The SR-71, commonly referred to as the Blackbird, was a pinnacle of engineering. Released back in 1966 it was capable of cruising at Mach 3.2 at incredible heights, all the way up to 25KM above the Earth’s surface. It was the only craft that had the capability to outrun any missiles thrown at it and it’s for this reason alone that not one Blackbird was ever lost to enemy action (although a dozen did fail in a variety of other scenarios). However the advent of modern surveillance techniques, such as the introduction of high resolution spy satellites and unmanned drones made the capabilities that the Blackbird offered somewhat redundant and it was finally retired from service back in 1998. Still plane enthusiasts like myself have always wondered if there would ever be a successor craft as nothing has come close to matching the Blackbird’s raw speed.
The rumours of a successor started spreading over 3 decades ago when it was speculated that the USA, specifically Lockheed Martin, had the capability to build a Mach 5 version of the Blackbird. It was called Project Aurora by the public and there have been numerous sightings attributed to the project over the years as well as a lot of sonic boom data gathered by various agencies pointing towards a hypersonic craft flying in certain areas. However nothing concrete was ever established and it appear that should the USA be working on a Blackbird successor it was keeping it under tight wraps, not wanting a single detail of it to escape. A recent announcement however points to the Aurora being just a rumour with the Blackbirds successor being a new hypersonic craft called the SR-72.
Whilst just a concept at this stage, with the first scaled prototype due in 2023, the SR-72’s capabilities are set to eclipse that of the venerable Blackbird significantly. The target cruise speed for the craft is a whopping Mach 6, double that of its predecessor. The technology to support this kind of speed is still highly experimental to the point where most of the craft built to get to those kinds of speeds (in air) have all ended rather catastrophically. Indeed switching between traditional jet engines and the high speed scramjets is still an unsolved problem (all those previous scramjet examples were rocket powered) and is likely the reason for the SR-72’s long production schedule.
What’s particularly interesting about the SR-72 though is the fact that Lockheed Martin is actually considering building it as the aforementioned reasons for the Blackbird’s retirement haven’t gone away. Whilst this current concept design seems to lend itself to a high speed reconnaissance drone (I can’t find any direct mention of it being manned and there’s no visible windows on the craft), something which does fit into the USA’s current vision for their military capabilities, it’s still a rather expensive way of doing reconnaissance. However the SR-72 will apparently have a strike capable variant, something which the Blackbird did not have. I can’t myself foresee a reason for having such a high speed craft to do bombing runs (isn’t that what we have missiles for?) but then again I’m not an expert on military strategy so there’s probably something I’m missing there.
As a technology geek though the prospect of seeing a successor to the SR-72 makes me giddy with excitement as the developments required to make it a reality would mean the validation of a whole bunch of tech that could provide huge benefits to the rest of the world. Whilst I’m sure the trickle down wouldn’t happen for another decade or so after the SR-72’s debut you can rest assured that once scramjet technology has been made feasible it’ll find its way into other aircraft meaning super fast air travel for plebs like us. Plus there will also be all the demonstrations and air shows for Lockheed Martin to show off its new toy, something which I’m definitely looking forward to.
Even though I don’t get suckered into conspiracy theories since I’m usually only a couple Google searches away from finding the facts I do find the dissection of them quite interesting. One of my favourites are Unidentified Flying Objects as for the most part they’re easily explained by natural phenomena or people mistaking things like illumination flares used in night training for various jet craft. What always fascinated me though was the idea of flying saucers as once I understood the idea of an aerofoil I was always fascinated by how one would actually work and if would even be feasible.
As it so happens it is and the USA put a lot of effort into developing one:
The aircraft, which had the code name Project 1794, was developed by the USAF and Avro Canada in the 1950s. One declassified memo, which seems to be the conclusion of initial research and prototyping, says that Project 1794 is a flying saucer capable of “between Mach 3 and Mach 4,” (2,300-3,000 mph) a service ceiling of over 100,000 feet (30,500m), and a range of around 1,000 nautical miles (1,150mi, 1850km).
As far as we can tell, the supersonic flying saucer would propel itself by rotating an outer disk at very high speed, taking advantage of the Coandă effect. Maneuvering would be accomplished by using small shutters on the edge of the disc (similar to ailerons on a winged aircraft). Power would be provided by jet turbines. According to the cutaway diagrams, the entire thing would even be capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL).
The Coandă Effect is an interesting phenomenon and its likely that you’ve encountered it before. In essence the effect is the tendency of a fluid jet, which is anything with a nozzle that has a medium shooting out of it, to be attracted to surfaces that it passes by. If you’ve ever been to Questacon or similar places you’ve probably seen the ball that hovers in mid air which seems counter-intuitive because the air is blowing out at an angle. This same effect is what can be used to make a flying saucer fly and according to the declassified documents the performance of such a craft would have been fairly impressive for the time.
To put those numbers in perspective one of the most iconic craft, the SR-71 Blackbird, was introduced nearly a decade after this project apparently begun and whilst it might have a range that’s 3 times greater than this theoretical craft the rest of the specifications are either on par or lower than it. Just the service ceiling on it alone would make it a highly valuable strategic craft but the ability to move at up to Mach 4 speeds would have made it immune to nearly all forms of anti-aircraft weaponry available at the time. Whether or not one of these craft was actually built is a question that has not yet been answered but considering that all the documents haven’t been released yet its possible we’ll know more as time goes on.
What I find really fascinating though is whilst the Coandă effect can be used for such exotic craft like the one pictured above it also has many uses in traditional aircraft, helicopters and even in air conditioning. Many large short take-off and landing aircraft make use of the effect to provide a smooth ride at low flying speeds. NOTAR style helicopters use the effect in place of a tail rotor to provide the counter rotational force required to stop them from spinning on the spot. When I started writing this I thought it was some kind of esoteric effect that didn’t have many practical uses but as it turns out it’s pretty much a very well understood and useful phenomenon.
Whilst I know this won’t stop the UFO enthusiasts from saying that the really truly saw one for me the simple fact that the USA was working on such a craft is enough to chalk up any sightings of it to a possible prototype of a craft like this, It might not have gotten past the planning stage but since there are other known craft like this out there (like the VZ-9 Avrocar mentioned in the article I linked earlier) you really have to be a special kind of crazy to keep on thinking that we’re being visited by extraterrestrials travelling in Coandă effect planes.