Link SR-71 “Blackbird” Simulator

This simulator was designed and built in 1963-1965 under great secrecy by Link—the company founded by Edwin Link, who fabricated his first flight simulation device in 1929. It is the only one ever produced and it was used to train SR-71 crews of the Air Force’s 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California. While the simulator was undergoing a major upgrade in 1989, the Air Force cancelled its SR-71 operation. However, NASA was given three of the retired “Blackbirds for research purposes, and the upgraded simulator was shipped to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California to support the NASA crews. Air Force and NASA crews shared the simulator when the Air Force reinstated SR-71 operations from 1994 to 1997, and NASA continued to fly the “Blackbird” until the 9th of October, 1999, the last flight ever for the SR-71.

The simulator was kept in a limited operational condition until it was decided to make it available for museum display in early 2006. The Simulator consists of four main components: a Pilot’s cockpit with integrated Instructor Operator Station (IOS), the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) Cockpit, the RSO’s IOS desk, and a bank of computer and electronic cabinets which controlled power and software which emulated the capabilities and systems of the real aircraft.

The Aircraft

No aircraft in history has operated in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71 “Blackbird.” It is the fastest aircraft propelled by air-breathing engines. The “Blackbird’s” performance and operational achievements placed it at the crest of aviation technology developments during the Cold War. The SR-71 was planned and designed when the intensity of the “Cold War” was approaching near critical levels of tension during the 1950’s. As a result, the U.S. Military leadership required accurate and timely information of the Soviet Unions global military deployments. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s subsonic U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was a capable aircraft, but its performance left it vulnerable due to the continuing advancement of Soviet surface to air anti-aircraft missiles. This danger proved to be a reality when a U-2 was shot down by a surface to air missile over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Lockheed’s proposal to develop a new high speed, high altitude, reconnaissance aircraft, to be capable of avoiding interceptors and missiles was contracted by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for an aircraft designated the A-12. Lockheed’s secret division known as the “Skunk Works”, headed by the design engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson designed the A-12 to cruise at Mach 3.2 and fly well above 60,000 feet. It was a  challenging design which required overcoming a myriad of engineering advancements. Flying more than three times the speed of sound generates extreme temperatures on external aircraft surfaces, which are enough to melt conventional aluminum airframes. The design team chose to make the jet’s external skin of titanium alloy which shielded the internal aluminum airframe. Two conventional, but very powerful, afterburning turbine engines propelled this aircraft and operated across a flight speed envelope from a takeoff speed of 207 mph to more than 2,200 mph. The A-12’s cross section design and special paint was optimized to produce  a low radar profile. This treatment became one of the first applications of stealth technology, but it never completely met the design goals.

While Lockheed continued to refine the A-12, the U. S. Air Force ordered an interceptor version of the aircraft designated the YF-12A, with only three being built and never did achieve operational service.  Lockheed, however, proposed a “specific mission” version configured to conduct post-nuclear strike reconnaissance. This proposal evolved into the SR-71.

Experience gained from the A-12 program convinced the Air Force that flying the SR-71 safely required two crew members, a pilot and a Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO). The RSO operated with the wide array of monitoring and defensive systems installed on the airplane. The SR-71 was designed to fly deep into hostile territory, avoiding interception with its tremendous speed and high altitude. It could operate safely at a maximum speed of Mach 3.3 at an altitude more than sixteen miles, or 85,000 ft above the earth. The crew had to wear pressure suits similar to those worn by astronauts. These suits were required to protect the crew in the event of sudden cabin pressure loss while at operating altitudes.

When the SR-71 became operational, orbiting reconnaissance satellites had already replaced manned aircraft to gather intelligence from sites deep within Soviet territory. Satellites could not cover every geopolitical hotspot so the Blackbird remained a vital tool for global intelligence gathering. On many occasions, pilots and RSOs flying the SR-71 provided information that proved vital in formulating successful U. S. foreign policy.

As the performance of space-based surveillance systems grew, along with the effectiveness of ground-based air defense networks, the Air Force started to lose enthusiasm for the expensive program and ended SR-71 operations in January 1990. Despite protests by military leaders, Congress revived the program in 1995. Continued wrangling over operating budgets, however, soon led to final termination of SR-71 flights. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration retained two SR-71As and the one SR-71B for high-speed research projects and flew these airplanes until 1999.

2016 SR-71 Gallery

The one-of-a-kind Link SR-71 simulator has been a major exhibit at the Museum since 2007.  In February 2016, this area on the north side of the building became the SR-71 GALLERY—with more room devoted to the exhibits, improved lighting in both the Pilot and Reconnaissance Systems Officer stations, and increased access to the massive J58 jet engine.  New major artifacts are supported by enhanced educational signage with historical and technological information about both the simulator and the aircraft.  These major artifacts include one of the 28 electronic equipment cabinets used to support the simulator, an operational pressure suit worn by all crewmembers during flight, and a rare pristine example of a Technical Objective Camera—one of the several imaging systems carried by the aircraft that could take high-resolution photographs of objects as small as six inches across from altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet.  Courtesy of Southwest Displays of Carrollton, Texas, there is an actual SR-71 aircraft canopy mounted so that visitors can sit underneath to gain a “pilot’s-eye view” through the Plexiglas panels.  Other supporting artifacts such as crewmember equipment, electronic components, and other memorabilia are presented in two new exhibit cases to provide more details about the story of the world’s fastest and highest-flying jet aircraft.

The Museum’s sincere appreciation goes to Col. Rich Graham, USAF (Ret.), SR-71 pilot, Wing Commander, and author, for his generous and invaluable assistance in the development of the SR-71 Gallery.

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