Titanium Airplane

I T WAS A DREAM ASS1GNMENT— to build a wild stallion of an airplane, so advanced and awesome that it could intimidate America’s enemies and maybe even some of our friends. It would leap a generation ahead of the Soviets, fly five miles higher than any aircraft known, cruise 6o-percent faster than the maximum dash capability of our top- performance jet fighter– and be virtually invisible to radar.

Such an aircraft could barely be imagined back in 1958, and the audacious plan would never have been taken seriously coming from anyone other than Lockheed Aircraft Company’s rough-cut resident genius, Kelly Johnson. But he had built the F-104 Starfighter, the first production aircraft to fly at twice the speed of sound, and the U-2, the reconnaissance plane that photographed the Soviet Union from 12 miles up, until one was shot down by a Russian missile in 1960.

Now, at the fearful height of the Cold War, Kelly Johnson set out to build a supple-ment to the U-2 that promised to be the greatest airplane of the 20th century. The technology was so far beyond anything known that we might as well have been designing commuter rocket service between the moon and the outer planets.

I was a 32-year-old engineer in Kelly’s famed “Skunk Works” next to Lockheed’s Burbank, Calif., plant when he invited me to join the top-secret project. “Rich,” he told me one day, “I’m making you program manager for the propulsion system. He ignored my stunned expression. “How hot do you suppose this airplane will get in sustained flight at Mach 3?”—three times the speed of sound and faster than a high-velocity rifle bullet. “Somewhere between a blowtorch and a soldering iron,” I stammered. “You’re the lucky one,” said Johnson. “You’ll at least have known laws of physics to guide you. The rest of us are going to have to start from scratch, like the Wright brothers.”

Many of the fundamentals of building a conventional airplane were suddenly obsolete. Even the standard aluminum airframe was useless. Aluminum loses its strength at 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Our airplane would reach 620 degrees on the cockpit windshield and 8oo degrees on some wing areas—hot enough to melt lead.


 After several modifications in our design, Washington gave the go-ahead on August 29, 1959. Now we had to take our blueprints and build an airplane. We struggled like medieval alchemists to find rare metals that could withstand such heat. We decided to create the world’s first titanium airplane, a huge risk. On the positive side, titanium is as strong as stainless steel but only about half its weight and can withstand blast-furnace temperatures and tremendous pressures. But to build a high-performance aircraft out of such an unproven, exotic material would not he easy. We’d even be forced to make titanium screws and rivets. By the time the project ended, we had manufactured, on our own, millions of separate parts.

Kelly fumed as he watched our materials costs rocket into the stratosphere. But at this stage of the Cold War, no price was too high. Our control cables would be made of a special alloy originally used in watch springs. The electrical switches and wires would be gold-plated, since gold retains its conductivity at high temperatures better than silver or copper. To prevent the tires from exploding as heat built up in flight, we filled them with nitrogen instead of air.

From my college days I remembered that black paint is a good heat emitter, and would help to lower the temperature. So we agreed to paint the plane black. To make it a smaller target for enemy radar, we applied radar-absorbing materials to the leading edges of the wings-a first in aviation history. Kelly suggested making the fuselage slope outward, giving the airplane a cobralike appearance-a modification that significantly decreased our radar profile. Besides the world’s fastest airplane, we were designing the first stealth aircraft, nearly invisible to radar.

During the test phase, we pumped 1½-times more air into the fuel tanks than the design limits specified. We did this late at night, with few people around, because if you’re pumping up that much titanium and the thing explodes, it would blow out the windows in downtown Burbank. So we filled the fuselage with several million Ping-Pong balls to dampen any explosive impact, and hid behind a thick steel shield with a heavy glass window.


.” Our engines were the only items off the shelf. We modified two turbojets, I designed for a Navy Mach 2 fighter-interceptor. Each of those engines was a monster, producing roughly the total  output of the Queen Mary’s four huge turbines, which churned out over 200,000 shaft horsepower. The engines would push the aircraft at an unbelievable two-thirds of a mile a second, at least 30- percent faster than a 16-inch shell from a big naval gun.

Our entire design team numbered only 75-roughly half the average in those days. We had access to one of the most powerful computers-state-of-the-art for its time, but about as sophisticated as one of today’s hand-held calculators. We solved our problems mostly by what Kelly jokingly referred to as “my Michigan computer” —the battered slide rule that he had been using since his days at the University of Michigan.

While we were trying to build that first airplane, the unions were giving Kelly fits because he ignored seniority rules and chose the best workers. So Kelly had the union heads cleared for security and walked them through the plant. “Gents, this airplane is vital for our nation,” he told them. “The President is counting on it. Please don’t get in my way here.” They backed off.

By the time our prototype rolled out, the airplane had a name: Blackbird. It weighed 6o,ooo pounds without fuel and was approximately 110 feet long, with a double delta wing attached at mid-fuselage. Seeing that Blackbird on a runway, I got goose bumps. It was the epitome of grace and power, the most beautiful flying machine I’ve ever beheld.

The first time we tried to test the engines, in January 1962, they wouldn’t start. So we rigged up two modified 425-cubic-inch Buick Wildcat race-car engines, an estimated 500 horsepower each, to turn the massive starter shafts. The engine oil, formulated for high temperatures, was practically solid at ternperatures below 86 degrees.

The first flight of the Blackbird was on April 26, 1962. As the ground rumbled around our secret base-its whereabouts still classified today-test pilot Lou Schalk gunned the two engines and ripped into the early morning cloudless sky. It was one of those unmatched moments when all of the stress involved in building a that machine melted away in the most powerful engine roar ever heard. Kelly was as tough as titanium, but he was clearly moved.

The sheer exhilaration of flying the Blackbird was best summed up by Col. Jim Watkins, who once told me it “was almost a religious experience. Nothing had prepared me to fly that fast. “I took off from California late a on a winter afternoon, heading east where it was already dark, and it was one of the most amazing and frightening moments going from daylight into a dark curtain of night that seemed to be hung across half the continent. There was nothing in between-you streaked from bright day and flew into utter black, like being swallowed up into an abyss.


 Huge tanker planes fanned out across the world to rendezvous with thirsty Blackbirds for air-to-air refueling. The complexity and duration of some of those missions defied belief-with ten or more air-refueling rendezvous strung out along the tens of thousands of miles of the typical long-range Blackbird route. One screw-up could result in tanks going dry, a crashed airplane and a lost crew. But it never happened--not once during more than 50 million miles of flying, many of them at three times the speed of sound.

After President Johnson officially announced the Blackbird’s existence in 1964, the Air Force was allowed to fly it for official records. The Blackbird established a new speed record of 2070 m.p.h. and.an altitude record of 80,258 feet. During the 24 years it was operational, it routinely broke those records many times over while out-climbing and out-speeding missile attacks.

Even now, many years after the fact, Americans remain oblivious to the harrowing missions the plane completed almost every other day for nearly a quarter-century. It routinely flew over North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba, Libya and the borders of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc nations.

Blackbirds flew 3551 operational sorties over Vietnam and other hostile countries, and probably had more than 100 SAM SA-2 missiles fired at them over the years. Most missiles exploded harmlessly two to five miles behind the streaking Blackbirds. Often the crews were not even aware their planes had been fired upon. Blackbirds had two primary targets in North Vietnam—Haiphong and Hanoi, photographing 100,000 square miles of terrain per hour. “We’d overfly the north in eight to 12 minutes, disregarding the SA-2 missile batteries below,” recalls Norbert Budzinski, a former captain. “Sometimes after a mission, I’d get a look at our photo take to see how well we did. You could actually count the SA-2 missiles being unloaded from Soviet ships in Haiphong’s harbor. It was that sharp and clear from 85,000 feet.”

On January 23, 1968, North Koreans boarded a U.S. Navy surveillance ship, the Pueblo, in international waters. “We were really caught short not knowing the fate of the crew or the ship,” recalls Walt W. Rostow, President Johnson’s National Security Adviser at the time. “The whole country was up in arms over this incident.

But the Blackbird, able to photograph the whole of North Korea in half an hour, located the captured Pueblo in Wonsan Harbor. The plane also confirmed that the crew had been taken off the ship. Washington was then able to negotiate and get the crew back.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a Blackbird flew nonstop to the Middle East from a base in upstate New York-a 12,000-mile round trip-in less than half a day. By the following day, its photos were on the desks of the Israeli general staff.


 For 15 years, until the fall of the Berlin Wall, Blackbirds flew twice a week from England to the big naval base of Murmansk, at the northern extreme of the Soviet Union, photographing Soviet nuclear subs in their Arctic pens, tracking them in the water and counting their missile silos. The Soviets would scramble their hottest MiGs, but they could never get as high as the Blackbirds.

During the Gulf War, I offered three Blackbirds to provide surveillance over Iraq. “We could fly over the rooftops of Baghdad at Mach 3-plus and sonic-boom the bastards,” I declared. The offer was declined. By then, the Blackbird’s fate was sealed. Of the original 50 Blackbirds built in the 1960s, only 29 remained. All the tooling for making the Blackbird had been destroyed in 1970 on orders from the Pentagon, and the scrap sold off by the pound.

In 1990 Congress approved the decision to retire the Blackbird. During 24 years of service, it had never been shot down and never lost a crewman to enemy fire.

The Blackbird was to have a final moment of glory. After the Smithsonian Institution requested one for its aeronautical collection, Lockheed and the Air Force decided that the plane should attempt to break the transcontinental speed record en route from Los Angeles to Washington. On March 6, 1990, a Blackbird piloted by Air Force pilot Ed Ycilding took off for the East Coast at 4:30 a.m., the pilot witnessing for one final time from 84,ooo the curvature of the earth and the bright blue glow just above the horizon. The Blackbird did indeed set another record— and it still stands: coast to coast in 67 minutes, 54 seconds.

“I felt both elation and tremendous sadness,” Yeilding recalled of his landing at Dulles International Airport. Over a thousand workers had turned out to cheer this incredible machine as it swept over their heads. In Yeilding’s words: “On the last pass I lit the afterburner as I came by the crowd, and performed a short, steep climb. Circling in for a landing, I rocked my wings in a final salute. I knew that a remarkable chapter in aviation history was over.

Today, some of these once-secret dark defenders stand pmudly on display. One sits on the great flight deck of the aircraft cairier Intrepid in New York Harbor, and two can be inspected at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum in Palmdale, Calfornia. Now everyone can see one of the most amazing planes that ever flew.

This September 1995, the Blackbird will be coming out of retirement. Congress has granted Lockheed a $100-million contract to reactivate three of the planes and return them to the Air Force, where they will resume operational duty.



July 1995. (Pgs. 126-131)

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