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Lockheed Martin developing successor to the SR-71 Blackbird

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November 2, 2013

Artist's concept of the SR-72 (Image: Lockheed Martin)

Artist's concept of the SR-72 (Image: Lockheed Martin)

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When the last SR-71 Blackbird was grounded in 1998 it was a double blow. Not only did aviation lose one of the most advanced aircraft ever built, but also one of the most beautiful. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has now revealed that it is building a successor to the Blackbird: the SR-72. Using a new hypersonic engine design that combines turbines and ramjets, the company says that the unmanned SR-72 will be twice as fast as its predecessor with a cruising speed of Mach 6.

The SR-71 Blackbird is one of history’s great aircraft. It was built during the Cold War in the early 1960s by Lockheed at its secret Skunk Works facility and flew from 1966 to 1998. With black paint covering its unprecedented titanium fuselage, it was designed as a reconnaissance platform capable of flying 2,900 nautical miles (5,400 km) at sustained supersonic speeds at an altitude of 80,000 ft (24,000 m).

The Blackbird could fly so fast and so high that it could literally outrun enemy missiles, and routinely did. Needless to say, it left interceptors far behind and of the 32 that were built, not one was lost to enemy action. It even grew stronger over the years because the heat generated in flight was so great that the titanium hull annealed.

The SR-72 will fly at Mach 6 (Image: Lockheed Martin)

The SR-71 was also famous for holding a raft of records. It was the world's fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft, reaching 85,069 feet (25,929 m) in sustained flight, and it still holds the speed record. On September 1, 1976, a US Air Force SR-71 Blackbird flew from New York to London in 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds at a peak velocity of about Mach 3.2 (2,436 mph, 3920 km/h). To this day, no aircraft exists that can match its performance.

To the end it was still breaking records. After the Cold War ended, many SR-71s ended up in museums as the program was wound up. When one SR-71 was delivered to the Smithsonian Institution in 1990, it broke four speed records flying from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, Ohio.

The idea of a hypersonic replacement has been kicked around for years, and now Lockheed is working on the SR-72. Unlike its predecessor, the SR-72 will be unmanned, but it will be twice as fast with a cruising speed of Mach 6 (4,567 mph, 7,350 km/h).

The engine of the SR-72 (Image: Lockheed Martin)

The SR-72’s purpose is to provide the United States with not only a hypersonic recon platform, but also a strike aircraft as well. "Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour," says Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin program manager, Hypersonics. "Speed is the next aviation advancement to counter emerging threats in the next several decades. The technology would be a game-changer in theater, similar to how stealth is changing the battle space today."

According to Leland, a Mach 6 platform would not only leave very little time for an enemy to respond, but it also be a very effective way to launch hypersonic missiles. Since these wouldn't need a booster rocket when launched at six times the speed of sound, they can be of much lighter and simpler construction.

The key to the SR-72 is what Lockheed calls Turbine-Based Combined Cycle Propulsion, which incorporates Lockheed’s experience in building the HTV-2 hypersonic demonstrator that flew at Mach 20 (15,224 mph, 24,501 km/h) in tests. In this new system, the twin engines of the SR-72 are actually two engines in one. Each engine shares combined inlets and nozzles connected to two very different powerplants as a way to significantly reduce drag.

The SR-72 is the replacement for the SR-71 blackbird (Image: US Air Force)

The upper engine is a turbine, which is used to power the SR-72 as it takes off from a conventional runway and accelerates it to Mach 3. Then the lower dual-mode ramjet takes over and accelerates the plane to Mach 6. The significance of this design is that Lockheed collaborated for seven years with Aerojet Rocketdyne on figuring out how to use an off-the-shelf turbine that could be incorporated into a hypersonic jet system.

In an interview with Aviation Week, which broke the story, Leland explained that the retirement of the SR-71 left significant gaps in the satellites, subsonic manned and unmanned platforms meant to replace it, which the SR-72 will fill. The article went on to point out that the SR-72 program is meant to dovetail with the Pentagon’s hypersonic research and weapons programs, which has dictated the timetable and many design parameters.

According to Leland, no new technologies needed to be invented for the SR-72 so a demonstration aircraft could fly by 2018, and the plane could be operational by 2030. “The demonstrator is about the size of the F-22, single-engined and could fly for several minutes at Mach 6,” says Leland. “It will be about the size of the SR-71 and have the same range, but have twice the speed.”

The video below is an interview with a former SR-71 pilot.

Sources: Lockheed Martin, Aviation Week

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
39 Comments

no matter how fast an aerial vehicle goes, it won't outrun the speed of light...so laser weapons could possibly knock it down.

how long would it take to cross the visible sky on "flat ground"? the laser weapon would have to lock on to it and deliver it's punch before it leaves view.

I'm just trying to be a devils advocate when it comes to military weapons. I'm certain that plans will be eventually stolen for the SR-72, but capability for mfg. those plans will take another 5 to 10 minimum. I wonder if the usa will ever be able to 3D print the components and auto-assemble them?

Also, if the vehicle is un-manned; then how long will it take someone to hack the controls? would hate to have the SR72 attack us!

notarichman
2nd November, 2013 @ 08:40 am PDT

Pilotless.. what fun is that.

Mark A
2nd November, 2013 @ 09:34 am PDT

sr-72: unmanned - how boring!

worf2
2nd November, 2013 @ 11:53 am PDT

This was my all time favorite plane growing up, I was fortunate to have seen it a few times in my life at air shows and Smithsonian. I even got to see it fly!, and that was something!, the SR-71 and the Space Shuttle first takeoff and landing was two of my best memories of aviation and space history in the making.

Sam Joy
2nd November, 2013 @ 03:05 pm PDT

It might follow the SR-71 but - IMO - it would never truly replace it. I think the SR-71 is still the coolest.

BigWarpGuy
2nd November, 2013 @ 06:15 pm PDT

"Leland explained that the retirement of the SR-71 left significant gaps in the satellites, subsonic manned and unmanned platforms meant to replace it, which the SR-72 will fill."

Well of course he would say that - he is the Lockheed Martin program manager for Hypersonics. The only way he will get his program to float is to get the US Government (read US tax-payers) to fund it.

I challenge him to elaborate on these "significant gaps".

As much as I am a fan of the SR-71, it predated satellite, stealth, drone and internet intelligence surveillance methods and in it's day was the only viable way to rapidly gain specific critical information regarding the USA's international threats.

Money aside, it looks good but somehow I suspect it will never fly (pun intended).

Australian
2nd November, 2013 @ 07:35 pm PDT

notarichman,

Surface-based laser weapons would have a hard time shooting down a plane at 80,000-100,000 feet, especially if it's not directly overhead, making the distance even longer. Seeing something and shooting it down are two different things. Between obstructions like clouds, atmospheric blooming, beam spreading and other phenomena, you'd be lucky to land 50 watts of energy on the SR-72, which would already be designed to withstand the extremely high temperatures encountered at hypersonic flight.

Australian,

Satellites have predictable orbits and limited fuel for maneuvering. It's not like the movies where someone can order an immediate repositioning for new shots of an area of interest. Drones have limited sensor suites, speed and range and are vulnerable to attack by any real air force. Internet monitoring doesn't help you at all for physical reconnaissance. For instance, Iran isn't going to go around transmitting the specs for its nuclear facilities for us to intercept, at least not without heavily encrypting it. Often, you just need an aircraft that can get to the target fast, shoot it with more than just cheap CCDs transmitting a few megabytes of images, and stay too high up to be shot down.

Gadgeteer
3rd November, 2013 @ 06:16 am PST

I'd feel more comfortable if this were a NASA program.

Seth Miesters
3rd November, 2013 @ 02:49 pm PST

I have a question. When I read that it was going to be unmanned... my mind immediately thought of that debacle where Iran stole one of our recon drones, by jamming it and then sending it fake GPS coordinates to make it fly into their waiting arms. What's to stop someone from doing this now?

mem5000
3rd November, 2013 @ 04:10 pm PST

What about airborne refueling? Do we have an unmanned high speed tanker in the works? Slowing down from Mach 6 to Mach .3 every 30 minutes to refuel would be a hassle.

Bob
3rd November, 2013 @ 05:07 pm PST

"Emerging threats" eh? China? North Korea?? Iran??? Dream on, kids.

nutcase
3rd November, 2013 @ 06:11 pm PST

I hate to say it, but because it is *not* a Nasa project, this will actually happen. I love Nasa, but as of late, they've become a political football. Unless the next terrorist attack originates from the Moon or Mars, or China challenges us to a space race, nasa will continue to have their budget chopped and their projects halted. sigh.

Michael Wilson
3rd November, 2013 @ 07:30 pm PST

5 years to build a demonstrator, then another 12 to be operational? A lot can happen in 17 years for this to become obsolete before it's even launched.

Operational by 2020, more plausible, especially if it doesn't involve developing new technology.

Beaugrand_RTMC
3rd November, 2013 @ 07:49 pm PST

The SR71 may be cool but the XB70 is better. and has a better name - Valkyrie (is this the best 'plane name ever?). My favourite, though, will always be the Spitfire.

milliard
3rd November, 2013 @ 08:32 pm PST

Unmanned is good from a military point of view - you can train someone on video game machines with no worries about G-forces and fitness issues - but unless it is totally autonomous (drone) the telemetry problems will be huge! Any long-distance 'real time' control will suffer from the time / distance lag, even average (coast-to-coast?) distances will have to factor in short delays in plant-to-pilot then pilot-to-plane reaction time. Remember, these planes will cover a LOT of territory in a short time compared to a slow-flying (Afghanistan) drone.

The Skud
4th November, 2013 @ 12:28 am PST

from the top ten list:

The United States Air force is ruler of the technology horizon with the motto No One Comes Close. The undisputed magnate of air, space and cyberspace in the current scenario, this air force owns the largest number of warplanes in the world which almost equals to the rest of the world put together.

how many schools and teachers or infrastructure projects or social security checks or child lunches we need to cut for this baby?

hourglass
4th November, 2013 @ 01:35 am PST

If the US government is interested in the welfare of its citizens, this project in the long run could actually save money as there are no pilots and special life support systems. Though technology can improve profits, reduce costs, there should be some aspect of actual welfare for the average American as the US appears to be spending too much on the military while infrastructure for the population is deteriorating and is going more into debt.

Dawar Saify
4th November, 2013 @ 03:12 am PST

When are they gonna start making the 4 wing aircraft I wonder..so no matter if you are flying up right or sideways, there is always a horizontal surface in relation to the ground.

Wejitu Geodol
4th November, 2013 @ 03:23 am PST

I really don't like having a peacetime reconnaissance plane that can be mistaken for a bomber.

Slowburn
4th November, 2013 @ 04:23 am PST

They could use this engine in the first stage of a space plane.

Chishiki
4th November, 2013 @ 05:51 am PST

How come SR71 was allowed to over-fly the US, supersonically, but Concorde was not? Just wondering....

The thing is, it doesn't matter what fantastic weapons are devised, they still can't beat the Taliban who are armed with AK47s and IEDs.

windykites1
4th November, 2013 @ 06:30 am PST

First. Official record is 1,905.81 knots (2,193.2 mph; 3,529.6 km/h), approximately mach 3.3. Not sure where you got your info on 3900 speed.

Second. SR71 was EXTREMELY unreliable especially due to high temperatures shifts. After a long high speed flight and landing pilots actually had to wait in the cockpits for 20-30 minutes for the hull to cool down. Approximately 1/3 of all planes was lost due to technical problems.

Third. They were very expensive. Just titanium alloy hull alone costed a fortune. Along with constant tech problems and lack of spare parts that were harder to obtain with every new crash this plane became a budget black hole for the Navy.

Fourth. In early 70s soviets already had MIGs 25 and 31 interceptors with maximum cruising speeds of mach 2.9-3.0 and much more efficiently built (nickel steel alloy instead of costly titanium) they were also equipped with R33 interceptor missiles with range of up to 200 km and speeds up to mach 4.7. As you can see they were specially built for a fast hit and run tactical strikes (MIG25 was even capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons) as well as antirecon hunters. In real-life air encounter somewhere in the middle 70's SR71 wouldn't stand a chance.

[The quoted figure of 3,920 km/h was for the one flight in question, as stated in the article - Ed.]

Yaroslav Zadorovskyy
4th November, 2013 @ 07:01 am PST

News of the SR-71 only became public for political reasons. If this project had any potential, let alone DOD support, you can be sure it would have remained Top Secret. I suspect pure LM self promotion.

CliffG
4th November, 2013 @ 08:16 am PST

Cool as S**t ;Great weapon; Great test bed for future applications but what is it real purpose. The cold war is over, and we won. Another breadwinner for the defense industry though.

rik.warren
4th November, 2013 @ 08:34 am PST

India is going to Mars and we are still fighting old wars

rik.warren
4th November, 2013 @ 08:36 am PST

Successor to the Blackbird has been flying for years. Your SR-72 is 70's & 80's research.

Armando Framarini
4th November, 2013 @ 08:37 am PST

To any US person in a position of responsibility ... the people who will harm your nation are within your shores, and walking your streets. Your perceived threats from continents far away, after the 2030, when this aircraft will be operational, is imaginary.

jeronimo
4th November, 2013 @ 09:36 am PST

This is the rumored 'Aurora' I suppose.

But as a pilotless aircraft, it's really just a very refined missile with a sleek shape and a presumably greater payload and work capability..

flylowguy
4th November, 2013 @ 09:48 am PST

Unmanned. What a travesty. What are our kids going to aspire to be, Professional Video Game Pilots? Where is the imagination? The incredible triumph of the SR-71 was not only the engine and speed, but the ability to do so with a Human Being!

Sam Petre
4th November, 2013 @ 09:54 am PST

What about our Aurora from the late- 80's early 90s?

Is this just advertisement for enemies to see what they need to do to catch up 2 decades ago?

Shawn Boike
4th November, 2013 @ 10:47 am PST

Considering the Skunkworks legendary secrecy, you have to wonder if this is a misdirection for the real thing, or if it already exists and this is a prep for the reveal. Never before, that I can remember, have the Skunkworks revealed its secrets before their time........

John Waller
4th November, 2013 @ 12:26 pm PST

Operational by 2030? What's the rush?

peterweicker
4th November, 2013 @ 06:04 pm PST

And you wonder why Iran is paranoid ?

If one were to study the real history of the world, not what is written by the winners / survivors, there are a couple of conclusions that can be drawn.

The SOLE reason of advanced tools of war development is to grab resources of your neighbor. Definition of "neighbor" now extends to the world.

Darwin was right with his "survival of the fittest" and law of jungle. Only difference being the "animals" kill based on need and survival whereas humans kill for pleasure and avarice.

pmshah
4th November, 2013 @ 07:24 pm PST

On the surface ths looks pretty cool, but if the SR71 was a financal black hole/ budget buster for the Navy, wait til they get this Albatross. But not to worry, the government couldn't get up the cash to keep a monument to this thing open, let alone actually build it and fly it.

Harry Moore
4th November, 2013 @ 08:48 pm PST

They should run a Kickstarter campaign to gauge the real interest in this jet.

Hell, maybe that's how we should run all of government...

One huge crowd-sourcing campaign website where you are allowed to fund projects of your choosing with your tax dollars. Now there's a thought.

Milton
4th November, 2013 @ 09:08 pm PST

Tremendous new way to waste our money and resources! Maybe government should subsidize making personal transport vehicles that get say, 500 mpg instead of this thing that will get, what, 350 gallons per mile?

Plopped
5th November, 2013 @ 05:15 am PST

If they are telling you about it, it's 20 year old tech.

Croydon Kemp
5th November, 2013 @ 05:52 am PST

Remember around 1990 when USAF gave several SRs, including the trainer, to NASA and we stored them at Edwards. THEN, woke up and put them back in service. Problem was all the crews were gone so they had to rent pilots from current employers, UAL, TWA, NASA, etc. to train up crews. They'd launch out about the same time our projects did in the morning so got to see many impressive climb outs. Great times. GM

GAMICK
5th November, 2013 @ 11:42 am PST

Being a member of the Air Force cadre with the SR71 in 1965, I am impressed with the SR72 concept. But, being unmanned, it will not have quite the same effect as the original.

James F. Bard Jr.
5th November, 2013 @ 09:49 pm PST
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