Coming Face-To-Face With The Fastest Jet Plane Ever Built

Say hello to the iconic Blackbird.  
Blackbird Udvar Hazy Center Los Angeles Washington D.C.
The Blackbird at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia set a record in 1990 by flying from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging 3,418 kilometres per hour. It’s a speed record yet to be broken. Photo courtesy Dane Penland, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

My heart begins to race, even as my breath slows. Roosting on the polished floor, almost within arm’s reach, is a machine that has fascinated me for years: a Blackbird. Officially known as the Lockheed SR-71, the Blackbird is the world’s fastest jet aircraft and was used for reconnaissance missions by the U.S. during the Cold War. It was pulled from service in the 1990s but remains on display at several locations across the U.S.

Aircraft have always interested me. My father was an aeronautical engineer so my exposure to military aircraft started early in my childhood. My interest in the Blackbird, though, began when I read Frederick Forsyth’s The Devil’s Alternative: “Far down the fuselage, wafer-thin wings sprouted, delta-shaped, being both wings and tail controls all in one…Body and engines resembled three hypodermic syringes, linked only by the wing. Small white U.S. stars in their white circles indicated its nationality; otherwise the SR-71 was black from nose to tail.”

Gripping as the description was, it wasn’t the real deal. So when a trip to Washington D.C. came my way, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia was on my must-visit list. Described as a companion facility to the better known Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington D.C., the Udvar-Hazy Center is heaven for an aviation buff. Its two cavernous hangars, adjoining Dulles International Airport, house several hundred aviation and space-related artefacts, including the space shuttle Discovery, a Concorde and, of course, a Blackbird.

As I enter, the Blackbird is the first aircraft I see, with the bulk of the Discovery looming in the distance. I learn that on its last flight on 6 March 1990 this particular SR-71 set a speed record, flying from Los Angeles to D.C. in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds—an average speed of about 3,418 kilometres an hour.

Wandering through the Boeing Aviation Hangar, it strikes me that many of these aircraft have played a role in events that have shaped the history of the world. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay—named after the mother of the pilot who picked it from the assembly line—changed the course of World War II when it dropped the dreaded atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Others, like the Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopter, nicknamed Huey, was the face of the Vietnam War.

Boeing Aviation Hangar Military planes World War II

The Boeing Aviation Hangar houses aircraft ranging from military planes used during World War II to sleek, modern jets like the Concorde. Photo courtesy Dane Penland, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The museum’s collection also includes crafts that have played less muscular roles in history. The pencil-thin Air France Concorde that straddles one wing of the aviation hangar was the first supersonic airliner to fly from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, Washington D.C. and New York. And high up, almost near the hangar’s roof is the Spirit of Columbus, a Cessna 180, that Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock flew in her record-creating feat to become the first woman to pilot an aircraft around the world.

I spend so much time with the aircraft that there’s little time left for the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar’s collection of rockets, missiles, satellites, and other objects used in human spaceflight. Besides the Discovery, I make obligatory stops at the Mars Pathfinder Lander and a Mobile Quarantine Facility for astronauts returning from the Moon.

From a catwalk on the upper level I get a bird’s-eye view of the museum’s restoration hangar with several plastic-shrouded aircraft. More experiences await me—the observation tower with views of Dulles airport, simulator rides, and the Imax theatre—but my time is almost up so I dash back to the aviation hangar for a rendezvous with the F-14 Tomcat, a fighter I first discovered thanks to the film Top Gun. Then, I make one last circumambulation of the Blackbird to end an aviation-fuelled morning.

Appeared on the April 2015 issue as “Speed Test”.

The Guide

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is in Chantilly, Virginia, 11 km/10 min from Dulles International Airport and 43.5 km/50 min from downtown Washington D.C. Open 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. daily, except 25 December; free tours conducted at 10.30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Entry free but simulator rides and Imax shows are ticketed ( visit/udvar-hazy-center).

Take the Metro Sliver Line from downtown Washington to the Wiehle- Reston East station, and then transfer to the Fairfax Connector Route 983 bus to the museum. Alternatively, take Metrobus 5A from L’Enfant Plaza, Washington D.C. to Dulles airport and a taxi or the Fairfax Connector Route 983 bus to the museum.


    Sankar Radhakrishnan is a writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Thiruvananthapuram. He loves travel, cheese, and travelling to taste new cheeses.

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