Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane by James Hamilton-Paterson (book review)

Author James Hamilton-Paterson makes it clear from the start that his book, ‘Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane’ isn’t about the technical specs of the SR-71. Oddly he mentions the Haynes book but it doesn’t come up in his bibliography at the back of the book. Instead, there is more of a focus on the world situation of the Cold War and the USA’s desire to find out just how far ahead the USSR was with its own military programme. Hindsight from this is also interesting because although Russia was ahead on some things, like getting a satellite into space, with others, like bombers, it was making out it had more than they really had with their annual displays. At diplomatic levels, America played nice but behind the scenes, the plane technology needed for stealth observation was developing, principally at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works by aeroplane designer Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson under a move to be under CIA than military control to give some deniability should any plane be shot down as being a civilian off-course. Add a proviso that said aircraft was destroyed in the crash although considering how light the likes of the U2 was, that ultimately proved difficult.

The tests are in the Nevada Mojave Desert where these planes were tested contributed to creating UFO reports out there. I hadn’t realise that we had some British pilots recruited to fly some of the U-2 missions from Turkey to Russia but this was done to ensure deniability by not being flown by Americans had they been brought down. A pilot’s description of the early Blackbird as having a look like a snake’s head clearly makes a connection to why it was also called the Habu, although Hamilton-Paterson misses that connection, although the term is used further in.

Something I’ve only seen described but now illustrated on page 81 is a photo of a model of the SR-71 upside down on a hydraulic pole being tested for visibility. Considering what I’ve read elsewhere that radar could only spot the pole explains why they wanted the pole camouflaged in a similar way.

The recruitment of pilots was on par with astronaut training with a 5 day medical ordeal but considering the SR-71 flies at near the edge of space that wasn’t so surprising. The only difference from astronauts was the pilots who succeeded didn’t know what they were going to fly until they got to Groom Lake.

Although Hamilton-Paterson says he doesn’t go technical, he does detail some of the problems the Blackbird had with supersonic speeds and the ‘unstarts’ or engine stalls which affected the flight and effectively slamming the pilot’s head against the canopy…repeatedly. I should remind you that the Blackbird cockpit is small and confining. Kelly Johnson was making modifications all the time to sort such problems out. The fact that so few Blackbirds crashed shows just how good a design it was overall. I should also point out that there are a lot of colour photo inserts but the main ones of the SR-71 is left to the back of the book.

Two things I tend to look out for when reading books about the SR-71 is the author acknowledging the pilot’s name for it as the Habu and how President Johnson publicly mistakenly reversed its letters from RS-71 and how the Blackbird got quickly re-designated than show him in error. Hamilton-Paterson covers both of these points.

For those who read my article on super-speed last month might like to know that to turn around, the Blackbird has to do a semi-circle of 140 miles and all fuel had to be carefully watched to ensure it safely got to the fuelling airplanes.

What really ended the use of the Blackbird was the apparent cost and dislike by the military, as the Blackbird was also under the control of the CIA, given to the politicians. Added to that, satellites were now doing a similar job although took longer to move in position to do particular observations.

As it cost $67 million dollars each to dismantle the SR-71 fleet, they are now in museums around the world and no prospect of them flying again. I suspect that is why there are still so many books written about the Blackbird still because as the fastest ever aircraft, it’s a record never to be beaten.

Hamilton-Paterson’s book is actually a reasonably fast read and puts over the information well enabling you to digest a lot of information. Whether there are any surprises for the reader knowledgeable on the subject will have to be up to you to decide. My geek reflex tends to want to pick up any books about the SR-71 so I suspect many of you will add this book to your collection.

GF Willmetts

July 2017

(pub: Head Of Zeus. 224 page illustrated indexed small hardback. Price: £18.99. ISBN: 978-1-78669-120-0)

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