The world's fastest plane flew its last flight 16 years ago today

On October 9, 1999, the storied run of the Lockheed Martin SR-71 came to an end after more than 30 years of carrying out covert surveillance missions at an altitude three times higher than Mount Everest.

The SR-71, or the “Blackbird” as it’s commonly known, was developed by Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works crew. It was a triumph of engineering which combined the most advanced technology available at the time in a way that hasn’t been replicated since.

The SR-71 flew in the US Air Force for more than 30 years, breaking records for speed and distance that stand to this day. In the photos below, relive the stunning legacy of the world’s fastest plane.

'Everything had to be invented,' Skunk Works' Kelly Johnson said of creating the SR-71. The insane heat and speed of the Blackbird necessitated titanium construction, which was a first. Entirely new tools needed to be invented to deal with the brittle titanium alloy.

In order to manage the intense temperatures of Earth's upper atmosphere, and to help baffle radar detection, the plane had to be painted jet black.

The plane also featured an extremely low cross section and swooping angles, which made it a nightmare for radar detection devices.

US Air Force

Because of the stratospheric altitudes the Blackbird traversed, pilots needed to wear fully pressurised space suits.

US Air Force

The SR-71 was operated by a pilot and a reconnaissance systems officer. The purpose of the plane was to photograph hundreds of thousands of miles of terrain for analysis.

US Air Force
A pilot mans the brakes as the SR-71 is towed out of the hangar.

Here's a look at the cockpit of the world's fastest plane. The SR-71 was equipped with twin jet engines which were most comfortable flying at over three times the speed of sound.

And again, since the plane was flying at 80,000 feet and its sole objective was surveillance, the SR-71 was unarmed.

And since the SR-71 had no missile defence, the standard operating procedure was to simply crank the throttle and outrun any enemy. In the history of the Blackbird, not a single one was ever shot down.

There were, however, 12 Blackbirds lost to crashes.

Judson Brohmer/USAF
The SR-71 Blackbird

The Blackbird family clocked 3,551 mission sorties by 1990 and 11,675 hours above Mach Three.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.