Marc Newson - SR-71 Blackbird

Marc Newson - SR-71 Blackbird

How do you solve a problem like a Russian radar? That question lies at the heart of one of the most innovative and intricate planes ever to be made: the SR-71 Blackbird. Acclaimed industrial designer and artist Marc Newson and host Alice Loxton tell the story of an aircraft born out of an impossible brief.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 11: Marc Newson - SR-71 Blackbird

NARRATOR: What ghosts lie hidden in the archives of espionage? What story might an unassuming item yield, when placed under the right light? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. In 1960, an American U-2 spy plane - thought to be undetectable by radars - was shot down while flying reconnaissance over the Soviet Union. After being spotted deep into enemy territory, the U-2’s pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was forced to bail out of the cockpit and parachute directly into the waiting arms of Russian police. You’ll hear the full details of that particular fiasco in a later episode of this series. Suffice it to say, for now, that it sparked a major diplomatic incident and two years in a Russian cell for the unlucky airman. And for the intelligence services back home, it was a violent wake-up call as to the capabilities of Russian radars. But even before the Powers’ debacle, the CIA was concerned about the growing sophistication of Russian technology. Reconnaissance missions over Soviet territory were starting to feel like more trouble than they were worth. But how to gather intelligence from the air without actually flying over the enemy? Well, the answer to that question looms before you in the form of the SR-71 Blackbird.

MARC NEWSON: The SR-71 was the product of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in the USA. This was the place where top-secret projects only known about by the CIA and the US Air Force took place. Everything that came out of the skunk works was, and still is, cloaked in complete secrecy.

NARRATOR: That’s Marc Newson, an acclaimed industrial designer, creative director, and artist. He’s fascinated by the iconic SR-71 spy plane and he’s going to tell you about it. That is, tell you what he can because this aircraft is still cloaked in secrecy 60 years after its first flight in 1964.

MARC NEWSON: I think I’m inspired by the SR-71 because it’s remained with me. It’s remained in my consciousness since I was a small child. In fact, its first flight was the year after I was born so I suppose there is an odd symmetry there. It’s one of those incredibly iconic-looking objects which obviously happens to be an aircraft and I love anything that has to do with aerospace. And it was just such an odd, other-worldly looking object capable of such extraordinary things at the time.

NARRATOR: These extraordinary capabilities were the brainchild of Kelly Johnson, chief designer at Lockheed Martin’s Department for Advanced Development Programs - or Skunk Works, if you’re in the know. Johnson was a legend in his field and he made a name for himself as someone who made brilliant ideas happen under pressure. With the SR-71, his goal was to engineer a plane that would fly too high and too fast to be intercepted by the enemy. But the problem with flying really fast is that friction is created on the surface of the plane, especially on its outer edges. So you need to build with materials that can withstand temperatures of up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods. Any ideas? To Kelly Johnson and his team, there was an obvious choice. Light, resilient at high temperatures, and as strong as steel, titanium was the order of the day.

MARC NEWSON: Titanium is a very particular type of metal. It has a much higher melting point than, say, aluminum, which is a more conventional material to build aircraft from. But it’s incredibly strong. One of the fantastic ironies, of course, is that the world’s biggest producer of Titanium happens to be Russia - or what was the USSR. 

NARRATOR: This was ironic. It was also a problem. According to declassified CIA records, 80 percent of the early deliveries from an American supplier, Titanium Metals Corporation, had to be rejected because they weren’t pure enough. Nothing much is said about how the supply suddenly improved. But the best titanium came, and still comes, from Russia. And you better believe that Skunk Works was working with the best. According to people involved at the time, the CIA set up a number of front companies based in various countries. Each of them bought titanium on behalf of the CIA. Somewhere down the line, the metal ended up in California after being purified overseas.

MARC NEWSON: There are all these fantastic stories about the bogus trade deals that the US government entered into with Russia to get the titanium in a covert manner.

NARRATOR: Smart. But the problems with titanium didn’t end there. Turns out, a material that won’t melt at Mach-3 is pretty tough to work with. Skunk Works had to develop special titanium tools to form the SR-71’s elegant silhouette. Many of the SR-71’s bold design features were there specifically to help the plane evade those Russian radars. For example, its specially formulated coating contained radar-absorbing iron. To test this innovation, a full-scale model of the SR-71 was lifted into the air on a pylon at a secret location in the Nevada desert and pelted with radar waves to see what showed up. This turned out pretty well. On radar, the plane appeared bigger than a bird but smaller than a human. And it must have been reassuring to know that, even if its position was picked up, this supersonic jet would be a long way away before the enemy could make their move. Only one issue remained.

MARC NEWSON: It had to stay up in the air for relatively long periods and that could only be done by mid-air refueling but of course, the thing flew so fast it had to slow down for this, which caused all sorts of issues because the aircraft when it’s at full speed, the wings in the fuselage would reach temperatures of 300 - 480 degrees Celsius. And so, it got very, very, very hot and consequently expanded up to two or three inches - which is nuts, when you think about it. All of the joints opened up, so they had to have little flaps to bridge those gaps. The idea that you could design an aircraft to open up and contract is quite an esoteric one.

NARRATOR: The heating and cooling cycles made the titanium stronger, but it also caused leaks - fuel leaks. In a high-speed aircraft flying over dangerous terrain, that could be a recipe for a bad time. But the Skunk Works engineers took the leakage in their stride. They did regular drips-per-minute checks to ensure that the fuel loss wasn’t excessive. What they did lose, they chalked up to the cost of doing business. There’s no such thing as a perfect design. After all, it’s all about give and take.

MARC NEWSON: There are so many other odd or idiosyncratic features or qualities of this aircraft that make it really breathtaking in terms of what an innovation it was at the time - and even to this day, to an extent. 

NARRATOR: By 1964, after some high-level troubleshooting, the SR-71 was ready: 92 percent titanium, inside and out.

MARC NEWSON: Even to this day I believe it still holds the record for the fastest aircraft which breathes air. It is over half a century old. It’s an extraordinary achievement. It flew at an incredibly high altitude, I think, around 85,000 feet. I think it could fly up to Mach-3.3 which is over 2.5 thousand miles [2,500 miles] per hour.

NARRATOR: Impressive. But the real genius of the SR-71 was in its cameras and radar systems. They looked sideways, instead of straight down. It sounds like a simple tweak, but what this meant was that the plane never actually had to enter enemy territory. It could skirt the borders and take long-range pictures from miles away using its powerful lenses. The plane could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour - all from 80,000 feet in the air. That’s an area roughly the size of Wyoming. But even with all this top-secret spy tech on board, the SR-71s were flown by American Air Force pilots, not CIA pilots. The American government didn’t want any more clandestine operations going south. For Marc Newson, all of that innovation, investment, and determination paid off in the end. The SR-71 has become the stuff of design legend.

MARC NEWSON: I believe it’s the most beautiful aircraft that’s ever been made. And, like most things in the world of aerospace, things end up looking beautiful for purely functional reasons. I mean, I don’t think anyone intended for this thing to look the way it did. It’s the result of many, many functional factors. The shape of the aircraft, obviously, being able to travel at such high speed; it was just unbelievably aerodynamic. The two, fantastic Pratt & Whitney engines that power this thing. The whole package results in the most beautiful-looking aircraft. I have actually seen one in real life and the thing is that they’re big. You don’t get a sense of the scale of this thing but it’s about the size a 727 used to look like, that’s an old Boeing passenger aircraft. So it’s a really big airplane. And just the most ominous-looking thing. It just had the most wonderful presence. It’s hard to put into words what specifically it is about this thing that makes it look so good and so sexy really, if an aircraft can be sexy. But I don’t think I would be the only one out there who thinks that this is maybe one of the best-looking aircraft that was ever made. 

NARRATOR: I'm Alice Loxton. Be sure to explore the other enigmatic items in our archive, and join me back here, next week, for more.

Guest Bio

Marc Newson is an Australian industrial designer, creative director, and artist who has worked in many industry sectors including transportation design and fine art.

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