparked the development of the American Oxcart programme, with the goal to design the SR-71 spy plane, which in addition to flying high, also flew very fast, out of the range of the Soviet missiles’ operational envelope.

What is more, a D-21 drone reconnaissance system was developed, to be carried by SR-71 as a parasite. The drone would be dropped, fly over the Soviet Union, return over the Pacific and drop the reconnaissance materials on a parachute.

Both these designs led to the development of a Soviet countermeasure – the MiG-25, known in NATO code as the Foxbat.

MiG-25 take off

The main reason for the importance of Belenko‘s defection cannot be understood without going deeper in the aviation context of the event. The Cold War was the time when both sides used the nuclear armament as a psychological weapon. Therefore ways to deliver warheads were some of the priorities in the development in the field of military industry.

One of the ways to deliver warhead to its target was to use the strategic bomber. The bombers in the US – the B-52s – were subsonic, and could have been easily intercepted by the MiG-21, which was capable of reaching speeds of Mach number up to Mach 2 and altitudes of 60,000 feet.

Problems began to emerge when the B-58 Hustler was designed. This plane was capable of flying with the same level of performance as any MiG-21, which for the Soviet designers meant they had to look for a better countermeasure.

The Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force at the time was into creating a nuclear-powered bomber of infinite range. The project had been dropped in 1964 when North American aviation announced that it could build a bomber capable of attaining speeds of Mach 3 throughout the entire length of its mission.

Secondly, after the failure of U-2 spy plane, launched the Oxcart program, which lead to the development of Mach 3 strategic reconnaissance aircraft, SR-71.

That put the Moscow designers on alert, and an assignment was given to the design bureaus of MiG (Mikoyan and Gurevich) and Sukhoi to develop a countermeasure.

The surface-to-air missiles were considered insufficient. The aim was to develop a single-seat interceptor capable of attaining extremely high speeds and altitudes.

New problems for the Soviet scientists emerged, such as thermodynamic heating, leading to immense development of the Moscow research institute, TsAGI – transliteration of the Russian abbreviation which stands for Центра́льный аэрогидродинами́ческий институ́т (ЦАГИ) – Central Aero-Hydrodynamic Institute. Mikhail Gurevich was the leader of the MiG-25 project.

According to Discovery Channel’s TV series Wings of the Red Star many Western experts argue that the Foxbat was inspired by the North American Aviation A-5 Vigilante. The design programme for MiG-25 was founded in 1958. The basic design of E-155 which later became MiG-25 was the work of Artion Mikoyan.

The E-155, the prototype of what was to become Foxbat was propelled by two large turbojet engines designed by Tumansky. The prototype itself was designed in the period of 1961-1962.

No aluminum, so popular in the West at the time, was used for construction. Steel and nickel alloys were used instead, with limited use of titanium on leading edges and places where heat loads were expected to be high.

The aircraft had to be light, to that extent that weight was traded for strength. The G-load it could withstand was only 5 g, two times less than other fighters which were designed to fight in close combat.

The maiden flight of E-155 was made by famous MiG test pilot, Alexander Fedotov on May 1, 1964.

The MiG-25’s mission as an interceptor required development of fire control system which would be able to work at the speeds the plane could reach.

The radar on the plane, RP-25 Smerch, designated in the NATO nomenclature as Foxfire, 1,100 pounds in weight, was the largest device of this type at the time. According to Barron, the radar was very powerful (600 kilowatts), as

“[Belenko] also dared not touch the radar switch because the impulses from the MiG-25 radar were so powerful, they could kill a rabbit at a thousand meters. Hence, it was a crime to activate the radar on the ground.”

Its purpose was to burn through any jamming systems known at the time and to provide a stable lock-on allowing the pilot to use the air-to-air missiles that Foxbat was carrying.

Also in May of 1964 the XB-70 aircraft was made a research airplane, and presented to the public in Palmdale, California, after being canceled three times (in 1959, 1960 and in 1961).

At same time, the U-2 missions were still a danger, so as the SR-71, US Air Force ultimate Mach 3 spy plane.

For these reasons the development of Foxbat was not canceled.

Mikoyan left his design bureau in March 1964 for health reasons. Never had he an opportunity to see the MiG-25 enter service dying in December from the heart attack.

In March 1965 the first public announcements of the plane’s performance were made, which was that it completed 150 kilometers closed circuit flight at the speed of 1,400 miles per hour.

The Foxbat made its first public appearance at the airshow organized in connection with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution on Jul. 9, 1967 on the Domodedovo airfield. When three MiG-25s appeared in the sky the show announcer referred to them as “Interceptors capable of Mach 3”.

Both the Western experts and Russians were puzzled, as even in the Soviet Russia there was almost no information about the MiG-25 available to the public whatsoever, up until 1972.

Mig-25 side takeoff

Besides being an interceptor, the Mig-25 was also a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. It was operated in the conditions of direct radio communication with the ground and was capable of taking photographs of whole United Kingdom within one flight.

The West had an opportunity to see what the aircraft was capable of in a proxy war between Israel and Egypt.

Four MiGs, referred to as X-500, were shipped to Egypt in fall 1971. The Egyptians were forbidden to come close to them, and even though the aircraft had Egyptian markings, they were flown by Soviet pilots and serviced by Soviet crews.

When one of the Israeli F-4 Phantom fighters tried to intercept the MiG reconnaissance aircraft at Mach 2,5, the MiG simply accelerated to Mach 3.2 and disappeared.

The Mig-25 engines were capable of producing 12,500 kG each. The design assumptions of the construction were not to create a good close combat fighter, but to propel it throughout the airspace as fast as possible.

In the late 1960s the USA developed the F-15 which was a fruit of the vague understanding of what MiG-25 was. That understanding was based on the speed and altitude records Foxbat had broken (see below).

The Western experts assumed that it was faster in straight line than expected. They also thought that it was made of lightweight, modern composite materials and that it was powered by modern turbofan engines. It was also believed to have a long-range and good close air combat capabilities.

As a result of that, American engineers designed the ultimate fighter jet, which was very complex, and due to that – quite costly. In the beginning of its existence it broke many of the climb records established earlier by hte Foxbat.

It was late 1972 when F-15 entered service, and it was long until 1976 for the MiG to remain a mystery.

On Sept. 6th, 1976, when Viktor Belenko defected taking off from the Sokolovka airbase and landing in Japan, the Western perception of Foxbat changed.

It turned out that the airplane was heavier and simpler in construction than expected, hence it had shorter range. It was far from being a close combat jet with its rugged construction. It also had very poor low-speed capabilities.

As Peter Ustinov of the Wings of the Red Star TV series summarizes: “MiG-25 was indeed an extraordinary machine, but not the one the West had imagined.”

Nevertheless the simplicity of Foxbat could not stop it from breaking many world records, nor could the Americans at the time.

MiG-25 front left

The prototypes were made lighter and their purpose was to break several records. As it is stated in the classification of FAI (International Aeronautical Federation), Foxbat belonged to the category C1 (III) which specifies jet powered aircraft with unlimited take-off weight.

The records broken by Foxbat were of various nature.

They included: speed record on a 1,000 km circuit by chief MiG test pilot Alexander Fedotov: 2319,12 km/h on Mar. 16, 1965; the Foxbat broke several time-to-height records, for example climbing to 20,000 m in 2 minutes 49,8 seconds. The MiG-25 also set several absolute world records that still stand. Absolute world altitude records with 1,000 kg payload, and without payload: 35,230 m and 36,240 m respectively were also set.

Air-to-air_left_side_view_of_a_Soviet_MiG-25_Foxbat-E_aircraft

As already explained, the West had almost no knowledge of MiG-25 whatsoever until 1971, and very poor knowledge by September 1972 when Belenko defected.

It was a great surprise, and present for the Western experts when Belenko flew a brand new MiG-25 to a Japanese airfield.

At first the Soviet officers at Sokolovka airbase, where Belenko was stationed, thought that it was navigation systems problem that occurred and lead to the event. The defection, however, was preplanned and premeditated.

Several authors say that Belenko, had been an aviation enthusiast from his earliest childhood.

He received his flight training in order to become a flying instructor and devoted most of his time to learning and perfecting his flying craftsmanship.

He got a job as an instructor in Amarvir Pilot School, flying Sukhoi Su-15 planes, always being a top notch airman. It was in the beginning of the 1970s when he heard about a MiG-25 for the first time.

Almost immediately, wanting to learn about the new plane, he asked for transfer to flight training on Foxbat in 1972. The unit he applied to was Rostov, near Iran, but he was soon moved to the far east, to Sokolovka, the 530th Fighter Regiment.

The permission for transfer given by the commander being an exception in those times was justified with the Belenko’s great interest in the modern air technology. His records were flawless, so he was selected, and he was appointed a party secretary of the squadron.

Belenko’s training program progressed without any trouble. After the individual flights program ended the group flights began. The group flights started at the end of August and were to be conducted for one month.

On Sept. 6, 1976 Belenko walked his child to the kindergarten and went to the base to fly.

The weather conditions were good for flying – the cloudiness was of about 7/10 with the lower cloud surface at 1,500-2,000 meters and upper at 5,000 meters. Take-off was to take place at 12:50.

Soon after the take-off Belenko reported engine problems and separated from the group. He dropped to an altitude of 50 m above the sea, so no problems that usually occur in a low-level flight were present. He was flying low, so the radars could not track him. The direction the plane was going was eastward. Directly towards the Japanese archipelago.

Getting closer to the shore Belenko climbed to 6,700 m, waiting for the reaction of the Japanese air defense.

370 kilometers from the island he was finally spotted by the radars. The Japanese at Chitose airbase scrambled a pair F-4J fighters to intercept him. Knowing that he had been detected he descended again but he soon entered the clouds, experiencing difficulties in navigation.

At 13:52 he spotted an airfield and attempted a landing, but had to abort it and go around because of a Boeing 727 airliner taking off. According to his assessment, the airstrip was a bit shorter from what he had seen on military airfields. He made a long landing, overshooting the runway and rolling about 240 meters beyond the threshold.

After getting out of the cockpit he spotted the name of the airfield. Unfortunately it was not a military base, but civilian Hoktado strip. Nevertheless, Belenko was in Japan, which was his main objective. Just after getting out of the cockpit he made a warning shot and warned the Japanese not to come close to the plane because it was secured with explosives (at the time the Soviet Air Force used to secure the MiG-25 from getting into the Western hands by using explosives and self-destruction system).

He also asked the personnel to cover the aircraft in such a way that the Soviet markings were not visible. Then, he asked to be put in contact with the US Air Force representation. The airfield was closed down for five hours. Belenko asked for a political asylum.

The time between the afternoon of September 6th and 7th was very eventful.

The media showed a large interest in the incident and disseminated the news all across the Western world. Aeroflot sent a delegation, but they were not allowed to see nor to come close to the Foxbat.

Diplomacy was a major problem. In order to justify keeping the pilot and plane on the Japanese territory the authorities accused Belenko of illegal border trespassing.

The plane was moved to a hangar and afterwards was transported to military airbase in Hyakuri, located 80km north from Tokyo. On Sept. 19 a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane was brought from the US in order to transport the MiG-25; eleven experts from Wright-Patterson AFB were brought in order to examine the aircraft.

Also 64 Japanese experts took part in the examination. The aircraft was partially dismantled and transported in escort of F-4J and F-104J fighters.

The examination included infra-red photos of Foxbat with the engines working at full military power. It was essential for western air-to-air missiles designers to know the heat spectrum of the engines, so that they could develop missile guidance systems according to the characteristics of the Foxbat engines.

The diplomatic struggle went on. The official statement of the Japanese was that the plane would be returned to the Soviets but no sooner than Oct. 5, 1976. Due to the fact that samples of materials were taken from the wings the Foxbat could not go back by air.

It was dismantled again and sent back on a container ship in parts, in 13 containers. The Japanese secured the containers so that the Soviet personnel would not do the review of the plane in the daylight.

But the Russian methodology was unknown to the Japanese. The personnel had opened the containers with crowbars and it turned out that some equipment was still in the hands of the West. The Soviets asked the West to pay for the missing aircraft instrumentation and avionics. The Japanese in a reply asked the Russians to pay for transport and formalities.

Belenko’s family was detained and KGB started an investigation. A personal diary in which fuel calculations were carried out was found in Belenko’s flat.

It was also found out that the pilot was in Moscow a week prior to the deception.

All these factors suggested that the incident was a long preplanned operation of the American intelligence as Belenko could have met a US agent in Moscow.

What is more, the Soviet pilot very often used the confidential library of the airbase, more often than other pilots. It was supposed that he might have been taking photos of the MiG-25 manual.

After Belenko arrived he was isolated from the third parties.

He got a political asylum in the USA, where he started working in an aviation company. Afterwards, in many interviews, like in one for Full Context magazine, he said that the main reason behind the defection was to get away from the communism.

He received American citizenship and opened his own company. He got married to an American woman, with whom he had 3 children. According to Barron’s book his family life in USSR was going towards a bitter end – a divorce – so he fled to the US.

After publishing this article we received an email from one of our readers who provided some more behind the scenes details. Here’s what he’s written to us:

Actually, they did, and Russia was totally unaware of it. It was rolled into a hangar, dismantled, and flown to Area 51 by C-5A Galaxy, where it was totally examined, taken apart, reassembled, and flown by Victor Belenko against our first line fighters of the time. It was then disassembled, crated, loaded back onto the C-5, and flown back to Japan, where it was placed on the dock to await a Russian freighter’s pick-up.

We expected to find high tech alloys used for the wings, but the rust through the paint revealed they were steel. Where we expected high tech electronics, we found vacuum tube electronics.

You must remember that Russia builds for durability, and survival under war-time conditions. Just like their AK-47 Automatic rifle…bullet proof, easy to manufacture, and repair under war conditions. Which is easier to construct, and repair during wartime..high tech, or low-tech items? You’ll find the inside of Antanov’s giant aircraft made the same way, especially loading ramps, which are hollow, with an aluminum thin covering and internal ribs, with a reverse dimple texture. Hydraulics actually glass jars !!

Area 51 was the site of many Russian Mig tests, obtained from many different sources. we had a number of pilots versed in, and trained in Mig operations and evaluations.

Yes, Japan DID allow the removal, and testing, by us, of Belenko’s Mig 25..but it was highly secret.

 

Image credit: Alex Beltyukov

Salva

Salva

Salva

The amazing story of Bill Weaver: the Blackbird pilot who survived his SR-71 disintegration

The incredible story of a lucky SR-71 pilot who survived to a Blackbird disintegration at Mach 3+

Built as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft able to fly at 88,000 feet and Mach 3, the iconic Lockheed SR-71 required aircrews to wear a special silver pressure suit to ensure their safety. This proved to be much useful during the time, as the aircraft experienced several accidents at very high speeds and altitudes during its test flights.

The protection provided by these suits was put to test on Jan. 25, 1966 when Blackbird tail number 952 disintegrated mid-air during a systems evaluation flight. The mission was intended to investigate procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high Mach cruise performance while the center of gravity (CG) was located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

The SR-71 was driven by Bill Weaver with a Lockheed flight test specialist, Jim Zwayer in the back seat and it took off from Edwards AFB at 11:20 am . They refueled from a KC-135, accelerated to Mach 3.2 and climbed to 78,000 feet, which was their initial cruise altitude.

During a programmed thirty-five-degree bank right turn they experienced an “inlet unstart” that caused the immediate unstart on the right J-58 engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. An inlet unstart happened when a shock wave was rapidly ejected back outside the inlet. When an inlet unstart occurred a device called the cross-tie system was enabled to minimize the extreme rolling and yaw of the aircraft and to prevent the good inlet from unstarting. At the same time the cross-tie system also restarted the good engine. As Weaver himself told to 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”: “I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go. No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride.”

Since the chances to survive an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,000 feet weren’t very good, Weaver and Zwayer decided to stay with the aircraft to restore control until they reached a lower speed and altitude, but the cumulative effects of system malfunctions exceeded flight control authority. Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion, even if the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only two to three seconds.

Weaver recalls that he was “still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces. Then the SR-71 literally disintegrated around us.”

Weaver struggled to realize what was really happening. “I could not have survived what had just happened. I must be dead. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead. But somehow I had separated from the airplane. I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s face plate had frozen over and I was staring at a layer of ice.”

It was at that point that the pressure suit proved to be very effective protection for Weaver. In fact, once it was inflated, an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to the parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen, but also pressurized the suit, preventing Weaver’s blood from boiling at the extremely high altitude. In this way the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become like a tiny escape capsule.

Another system conceived to safeguard the Blackbird aircrew during the bailout procedure was the SR-71’s parachute system. To prevent body tumbling motions and physical injury due to the centrifugal forces it was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing parachute shortly after ejection and seat separation.

Since Weaver had not intentionally activated the ejection sequence, he thought that stabilizing chute might not have deployed. But he quickly determined he was falling vertically and not tumbling, meaning that the little parachute had deployed and was doing its job. The next concern was for the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at 15,000 feet, but again he had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work. So Weaver decided to open the faceplate, to estimate his height above the ground but as he reached for the faceplate, he felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main parachute deployment.

After landing, Weaver was rescued by Albert Mitchell Sr., owner of a ranch in northeastern New Mexico, who helped him with the chute, then reached Zwayer who had landed not far away, with his own Hughes helicopter. Mitchell returned few minutes later reporting that Zwayer was dead: in fact he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed almost instantly. Moreover Mitchell said that his ranch foreman would watch over Zwayer’s body until the arrival of the authorities and he flew Weaver to the Tucumcari hospital.

Investigation of the incident determined that the nose section of the Blackbird had broken off aft of the rear cockpit and crashed ten miles from the main wreckage. The resultant very high g-forces had literally ripped Weaver and Zwayer from the airplane. After this crash, testing with the CG aft of normal limits was discontinued, and trim-drag issues were resolved via aerodynamic means. Moreover the inlet control system was improved and the inlet unstarts almost stopped with the development of the Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System.

Two weeks after the accident Weaver was back in a Blackbird. As he recalls: “It was my first flight since the accident, so a flight test engineer in the back seat was probably a little apprehensive about my state of mind and confidence. As we roared down the runway and lifted off, I heard an anxious voice over the intercom. “Bill! Bill! Are you there?” “Yeah George. What’s the matter?” “Thank God! I thought you might have left.” The rear cockpit of the SR-71 has no forward visibility – only a small window on each side – and George couldn’t see me. A big red light on the master-warning panel in the rear seat had illuminated just as we rotated, stating: “Pilot Ejected”. Fortunately, the cause was a misadjusted micro switch, not my departure.”

DF-ST-89-06278

Image credit: U.S. Air Force