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.