The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane is one of the most iconic fighter jets of the Cold War. Very few people know that its development has something to do with a pizza lie by the US secret service CIA.
But before we get to the role of the delicious flatbread from Italian cuisine, we have to turn back a few pages in the history book.
If you can’t stand it, scroll down to the heading »Caution: Flammable fuel!«
The history of the SR-71 Blackbird
Welcome to the 60’s: The first SR-71 Blackbird took to the skies in 1964. In 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson was still in the Oval Office as the 36th President of the United States, the Bay of Pigs invasion was only a few years ago and the smoldering conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union simmered for years.
Apart from the technical sophistication of an aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird with its top speed of 3,500 kilometers per hour, the origin story of the bird is fascinating to this day.
Like no other, this story embodies the trickery that is sometimes necessary for a major project like the SR-71 Blackbird to succeed. At the same time, it is a story about a historic own goal for the former Soviet Union. An own goal that resonates to this day, six decades later (as reported by Xataka).
To tell our story, we travel back to the previous century.
The story begins in the 60s
It’s the early 1960s. With the fronts hardening between the United States and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), the US government is realizing that a new weapon is needed to keep up in the arms race against the red giant.
Cold War: a brief outline
The Cold War brought many armed conflicts to our world. The Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the Afghanistan Conflict (1979-1989) are the major conflicts that emerged from the Cold War. All of these conflicts have resulted in enormous loss of life.
The constant threat of nuclear war between the superpowers USA and USSR during these years created an atmosphere of fear.
State Center for Political Education Baden-Württemberg writes on the current situation: With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the tension between Russia and the West has increased sharply again.
It was not until May 1960 that the US Air Force suffered defeat. Pilot Gary Powers crashed his U-2 spy plane. The U-2 was a sophisticated spy plane for the time. At high altitudes and equipped with modern cameras, the Stahlvogel took strategically important shots over enemy airspace.
On May 1, 1960, Gary Powers took off from Pakistan on his secret reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. In flight, U-2 with Powers is then shot out of the sky by Soviet anti-aircraft forces. Powers parachuted to safety, but was captured by the Soviets.
By the way: Gamers can enjoy peaceful flying with a claim to authenticity on Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.
The Powers incident is extremely relevant historically. It further hardened the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union – and meant a setback for the disarmament negotiations.
After Powers’ crash became known, the US initially claimed that the U-2 had fallen from the sky due to a technical failure and that its pilot had died in an accident. However, when the Soviets were able to prove a little later that they had taken Powers prisoner of war, it triggered an international crisis between the two world powers.
What did the US learn from the Powers debacle?
After this debacle, two things were clear to the US: “We need a new type of surveillance aircraft and an incident like the one involving Gary Powers must not be repeated under any circumstances.”
Performance for the US aerospace company Lockheed. More precisely: For Skunk Works (in English: skunk works), the notorious development program of Lockheed.
The team behind Skunk Works had already been responsible for the U-2 of Bruch pilot Gary Powers and should now bring their unique inventive talent to bear.
The catalog of requirements for the Skunk Works team
The task for Skunk Works could hardly be more challenging: “Build a spy plane that cannot be shot down.” Perhaps there was a pinch of hubris in this goal set by US decision-makers.
On the other hand, another embarrassment on the scale of Gary Powers could have fatal consequences for global security. So it was a lot. A lot even.
Specifically, the engineers at Skunk Works were faced with this catalog of requirements:
- Speed: A sustained speed of more than 3,200 km/h.
- flight altitude: The new aircraft should reach an altitude of 27,000 meters.
- Invisible: A design that remains undetected by enemy radar systems.
- Flexibility: The ability to adapt to the constantly evolving Soviet radar technology.
First test flight: In a secret research facility in the Nevada desert, the time has come. Skunk Works conducts test flights – and the results are amazing. The approximately 30 meter long model is only recognizable as a small sign on the radar.
Larger in outline than a bird, but smaller than a human. Expressed in raw numbers, the resourceful minds at Skunk Works succeeded in reducing the radar cross-section of the spy plane by a full 90 percent.
But how did the skunks manage it? On the one hand, because A) the aircraft engines were placed less centrally on the aircraft wings and, on the other hand, B) the selected color of the aircraft is more difficult for radar systems to detect.
Ridiculous top speed
The target speed of 3,200 kilometers per hour posed a far greater challenge. At such a speed, the nose of the aircraft is exposed to temperatures of over 300 degrees Celsius. One step to curb heat build-up concerned the color scheme.
Skunk Works chose black because it soaks up heat better than other colors. The choice of color also gave the aircraft its nickname “Blackbird” (in German: blackbird; literally translated: black bird).
Ultimately, the maximum speed was capped by the heat development. If the plane exceeded a temperature of 427 degrees Celsius, the pilot was strongly discouraged from flying any faster. In the SR-71’s muzzle were sensors for temperature measurement.
With a temperature of over 427 degrees Celsius, the technicians at Skunk Works could no longer guarantee anything. It was not unlikely that the engine would come loose or that a turbine blade would say goodbye.
Caution: Flammable fuel!
The enormous heat generated presented the team with another heated challenge. SR-71 designer Clarence Johnson told the BBC beyond the nose the plane could reach an outside temperature of 300 degrees Celsius.
The remaining external parts could also heat up to around 200 degrees Celsius. Extreme temperatures that pose a high safety risk. Because an airplane has a tank. And this tank is flammable. In the case of the SR-71, we’re talking six main tanks and 80,000 pounds (about 36 tons) of gas.
That’s the equivalent of more than 36 tons, which heat up to 190 degrees due to the considerable heat generated. Such heat greatly increases the risk of an explosion or fire.
Therefore, Skunk Works had to develop a particularly heat-resistant fuel. Thus, the construction of the SR-71 is irretrievably linked to the history of the origin of the JP-7 fuel. Because Jet Propellant 7 was specially developed for the Blackbird.
Titanium as a crucial element: In the almost endless series of technical challenges, the material to be installed was perhaps the biggest hurdle.
It was soon clear to the engineers responsible: “We’re going to use titanium as a material.” Because they came to the conclusion that a titanium alloy is tough, heat-resistant and, above all, light.
But where do you get titanium from? Or to put it another way: Which country has the largest titanium deposits? As the Skunk Workers run their fingers across the world map, they stop on a country with comparatively large reserves of titanium.
Namely: The USSR. The same country that the US wants to spy on with its new planes.
More precisely, the mineral rutile was required for the construction of the SR-71 Blackbird. The US-owned “Titanium Metals Corporation”, for example, only had very manageable amounts of the mineral.
How the USA finally got hold of the mineral is a piece of world history. A story surrounded by myths, fairy tales and half-truths.
The fact is: The USA desperately needed the mineral rutile or enough titanium to build its later legendary Lockheed SR-71 aircraft. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, as an opponent of the USA, was sitting on sufficient supplies.
What to do?
Requesting larger quantities of titanium from the USSR would be conspicuous. So the US Foreign Intelligence Service (CIA) buys smaller quantities from the Soviet Union through front companies and third world countries as middlemen – and they are successful.
According to one of the eyewitnesses involved, one of the lies invented by the CIA had to do with pizza. “We need titanium to build our pizza ovens,” was one of the fibs the US tried to dig up on titanium.
Colonel Rich Graham, a former SR-71 pilot, puts it this way:
“The plane [SR-71] consists of 92 percent titanium inside and out. When the plane was built, there were no titanium deposits in the United States. More specifically, we needed a mineral called rutile. [Rutil] only occurs in a few parts of the world. The main supplier of rutile at that time was the USSR.«
The irony of the story: The Soviets used it to support the development of those aircraft that were later used to successfully spy on them.
To put it bluntly, one could say that the US won the Cold War thanks to a pizza lie. In a more down-to-earth way, one could state: The US helped the Soviets spy on themselves.
Do you like this curious story about one of the most iconic spy planes in the history of technology? What is your favorite strange tech story from the last corners of the internet? Write us about it in the comments.