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When I was a boy, I enjoyed reading about world records. There was something fascinating to me about achievements that were the best in the world. Years later, I find myself reflecting on the museum’s SR-71 Blackbird, serial number 61-7958, holder for 38 years today of the world absolute speed record for airplanes.

On 28 July 1976, pilot Eldon W. Joersz and reconnaissance systems officer (RSO) George T. Morgan, Jr. blasted through the sky over Edwards Air Force Base, California, in SR-71 958. Their flight plan involved passing a timing gate, flying a straight course of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles), passing a second timing gate, turning around, and flying back over the course. The average speed of the two passes was an amazing 2,193.167 miles (3,529.56 kilometers) per hour, which was ratified by the World Air Sports Federation, the international organization that governs world aviation records. Other airplanes may have gone faster, but 958 has the top spot in the record book.

How fast is 2,193 miles per hour? That’s 36.55 miles per minute or 3,216.4 feet per second. That’s faster than a bullet shot from the classic M1 Garand rifle of World War II fame. When a bullet left the M1’s muzzle, it was going 2,800 feet per second. If it were possible to put the two in the air together at speed, 958 would have blasted by an M1’s bullet at 400 feet per second or over 270 miles per hour.

Lockheed Photo via Tony Landis and David Allison

The museum’s SR-71 serial number 61-7958 during one of the world speed record flights. The white lines on the underside were added to help ground observers track the aircraft. (Lockheed photo via Tony Landis and David Allison.)

There are rifle bullets that travel faster than 3,200 feet per second but that just emphasizes to me how remarkable the SR-71 was. The Blackbird carried two people, took off and landed under its own power, and could be refueled in flight–though it had to slow way down for that. The SR-71 flew 16 miles (25.9 kilometers) above the ground, went really fast for long periods of time, and carried cameras and other sensors that provided critical intelligence information. Truly amazing.

I should mention that 958 was used to set the world absolute closed circuit speed record over a 1000 kilometer course the day before the absolute speed record, on 27 July 1976. For that flight, pilot Adolphus H. Bledsoe, Jr. and RSO John T. Fuller tore through the sky at 2,092.29 miles (3, 367.22 kilometers) per hour.


SR-71 #958 landing after one of the world speed record flights. (USAF photo via Tony Landis and David Allison.)

I invite you to come visit the Museum of Aviation and see this impressive airplane. With the aircraft up on pedestals, you can walk under it, which is a unique experience. The view from the mezzanine is great, too. Even standing still, the mighty SR-71 looks faster than a speeding bullet.

Mike Rowland, Curator

Further reading:

SR-71 World Record Speed and Altitude Flights

“Absolute Blackbirds” by Jeff Rhodes. Code One Magazine Online.

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