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     It may be the smallest air museum in the world. Located at the corner of 25th Street East and Avenue P in the Joshua-studded high desert just north of Palmdale, California, Blackbird Airpark has only four aircraft on display. Two of these are shown below, on the left, SR-71 #61-7973 and, on the right, A-12 #60-6924, the first Blackbird prototype ever flown.


      The other two aircraft at Blackbird Airpark are a U-2 and a D-21 drone but it would be misleading to imply that these are the only four planes on view for those who visit the facility. The Joe Davies Heritage Airpark is immediately adjacent with over a dozen less exotic types on display including an ex-Thunderbirds F-100 called The Spirit of Palmdale. Still, Blackbird Airpark is a separate museum. It's an annex of the Air Force Flight Test Center museum. Edwards Air Force Base is the home of the AFFTC and the rest of that museum's collection is at the base itself some 40 miles from Palmdale. Unfortunately the main museum is located within base boundaries and since the country went into lockdown after 9/11 public access has been limited. You may recognize Edwards AFB as the place where pilots and prototypes are tested for the right stuff. The Air Force has been flight testing at Edwards forever, or since the War anyway, because of its proximity to manufacturing in Southern California and its location on a dry lake bed. Rogers Dry Lake, once used for aerial bombing practice and hot rod speed trials, makes a good place for flight testing since it has a lot of flat ground for planes that miss or overshoot their runways. Innumerable one-offs with an X or Y in their designations have flown at Edwards.

      The real estate under these two museums belongs to USAF Plant 42. Plant 42 is a joint government owned/contractor operated installation. Although other companies have facilities there, the main civilian operator has always been Lockheed. A huge hangar originally built by Lockheed to make the L-1011 is easily visible less than a mile from the airpark. This building is now the home of Lockheed's famed Skunkworks and has been since about '89 when the Skunkworks moved "over the hill" to the Antelope Valley from Burbank. This year the Skunkworks is celebrating its Official 70th Anniversary, 1943 being the year that the legendary Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his team designed, built and delivered the XP-80 prototype in only 143 days. That prototype became the F-80 Shooting Star, the USAF's first operational jet fighter. Unofficially, the Skunkworks saga goes back to 1938 when Johnson first segregated a group of designers and engineers into a semi-autonomous group within the larger Lockheed company to produce the P-38 Lightning long-range fighter. All four aircraft at Blackbird Airpark are Skunkworks products.

      Like the U-2 before it, the A-12 was ordered into production not by the Air Force but by the Central Intelligence Agency for high-altitude reconnaissance work. The order was placed in 1960 and 18 examples were produced between 1962 and 1964. The "A" designation had to do with its place in a sequence of Skunkworks designs and not with its role. Unlike the A-10, the A-12 was not expected to loiter over a battlefield strafing tanks. It was capable of speeds in excess of Mach 3 and had a service ceiling of 95,000 feet. The A-12 was flight tested not at AFFTC Edwards but at Groom Lake, a super-secret remote detachment of the AFFTC in southern Nevada. The Groom Lake test facility is also known as Area 51.

      The SR-71 was developed from the A-12 and first flew in December of 1964. 32 SR-71s were produced before its cancellation in 1968. Standing between the two planes you can easily see one of the differences between them. The edges, or chines, of the flattened fuselage are much sharper on the SR. Both planes share a unique propulsion system. If you ever see pictures or video of one of these taking off you'll notice that the afterburners are lit. The afterburners were always lit on a Blackbird except when it was slowing to land. Their propulsion system has been described as "a turbojet inside a ramjet" and consisted of the inlet, the nacelle, the Pratt & Whitney J58 engine and the nozzle. At lower speeds, most of the thrust came from the engines even though the burners were lit, that is, fuel was going directly into the nacelles. At higher speeds and altitudes the engines lost efficiency and most of the thrust came from afterburning. The wicked looking cones in the engine inlets moved in and out to control the airflow to the engines. They were locked in their fully forward position at low speeds and moved backwards during supersonic cruise. The propulsion system was most efficient at Mach 3.2 which was the plane's cruising speed.

      As you might imagine, a propulsion system like that burned a lot of fuel and inflight refueling was required. Refueling an SR-71 was a tricky operation as it involved pushing the envelopes of both tanker and Blackbird. The SR needed a certain amount of speed to keep flying and the tanker had to match it. A special tanker with the Fleming-esque designation KC-135Q was used to deliver the JP-7 fuel. Its fuselage was strengthened to withstand the buffeting encountered at the higher speeds. In addition, as the Blackbird took on fuel its weight increased which meant it had to go even faster to stay in the air. The tanker had to accelerate with it.

       Most of the SR-71's missions were flown from Okinawa over Southeast Asia in the late 60s and early 70s. Eventually satellite technology made manned overflights unnecessary and the SR was retired. The Blackbird set several speed records during its operational life. An SR-71 holds the record for New York to London: 1 hr. 54 min. 56.4 sec., set in '74. In 1990 SR-71 #61-7972 was flown from Plant 42 to Washington, D.C. for display at the Smithsonian Institution. It set several records during that flight including the record for L.A. to D.C.: 64 min. 20 sec.

      Oh yeah, the drone. The D-21 drone was part of a cockamamie scheme to take aerial photos without a manned overflight.The idea that a specially modified A-12, called the M-21, would carry a D-21 drone on its back. As the combination approached "enemy" territory, the drone would be released, it would then fly over its target taking pictures. At the end of the flight the drone would eject its camera pod and self-destruct. The camera pod would pop a parachute and float gently downwards. A specially equipped C-130 was supposed to pluck it from the air or, failing that, the pod would deploy a flotation device and float in the sea until it could be picked up by a ship. A total of four D-21 missions were flown over the People's Republic of China between late 1969 and 1971. Not all of Kelly Johnson's ideas were good ones.

Originally posted to Azazello on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 04:05 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force, Aviation & Pilots, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  utter fantasy of course, but I wonder what it'd (9+ / 0-)

    be like if built from scratch today.

    Aurora?  Oops, gotta go, someone is banging away at the door...


    seriously, the Blackbird is the sexiest thing ever to take flight this side of the B-58 or the Macchi 52.

    I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not.…We're better than this. We must do better. Cmdr Scott Kelley

    by wretchedhive on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 04:18:17 PM PDT

  •  My dad worked on the SR-71 (20+ / 0-)

    back in the day, as well as the YF-12A, one of its predecessors. Lockheed tried to recruit him as retirement drew near and took him to the Philippines for lunch. He left in the morning and was back to CA in time for dinner.

    He worked on the skin cooling systems. When you fly nearly as fast as a bullet you generate a lot of heat!

    I went to high school with Chuck Yeager's kids. I still have Dad's Skunk Works lapel pin. He took great pride that he, a high school dropout, could end up working on one the most sophisticated machines ever built.

    Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit. --Edward R. Murrow

    by chuckvw on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 04:33:43 PM PDT

  •  Didn't they also fly D-21's... (6+ / 0-) of B-52's? I remember seeing a couple of pictures where the drones, with a booster rocket, were riding on a BUFF where the Hound Dog missiles would have normally been hung. I suspect that some of those overflights were done this way, since one of the tests of the M-12/D-21 setup ended with the D-21 colliding with the M-12 after launch.

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 04:56:34 PM PDT

  •  just saw one. (5+ / 0-)

    I just saw the one in the Evergreen Air Museum. I didn't realize there were a couple closer to home. Will check them out.

  •  ZLA… (6+ / 0-)

    …or Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center is also located in Palmdale. I once briefly gave thought to transferring there, but I laid down for a few minutes and the feeling went away.

    While I once visited Oakland ARTCC (ZOA), I never made to down to LA to see theirs. Frakly they all looked pretty much the same—you've seen one, you've seen them all. And I'd spent plenty of time in two others (and visited Miami, ZMA), so I don't consider it a hole in my memoirs.

    Since the aforementioned unpleasantness 12 years ago, I don't know how much visitor access is given to ARTCCs any more. Last time I was in one was 1998.

  •  I've seen an SR-71 fly exactly once (7+ / 0-)

    It was back in the mid 1980s. One had diverted into Eglin AFB with an engine problem.

    After they got it fixed he did a couple low passes down the runway before departing.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 06:52:17 PM PDT

    •  I watched a flight of two take off from Beale or (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Azazello, Mad Season

      McClellan AFB I(can't remember which) at sunset while hovering above the runway in a CH-53 (if I recall correctly) with the ramp down so we could view out the back while wearing gunner's belts for safety.

      There was only a line of glowing red at the horizon and in the darkness, the afterburner plumes were longer than the aircraft.

      Let's not forget. That is all money we'll never get back. Not for schools, roads, bridges, libraries or any other vital infrastructure. We spend more on building and maintaining weapons systems than every other country on the planet combined. That money doesn't go in the pocket's of soldiers it goes in the pocket's of BAE, Raytheon and Lockheed execs.

      Let's not go overboard with the technology worship here. We're very close to exhausting what the earth can provide for us. The U.S. consumes 30% of the planet's energy and 40% of its raw materials. If you know where to look, you can already find oilfield engineers and insurance actuaries who are discussing this.

      Reaganomics noun pl: belief that government is bad, that it can increase revenue by decreasing revenue, and unregulated capitalism can provide unlimited goods for unlimited people on a planet with finite resources.

      by FrY10cK on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 10:36:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This piece should be read as history (4+ / 0-)

        for aviation buffs. Politically, I'm well aware of Lockheed-Martin's status as our largest "defense" contractor and I understand the import of President Eisenhower's Farewell Address. I was going to list the aircraft types produced by the Skunkworks but it gets depressing as we get to the F-117, F-22 and the criminally wasteful F-35. It's an issue all who write about aviation must wrestle with but the sad truth is that the most advanced technology usually comes from the MIC.

        The free market is not the solution, the free market is the problem.

        by Azazello on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 11:03:19 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I spent my USAF career trying to obtain (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Azazello, Mad Season, RiveroftheWest

          unobtainable parts for the clumsy fuel sucking "low altitude penetration bomber" the F-111.

          What a waste of the taxpayer's money. A year or two after I left the USAF we sold 'em all to Australia.

          Reaganomics noun pl: belief that government is bad, that it can increase revenue by decreasing revenue, and unregulated capitalism can provide unlimited goods for unlimited people on a planet with finite resources.

          by FrY10cK on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 11:11:22 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Yeah, that one was a pos, (4+ / 0-)

            but on the brighter side, it did trick the Soviets into wasting their resources on swing-wing designs.

            The free market is not the solution, the free market is the problem.

            by Azazello on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 11:14:41 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  I thought the F-111 kicked off (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Azazello, VTCC73, RiveroftheWest, KenBee

            the initial development of  the ground-following radar avionics that lets a very fast plane fly very, very low?

            We used to live on a mountaintop in West Virginia that was a part of somebody's training area. Wicked fast jets would come threading down the river valleys... and we would be looking down at the top of the aircraft.

            •  I have a vague recollection that you are correct (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              but won't swear to the fact that terrain following radar was developed on the F-111.

              Thing was, in 1994 we were still trying to get almost unobtainable IRU's (inertial reference units - 1960's technology) for these things.

              What. A. Waste. Your tax dollars at work.

              Reaganomics noun pl: belief that government is bad, that it can increase revenue by decreasing revenue, and unregulated capitalism can provide unlimited goods for unlimited people on a planet with finite resources.

              by FrY10cK on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 01:48:44 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

        •  This part is particularly poignant because our MIC (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Azazello, RiveroftheWest

          consumes the resources of the entire planet:

          ...the sad truth is that the most advanced technology usually comes from the MIC.

          Reaganomics noun pl: belief that government is bad, that it can increase revenue by decreasing revenue, and unregulated capitalism can provide unlimited goods for unlimited people on a planet with finite resources.

          by FrY10cK on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 11:13:45 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Blackbird Park (0+ / 0-)

    has about 20 planes now. It's a lot bigger and more complete now than in your vintage photos. What you show is just a corner.

    It's a great place to take the kids and anybody who loves all the old classics. It's on land that was once part of the Palmdale Production Facility.

    Please consider a donation to Oxfam

    by brunoboy on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 10:01:15 PM PDT

  •  RS/SR naming bo-bo & SR-71 Images (4+ / 0-)

    I had read somewhere before that LBJ had screwed-up in his speech when he announced the existence of the plane - it said that LBJ should have said RS-71 instead of SR-71.   WikiWiki-pedia has a different account.

    During the 1964 campaign, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater repeatedly criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration for falling behind the Soviet Union in developing new weapons. Johnson decided to counter this criticism by revealing the existence of the YF-12A Air Force interceptor, which also served as cover for the still-secret A-12, and the Air Force reconnaissance model since July 1964. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay preferred the SR (Strategic Reconnaissance) designation and wanted the RS-71 to be named SR-71. Before the July speech, LeMay lobbied to modify Johnson's speech to read SR-71 instead of RS-71. The media transcript given to the press at the time still had the earlier RS-71 designation in places, creating the story that the president had misread the aircraft's designation.
    SR-71 Images
    WikiWiki ref:

    Images ref:

  •  I was at the Farnborough Air Show, on.. (6+ / 0-)

    ....the 13th September, 1974 when the SR-71 arrived after smashing the New York to London speed record. Everyone was just blown away by the way the aircraft looked and performed.

    (I had NO idea, at that stage, that I would eventually become Flying Services Manager at Farnborough!)

  •  I hadda goto Beale AFB for altitude chamber... (7+ / 0-)

    ...requal one time; the Physiological Training/Life Support Facility there has a much more elaborate facility than yer run-of-mill altitude chamber, they have one they used for SR-71/U-2 crew qual which has a substantially "higher" operating altitude, and the crew "space suits" are kept and maintained there.

    During the classroom block of training an SR blasted off; in the time it took to walk to the doorway of the classroom and go outside, the plane was a pair flaming dots disappearing to the northwest!

    The SRs would approach Beale from a ridiculous height compared to other aircraft, therefore Beale has an extraordinarily bright row of lights to help the the pilots get a visual location of the field during their frantic approach.  In conventional heavy aircraft like our C-141s, descent for landing from cruise altitude, say 40,000 feet, starts about 200 or more miles out, roughly the distance to the horizon, and those lights are plainly visible that far out to sea.

    "Ronald Reagan is DEAD! His policies live on but we're doing something about THAT!"

    by leftykook on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 05:25:32 AM PDT

  •  Still blows my mind that this SciFi design flew... (7+ / 0-)

    more than a half a century ago. When engineering calculations were still done with slide rules. And that it proved to have a remarkably low radar cross section, at a time when designing for low radar signature was far more art than science.

    •  I just finished the book "Rocket Girl" (7+ / 0-)

      about the (female) chemist who developed the fuel mixture that launched America's first satellite. I loved reading about their problem solving strategy, and am in awe that they had to do all the calculations by hand - as the book says, basically the whole government depends on them making good guesses quickly, because that's how you solve simultaneous non-linear equations. And it could take hours or days to do the calculations to evaluate each guess.

      Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

      by elfling on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 08:25:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Coolest plane ever! (4+ / 0-)

    The plane was designed and build 50 years ago and yet it still holds a number of speed and altitude records. Some other facts I've learned about the plane:

    The skin of the plane would get so hot, materials commonly used at the time would burn up so Johnson and his team had to find and learn how to use new types of metals. I believe titanium skins were used for the very first time on the A-12.

    Prior to takeoff, the plane would be fueled with a special fuel, JP-7,  but only enough to get it aloft. While on the ground, the fuel takes leaked so, once aloft, the tanks would warm and swell. They would then finish refueling with the airborne tanker.

    I don't get mad. I get stabby! - Fat Tony D'Amico

    by sizzzzlerz on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 10:20:46 AM PDT

  •  My late ex-husband (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Azazello, RiveroftheWest, KenBee

    worked on many of the Lockheed projects, retired from there. He had an accident at work that limited some things he could do -- but that never stopped him from trying. For anyone who remembers John FOD, hello!

    Carol Yocom

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