SR-71: The Complete Illustrated History of the Blackbird, the World’s Highest, Fastest Plane
by Col. Richard H. Graham, USAF (Ret.), Zenith Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2013, $35
Former SR-71 pilot Rich Graham has delivered a robust, coffee-table overview of the fabled SR-71 and the closely related A-12 and YF-12—collectively dubbed the Blackbird family. As the title indicates, throughout its 34-year career the Blackbird was the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft. It set an absolute altitude record of 85,069 feet and an absolute speed record of 2,193.2 mph, both on July 28, 1974. Few aircraft seize the imaginations of pilots, enthusiasts and historians like the Blackbird, partly because of its superlative performance and partly its cloak-and-dagger spookiness.
For decades, operating largely in secret, Blackbirds scarfed up pictorial and electronic intelligence near and over all those bad-guy countries that were colored red on the map. As a desk officer in the State Department, I studied code-word-labeled photography from a Black Shield mission flown by a CIA A-12 that pinpointed the location of the intelligence ship USS Pueblo in North Korea’s Wonsan Harbor only hours after the ship was seized on January 23, 1968. Black birds also flew intelligence missions over North Vietnam, where they thumbed their sleek noses at Hanoi’s flak and fighters.
No adversary ever touched a Blackbird, although 12 of the 32 aircraft were lost to mishaps. Many believed the 1998 decision to retire the SR-71 was premature.
One challenge for this volume’s author and publisher: Every known photograph depicting the design, development and testing of the Blackbird has been published repeatedly, some of them in Graham’s three earlier books. That doesn’t detract from the visual impact of a photo of Lou Schalk climbing skyward for the first flight on April 26, 1962, but we’ve seen it before. Graham handles this well by flavoring the photos with catchy, been-there, done-that prose. All in all, this is a great summary of the Blackbird and its accomplishments.