When the Wright Brothers succeeded in inventing the world’s first successful heavier-than-air, human powered and controlled aircraft, speed was not the primary issue. Having designed and flown several gliders annually from 1900, they only added power as such in December 1903, eventually reaching a speed of 10.98 km/h (6.82 mph).
Two years later Wilbur Wright beat this record, reaching the much faster speed of 60.23 km/h (37.85 mph) in the Flyer III. Even so, speed wasn’t what the Wright Brothers wanted to promote, but rather the fact that they had created a practical, utilitarian flying machine that they could manufacture and sell.
Over the decades man has succeeded in manufacturing and flying aircraft faster and faster. And 73 years after the Wright Brothers took flight in the first powered Wright Flyer I, the legendary Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was recognized as the world’s fastest aircraft.
It was on 28 July 1976 that two US Air Force officers, Captain Eldon W. Joersz and Major George T. Morgan, the SR-71 achieved the official, still unbeaten air speed record for an airbreathing jet aircraft that was manned. Flown near the Beale Air Force Base in California, the SR-71, a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft, reached a top speed of 3,529.6 km/h (or 2,193.2 mph.)
Recently, Joersz told CNN that they hadn’t gone as fast as they could have done; they just went fast enough to set a new record. The previous record had been set in May 1965 by US airforce test pilots Robert L. Stephens and Daniel Andre, who reached a speed of 3,331.5 km/h (2,070.1 mph) in a Lockheed YF-12A. So they beat the record by 198.1 km/h.
Several years later another SR-71 Blackbird pilot, American Brian Shul claimed to have flown even faster than Joersz and Morgan. Shul, who flew 212 air support missions during the Vietnam War, and who nearly died after being shot down in Cambodia, made the claim in his book The Untouchables. It was 15 April 1986, and he was flying over Libya at the time, he said, and was forced to fly as fast as possible to dodge a missile. This remains an unofficial record.
To date only unmanned, air-launched aircraft have beaten the SR-71 record: NASA’s X43-A in 2004 (12,144 km/h) and the HTV-2 Falcon in 2010 (21,245 kp/h). Both were hypersonic scramjets.
Airbreathing Jet Aircraft
The earliest airbreathing jet engines date back to the latter part of World War II and include Japanese Tsu-11 engines that were designed to power Ohka kamikaze planes. These were, however, hybrid designs that relied on an external power source that compressed air that was then mixed with fuel to achieve jet thrust.
Today almost all airbreathing jet engines are internal combustion engines that achieve propulsion from combustion of the fuel inside (rather than outside) the jet engine. Further, most are turbofan engines that feature a large fan in front of quite a small jet engine.
The SR-71 Blackbird
Designed to fly at over Mach 3, the SR-71 had a tandem cockpit so that the pilot was in front, and a reconnaissance systems officer behind him. Made of 85 percent titanium the aircraft was designed to minimize its radar signature. They were painted a very dark blue (almost black) color that helped to camouflage the aircraft against the night sky.
Developed for the military by Lockhead’s Skunk Works division in the 1960s, the SR-71 was designed with basic stealth characteristics that would allow it to outrace missiles and other threats. Able to operate at extremely high speeds and high altitudes, they were used by the US Air Force from 1964 until 1998. None of the 32 aircraft built was lost to enemy action, though 12 were destroyed in accidents. Most of those that survive are now in museums.
In addition to being the world’s fastest aircraft, the SR-71 also holds the record for being the highest-flying operational manned aircraft in continuous flight.
Beyond The SR-71
Will any other aircraft ever beat the SR-71 Blackbird’s speed record? Joersz believes that someday a new aircraft will probably reach as much as six times the speed of sound, and will make their record “seem pretty slow.”
He might be right, and it could happen sooner than we think. It might even be a new Lockheed aircraft that does it!
In December 2014 NASA took Lockheed on board to research the feasibility of developing a new hypersonic jet engine. They are hoping it will power a new surveillance jet dubbed the SR-72. However reports state that the SR-72, if built, will be unmanned. So maybe not!