Lockheed Martin’s secretive Skunk Works unit is already testing a radical hypersonic update of the long-retired Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, it has been claimed.
According to Aviation Week, a technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered, in July.
The SR-72 hypersonic plane will be a strike and reconnaissance aircraft that tops Mach 6, and the firm has been working on the project since the early 2000s.
‘Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed,’ Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of aeronautics at Lockheed Martin, told the SAE International Aerotech Congress and Exhibition.
‘Simply put, I believe the United States is on the verge of a hypersonics revolution.’
Hypersonic technologies, including a combined cycle propulsion system that blends a rocket engine and a supersonic jet engine, are now sufficiently advanced to allow the planned SR-72 project to begin, it is believed.
‘We’ve been saying hypersonics is two years away for the last 20 years, but all I can say is the technology is mature and we, along with Darpa and the services, are working hard to get that capability into the hands of our warfighters as soon as possible,’ Rob Weiss, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president and general manager for Advanced Development Programs, previously told Aviation Week.
‘I can’t give you any timelines or any specifics on the capabilities,’ he said.
‘It is all very sensitive.
‘Some of our adversaries are moving along these lines pretty quickly and it is important we stay quiet about what is going on.
‘We can acknowledge the general capability that’s out there, but any program specifics are off limits.’
That same day a different SR-71 set an absolute speed record of 2,193.2mph – a record it still holds today.
The plane was so fast that it could outrun surface-to-air missiles as it traveled close to the edge of space at about 85,000 feet, or about 16 miles above the earth.
If a surface-to-air missile launch was detected, the standard evasive action was simply to accelerate and outfly the missile.
The plane flew so high above the Earth’s surface that Joersz said there was no real sense of speed at all with the clouds so far below.
A total of 32 of the aircraft were built which flew from 1964 to 1999; 12 were lost in accidents, but none were shot down by enemies.
Lockheed’s previous reconnaissance aircraft was the relatively slow U-2, designed for the CIA.
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