One of the biggest anniversaries on the aerospace calendar comes up later this week.
On 24 April, 1962 -- 50 years ago on Tuesday -- Lockheed test pilot Lou Schalk climbed into the A-12 Oxcart, the CIA-funded precursor of the SR-71, and attempted a brief hop at the end of a high-speed taxi test. He nearly crashed. Schalk had intentionally turned off the A-12's stability augmentation system (SAS) dampers, only to find out almost too late that his Mach 3.2-speed aircraft is 'SOS' without them. Two days later, with SAS dampers switched firmly 'on', Schalk completed the real first flight, launching the short-lived operational career of the CIA's A-12 fleet, and the US Air Force's three-decade history with the SR-71 Blackbird.
For Movie Monday, we present a clip of an SR-71 documentary featuring footage of an extremely rare TV appearance in 1975 by Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, the camera-shy and interview-averse master aircraft designer and founder of the Lockheed Skunk Works.
As an icon of industrial design and performance, the A-12/SR-71 has few peers in any field. In a rather cruel irony, however, the Blackbird never flew the Soviet overflight mission for which it was designed. The appearance of the Soviet's TALL KING radar system and the success of satellite imagery made the SR-71 obsolete for its primary mission before even Schalk's SAS-less adventure in 1962. Yet, there were still many uses for an aircraft that cruised faster than a bullet and at 90,000 feet. The SR-71 flew overhead reconnaissance missions over Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea and the Persian Gulf during its operational career. And, yes, it did overfly the USSR here and there, too.
Perhaps more importantly, the SR-71's existence validated the standalone operating philosophy of Johnson's Skunk Works. It has been said many times that everything about the SR-71 had to be invented -- tooling for machining titanium, a turbojet that essentially transforms mid-flight into a ramjet, even cockpit windows that do not melt at Mach 3. It is true that the A-12 was delivered years late and well over cost, as the technical obstacles proved worse than Johnson's most pessimistic assumptions. The fact that it could be delivered at all is still a tribute to the problem-solving skills of a very unique organization.