The SR-71 "Blackbird," formally known as the Lockheed SR-71, was an advanced reconnaissance aircraft considered iconic of superior American aerospace technology. The sleek, stealthy craft was black colored, 107 ft 5 in (32.74 m) long, had a 55 ft 7 in (16.94 m) wingspan, 18 ft 6 in (5.64 m) tall, with a cruising speed of Mach 3.2 (2,200+ mph, 3,530+ km/h), and a loaded weight of 170,000 lb (77,000 kg). Its maximum speed was unknown, though it could have been Mach 4 or above. The SR-71 Blackbird has been called "one of the most spectacular planes ever built." Its cost and function was similar to that of spy satellites.
First introduced in 1966, 32 SR-71 Blackbird craft were produced throughout the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, at a per unit acquisition cost of over $200 million USD (US Dollars), with the craft remaining in use until 1998, when it was permanently retired. The SR-71 Blackbird was built using the most advanced technology and design features available at the time, including unique air inlets to slow the airflow from Mach 3.2 to Mach 0.6 for the turbojet engines, dozens of computers managing everything from internal airflow to control surface details, a 85% titanium and 15% composite structure, its distinctive chines (sharp tapering sides designed to make the craft more aerodynamic), and many others.
Being a strategic reconnaissance plane, the SR-71 Blackbird lacked armament, but could evade most threats simply with its extreme speed. If a ground-to-air missile launch was detected by the pilot, the standard evasion procedure was simply to speed up. The craft was specially shaped for stealth, and its titanium frame was covered in radar-absorbing materials. No SR-71 Blackbird was ever lost to enemy action, though 12 of the 32 planes were lost due to accidents, causing three deaths over its 32 year history.
Throughout its history, the SR-71 Blackbird was the world's fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft, reaching an altitude of 85,069 feet (25,929 m, 16 miles), almost three times the altitude of Mt. Everest. It had a camera so accurate that it could image a car's license plate from this altitude, which, at the time of its introduction, was superior surveillance than the best spy satellites. Spy satellites orbit at altitudes of at least 200 miles above the surface, requiring more powerful cameras to see the same ground features.
The replacement for the SR-71 Blackbird is unknown, but has been the subject of much speculation since the craft was retired in 1998. Some have speculated on the existence of a secret hypersonic reconnaissance craft called Aurora, but its existence has never been acknowledged by any government official.