Capable of cruising at speeds in excess of Mach 3.2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft to ever to see operational service. But even though its performance has never been matched, the SR-71 was retired as the Cold War drew to a close.
The Blackbird was initially retired in 1990, even before the fall of the Soviet Union. Eventually, however, three of the jets were reactivated by the Air Force—at the insistence of Congress—for a brief period between 1995 and 1998. Meanwhile, NASA flew research missions with the aircraft until 1999. In the end, the Blackbird was retired without a true replacement. But why?
Ultimately, while the SR-71 delivered unparalleled performance, it was its operating costs that condemned the Blackbird to early retirement. Moreover, the U.S. Air Force had doubts about the aircraft’s survivability versus a new generation of Soviet (and later Russian) air defenses and interceptors—like the SA-10 Grumble (and other advanced S-300 derivatives) and MiG-31 Foxhounds. In fact, the Air Force actively resisted congressional attempts to revive the program during the 1990s because of those very reasons.
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