Empowering makers: The SR-71 Blackbird’s blueprint for smart manufacturing

I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings

            Lines from: High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jr.

The original SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ wasn’t black at all. For the first few years of it’s life it was unpainted (to keep the weight down). The Blackbird didn’t get its iconic name and colour until a few years later.

In this blog post we’ll discuss the aircraft that inspired generations of young engineers to look up and reach for their dreams. The development team at Corporation simply didn’t give up, they didn’t take no for an answer, and in the end they created a phenomenon that remains unrivalled half a century later.

A design phenomenon unrivalled to this day

During the peak of the cold war, the US government put out a request for a new type of airplane to support their activities. They wanted a plane that couldn’t be shot down. They wanted one that would be unmatched in speed and altitude, capable of collecting vital reconnaissance data while flying at the edge of space. Aerospace giant, Lockheed Corporation, responded and the SR-71 was the result.

Working for the company at the time was aerospace engineer Kelly Johnson. He’d already earned a reputation for incredible aircraft design, but with this project he would write his name into history.

Johnson had previously set up an elite group of aviation designers and engineers as a semi-autonomous organisation within Lockheed. This was called the “Skunk Works”, a name now synonymous with groundbreaking innovation. Under pressure from the US Government, the team turned the project around in just 20 months and set the blueprint for transformative design.

In 1964 when it was launched, no plane had flown as high (94,000 feet) or as fast (2193.2 miles per hour). The Blackbird still holds the flight airspeed record to this day.

How they did it

The incredible achievements of Kelly Johnson and his small team of engineers at the Skunk Works might seem like pure genius, but there’s a lesson to be learned for every maker in every conceivable manufacturing niche. While nothing had been done before, all it ultimately took was a big vision and a team of makers empowered with the freedom to innovate.

Thermal management was one of the biggest challenges the team at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works development facility had to deal with. At Mach 3 (2000+ miles per hour), even the freezing temperature of the Earth’s upper atmosphere is not enough to cool the fuselage from aerodynamic heating.

Painting the aircraft black was part of the solution which came later. There had been black aircraft going back to World War 1, but it was not standard on any until the SR-71 came along and that’s how it came to be known as the Blackbird. Black absorbs the heat and radiates it out evenly preventing hot spots forming.

To function in that kind of environment, practically on the edge of space, and at such astonishing speeds, the team had to re-design everything, new engines, new materials, fuselage, almost all the components had to be invented because this was a new frontier.

Even the fuel was specially composed to cope at high temperatures without igniting. Astonishingly, the fuel for the Blackbird was so stable that it doubled as coolant for key components of the aircraft. It had no fuel tanks. Metal ones would add too much weight and plastic would melt. Instead, the fuel was all contained within the aircraft structure.

It would leak fuel on the runway. Because it was designed to operate at such high temperatures, the individual panels on the aircraft’s surface were built with gaps to allow for expansion. This meant that fuel leaks were a characteristic of the Blackbird and it was considered acceptable and expected. The fuel was so inert that there was no risk of fire.

In the world of innovation, there are moments that extend our capabilities way beyond conventional limits, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird stands as a symbol for the spirit of innovation, of rethinking everything. It’s a great example of what empowered makers can achieve with a clear brief, uncapped vision and a blank sheet of paper.

The development of the SR-71 Blackbird is a story of pure innovation. It’s a symbol for everything that needs to happen in the world of engineering and manufacturing particularly as the challenge now is to innovate towards a sustainable future.


The future of manufacturing – navigating the uncharted

We are operating in a world of finite resources and limited time. There is a real imperative to improve the way we make things.

The Blackbird was developed in response to the threat of war. Smart digital manufacturing technologies are being developed in response to the threat of increasing competition, the threat of skills shortages, of limited resources and the need to bring better products to market, faster.

The Blackbird has been an inspiration to generations of engineers and scientists. Aesthetically, it’s awesome, but the more you look at it, the more you scratch beneath the surface, the more you realise that just about every aspect of it was designed, or redesigned, to push the boundaries.

That’s where we need to be today. Data driven decisions, real-time monitoring, lightning quick feedback loops, autonomous systems, are all technologies that can and will support the future of designing and making.

The SR-71 Blackbird blazed trails through the skies. Its legacy ignites a path toward a manufacturing renaissance. The lessons resonate to this day in modern industry.

Every aspect of the Blackbird’s design was meticulously crafted. When the team came up against the limits of possibility, they weren’t deterred. They redefined what was possible and the spirit of determination and innovation they showed is more important today than it ever has been.

Paving the way for unprecedented creativity and progress

The future of manufacturing, of design and engineering, throws the same hurdles in front of us. We need to escape those ‘surly bonds’ because the future of manufacturing calls us to rethink everything we know. Sometimes, like in the case of the Blackbird, we need to start again from the beginning, with new ideas, new tools and a clean sheet of paper.

The term for this type of innovation is “clean sheet architecture” and it involves approaching a project without any preconceived notions or limitations. This approach allows for groundbreaking solutions and often leads to revolutionary advancements in technology and engineering. By discarding the old and embracing the new, clean sheet architecture paves the way for unprecedented levels of creativity and progress in the way we approach complex challenges. It drives us to see possibilities that were previously unexplored.

Even now, more than 60 years after its initial test flight, the Blackbird remains a step change in the world of design and engineering. It is an example that propels us beyond the confines of traditional wisdom.

The future of building, of making and of creating beckons. It’s a future encapsulated by the innovative spirit of the SR-71 Blackbird, leading us to a brave new era of manufacturing excellence.






  • Stephen Chadwick

    Stephen Chadwick is President of Hexagon's Manufacturing Intelligence division EMEA region. He is an experienced leader of high tech business, driven to achieve success and innovation in digital manufacturing.

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