A History of the Untouchable Spy Plane

James Hamilton-Paterson Central 623.7467 H2194b 2017

The SR-71 is an amazing machine, perhaps the most advanced aircraft of it's type that the world will ever see. Like the Concorde, it was an extrapolation to the extremes of Fast/Expensive, perhaps irrationally so. The intent of the SR-71 was a photography platform to overfly the Soviet Union and count missiles; it was easier for the Soviets to develop radars and rocket interceptors that could shoot down any aircraft capable of long flights and carrying human pilots.

Most of the spy mission has been taken over by satellites. Because satellite orbits are predictable and infrequent, ground assets can be hidden as they pass overhead. When launch loop facilitates the launch of thousands of surveillance satellites, in formations permitting super-high resolution interferometery, nothing aboveground will be able to hide. There are still missions for tiny pilotless aircraft, especially flying chemical-sampling labs controlled and uplinked through satellites, but mach-3 monsters like the SR-71 are merely fragile and expensive targets. We will never see their like again.

The SR-71 was made of strong, lightweight, chemically fragile titanium. The usual cadmium-plating on tools can diffuse into titanium and embrittle it, so special tools were required. Cadmium on surfaces can also form whiskers in vacuum, which can short out connections in electronics; cadmium permits shiny tools, but it is incompatible with spacecraft and high-performance aircraft.

The titanium used in the SR-71 was mined and refined in the Soviet Union, and found its way to Lockheed via subterfuge; had the Russians found out they might have stopped exporting the metal to the west, with severe economic repercussions for the rest of the global economy. This, and not a second "Gary Powers show trial", was the most significant risk of the program.

The SR-71 was never deployed over the Soviet Union, but it was flown over North Vietnam, and conflicts in the Middle East. Those two missions were worth a portion of its enormous development cost, but the multimillion dollar cost of each mission led to its retirement. Again, satellites and unmanned drones are cheaper and more effective.

Hamilton-Paterson's book focuses on politics and personalities; brilliant "extreme-aircraft" designer Kelly Johnson and his Lockheed Skunk Works figures prominently. So does the rivalry between the CIA and the Air Force.

The Air Force under Curtis Lemay biased its intelligence gathering to magnify threats and increase budgets - interservice rivalry helped keep this in check. This suggests that concentration of power into unaccountable agencies like Homeland Security and the NSA will inevitably increase budgets and paranoia far beyond optimums; the money and talent diverted into preventing a few spectacular threats could save many more lives if spent wisely on scientific research oversight and effective diplomacy and international development, or left in the pockets of taxpayers.

The Blackbird is an amazing machine - I've spent a lot of time looking at the one displayed in Seattle's Museum of Flight. What I see is not the vanguard of the future of spaceflight; wings are silly things to carry to orbit and back. Instead, it is a reminder of what is possible, and that the best possibilities probably haven't been built yet, or appealed to the limited imaginations of "bigger-faster" generals and politicians controlling too much of citizen's money and information supply.