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In 1976, the SR-71 Blackbird set the record for the highest-ever sustained horizontal flight at an altitude of 85,069 ft. Another flight on the same day set the absolute speed record for a manned jet aircraft at 2,193 mph – that’s flying from London to New York in under two hours!
However, the SR-71 does have a troubling record of accidents. Of the 32 Blackbirds created, 12 of them were lost due to accidents. For example, one SR-71 disintegrated in 1966 after an engine shutdown in a high bank turn. Several others had braking failures on the tarmac, which caused the wheels to collapse and the whole plane to get damaged. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Blackbird met its last accident, suffering an engine explosion over the South China Sea.
With these many incidents over time, there’s no question that it would equate to at least several billion dollars in today’s money.
But because of the sheer magnitude of what the aircraft can do, it continuously served NASA as a platform to explore extreme aerodynamics, thermal protection, and many more.
So why retire it?
Although there were no faster or higher-flying planes in development at the time to replace it, the team behind the Blackbird program knew the end was near.
Spy satellites were doing a better job – and are way cheaper than the Blackbird. With the Cold War coming to a close, the Air Force openly said that it couldn’t justify the cost of operating the birds anymore.