The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, which still holds world records for speed and altitude, has a new mission: Putting the Virginia Aviation Museum on tourists' maps. 

Sonic Boon

With its reptilian, cobra-hooded silhouette, it looks like a dragon of Medieval lore, black as a starless sky and primed to swoop batlike upon its prey. It is the fastest, highest-flying conventional aircraft known (if the word conventional can truly be applied to it) and it took its first flights from the nest at the most secret place on Earth: Area 51, the shadowy Air Force testing ground inextricably linked to UFOs, aliens and all matter of unexplained lights in the night sky.

SR-71 Blackbird Facts

Top Speed: Mach 3.3, or three times the speed of sound
Top Altitude: 85,000+ feet or more than 16 miles
Crew: Two, a pilot and a reconnaissance specialist
Empty Weight: 60,000 pounds
Height: 18 feet, six inches (from landing gear to vertical wing)
Wingspan: 55 feet, seven inches
Length: 107 feet, 5 inches
Range Before Refueling: 2,000 nautical miles
Number Built: 32
It is the SR-71 Blackbird, hands-down the coolest airplane ever to break the bonds of Earth, and Richmond's getting one.

Or, to be more specific, the Virginia Aviation Museum is. Last week, Walter Witschey, director of the Science Museum of Virginia, the state-run parent agency of the aviation museum, signed an agreement to exhibit a Blackbird on permanent loan from the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

"It was very exciting, but the big rush of adrenaline is going to be to be able to stand in front of the Virginia Aviation Museum and be able to touch it," says Witschey, gleeful as a little boy with a new toy. "I've seen two of them up close and personal and I've got to tell you, I could feel the adrenaline rush both times. They are very exciting. They are compelling aircraft even standing still."

A weaponless surveillance aircraft, the supersonic SR-71 flew over some of the hottest hot spots of the Cold War, gathering intelligence with its still-classified cameras, which are rumored to be able to pinpoint a golf ball from 15 miles up. Its pilots wore the same sort of pressure suits and helmets worn by the Mercury and Gemini astronauts.

Shrouded in secrecy for much of its operational life, the sleek rocketlike craft with its twin nacelles seems straight out of science fiction. It's probably the most-photographed airplane in the world and its mystique has been immortalized and embraced by pop culture. Marvel Comics' mutant superheroes the X-Men tool around in one. And Queen Amidala's spaceship in "Star Wars: Episode I" is essentially a chrome-plated Blackbird.

The acquisition is an incredible coup for the Virginia Aviation Museum and is what Witschey and others describe as the first step in transforming the Virginia Aviation Museum into a national tourism destination. When the Blackbird arrives next month, it will be the only SR-71 on public display in the Mid-Atlantic. Only 20 of the original 32 Blackbirds remain and just 12 are exhibited, almost all on the West Coast. (The nearest ones are in Georgia and Ohio, though early prototype models, not SR-71s, are on display in New York and Alabama.)

In fact, the Smithsonian Institute's National Air & Space Museum says that its own SR-71, which is in a storage hangar and not on public display, is one of the three centerpiece exhibits planned for its new museum in Northern Virginia, which is slated to open by late 2003. The others are the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb, and the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

[image-1]Photo courtesy Lockheed MartinThe SR-71 that will be on display at the Virginia Aviation Museum is believed to have the most complete cockpit of any Blackbird yet displayed, but the plane will be missing a few key elements — namely its cameras and monitoring devices. They're still classified. The Blackbird's twin 6,000-pound engines will also not be in the craft because they provide stress on the landing gear and the Air Force needs them for other projects."I'd say it's a big deal," says Tom Alison, chief of the National Air & Space Museum's collections division and a former SR-71 pilot (see sidebar). "Let me say that I'm very familiar with the Virginia Aviation Museum. I think they do a fantastic job. ... The fact that they're going to be able to acquire an SR-71 is going to be a major accomplishment, I would say."

SR-71 Blackbirds, which debuted in 1964, fly at the very threshold of space, more than 85,000 feet high. They reach bone-jarring top speeds of Mach 3.3, about 2,100 miles per hour, or three times the speed of sound. That's about 35 miles per minute. By contrast, the average commercial airliner flies between 350 to 500 miles per hour and reaches only about 35,000 feet.

The Blackbird that the Virginia Aviation Museum is getting, SR-71A/#61-7968, holds the world record for endurance flying, set on April 26, 1971, with a 10« hour, 15,000-mile nonstop flight, practically three-quarters of the way around the Earth. Other Blackbirds still hold world records for speed and altitude. They have flown from London to Los Angeles in under four hours.

The plane is being brought to the museum via a $94,200 contribution from the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society. A contractor will disassemble the titanium-plated aircraft, which is housed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, starting around Aug. 31. It will be loaded onto seven tractor trailer trucks, which are scheduled to arrive at the Virginia Aviation Museum between Sept. 20 and 27. It will be reassembled and ready for public view by late September or early October.

The aviation museum hopes to exhibit the Blackbird on its front lawn, but must receive approval at the Aug. 31 meeting of the Capital Region Airport Commission, which owns the land upon which the museum sits.

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