Aviation Ancestry - March 2013

The SR-71, Part V

By Scott Schwartz

Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curits LeMay. (Courtesy of USAF)Selling the Blackbird to the Air Force would be a tough job, even for Clarence Kelly.  The mere act of sitting in the Blackbird’s cockpit required uncommon self-confidence on the part of a pilot.  Let’s face it; strapping into an aircraft which could fly faster than a .30 caliber bullet was a profound experience.  Consequently, few Air Force officers relished the idea of commanding squadrons of these aircraft. Not to mention the secrecy and the costs involved with the Blackbird.

But, events taking place in the Soviet Union would soon cause a change in Air Force ideology.

In 1961, the CIA was able to intercept the results of a Soviet missile test, which had taken place in Siberia.  Skunk Works analysts, after reviewing the data, came to a stunning conclusion:  this was no missile test.  Rather, the Soviets had been testing a bomber that could cruise at Mach 2, while flying at 60-thousand feet.  There were no aircraft in the U.S. inventory that could intercept such a bomber, nor did we have any missiles that could shoot this aircraft down.

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From Gusto to Oxcart, Pt.  IV

By Scott Schwartz

The Titanium Goose - the only two seat trainer varient of the Lockheed A-12 ever built, is now on display in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Kowloonese)Well, modifying the A-12 to accept the “temporary” Pratt & Whitney J75 caused even more time and money.  Nevertheless, the A-12 prototype was shipped in pieces to the test site on Feb. 28, 1962.

Perhaps a harbinger of things to come was the fact that, upon re-assembly, fuel began to pour from the aircraft. This was not one of the “normal” leaks, but rather, it was the result of fuel tank sealants failure to bond to the titanium. The repairs took more than one month to complete.

And so it was that on April 25, 1962, the first high-speed taxi tests were to begin.  The plan was to taxi at high speed, lift off momentarily, and then come right down.  Well, the taxiing was no problem.  However the lift off was rather exciting, for once the aircraft left the ground, it began to behave very erratically – yawing and pitching seemingly of its own accord.  Test pilot Lou Schalk struggled to land the aircraft, finally touching down in the desert dust – nowhere near the runway.

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Aviation Ancestry - December 2012

From “Gusto” to “Oxcart” – Part III

By Scott Schwartz

The Pratt & Whitney J58’s massive after burner; super compressed and heated air from the inlets was routed into these after burners in order to provide thrust for sustained Mach 3 flight. (Scott Schwartz)Having been intended for a Navy aircraft that was canceled, the Pratt & Whitney J58 had already been run for roughly seven hundred hours prior to the program’s cancellation.  The 26,000 pounds of thrust generated by this engine would have enabled the canceled Navy airplane to hit Mach 3 for a short burst – a few seconds at most.  Of course, the Blackbird would require its engines to run with their afterburners on for long periods of time – enabling cruise speeds of Mach 3 at 100,000 feet. 

Well, once all of the necessary modifications were made to the J58, the engine was generating 32,500 pounds of thrust.  The reader should ponder this for a moment.  By the time Skunk Works engineers were through altering the J58 engine, it was the most powerful non-rocket engine ever built.  What’s more, the J58 was the first jet engine capable of running its afterburners continuously – burning 8,000 gallons of fuel per hour in the process.

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Aviation Ancestry - November 2012

From “Gusto” to “Oxcart”- SR-71 Part Three

By Scott Schwartz

The radar signature of a full-scale A-12 model is tested at a certain secret base in Nevada. Production A-12’s were painted black- mainly to reflect heat and cool down the aircraft. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Government)With 20 months in which to get an A-12 airborne for the first time, the Skunk Works team had several challenges ahead of them.  The first of these was the fact that techniques used in building a conventional airplane could not be used on the A-12; like using aluminum in its construction, for example.  The friction caused by Mach 3 flight would generate enormous temperatures.  Aluminum begins to weaken at 300 degrees Fahrenheit; the “coolest” part of the A-12 at Mach 3 would be the windshield at 600 degrees Fahrenheit.  The temperature at the engine nacelles would be 1,200 degrees.  Obviously, something stronger was needed. 

Stainless steel was briefly considered, but, of course, that would have resulted in an extremely heavy aircraft.  One engineer suggested the use of titanium, which was fifty percent lighter but just as strong as stainless steel.  But, the use of titanium posed its own challenges.

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Aviation Ancestry - October 2012

From “Gusto” to “Oxcart”

By Scott Schwartz

Lockheed A-12 in flight. Although nearly identical to the later SR-71, the A-12 was designed for the CIA. (Photo courtesy of the USAF)“Faster than a speeding bullet.”  That phrase is rarely used in reference to an aircraft, but the SR-71 was one of those rare cases. 

Conceived during a time when over-flights of the Soviet Union were part of the United States’ cold war strategy, the idea that eventually became the SR-71 originated back in 1955.  During that year, Kelley Johnson and Richard Bissell (both of the famous Lockheed “Skunk Works”) began to think about building an aircraft that did not possess the high-flying U-2’s major weakness:  the ease with which it could be tracked by Soviet radar.  Many readers will recall that the U-2 was originally designed for a “customer” other than the U.S. Air Force.  In addition, Lockheed’s un-named (at the time) customer had unsuccessfully tried to reduce the U-2’s radar signature under “Project Rainbow.”

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