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Lockheed Martin's Skunkworks to build successor to SR-71 Blackbird

  • SR-72 Son of Blackbird.jpg

    The Skunk Works SR-72 design â a hypersonic aircraft developed to execute Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and strike missions at speeds up to Mach 6. (Lockheed Martin)

  • SR-72 Son of Blackbird 2.jpg

    The Skunk Works SR-72 design a hypersonic aircraft developed to execute Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and strike missions at speeds up to Mach 6. (Lockheed Martin)

A new hypersonic spy plane is coming from the company that helped invent the technology -- and this one will fly six times the speed of sound.

Dubbed the SR-72, or Son of Blackbird, the new unmanned spy plane is under development at Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works division, where some of the company’s most advanced projects have been developed. It will be the successor to the famous SR-71, which the U.S. Air Force operated for decades but retired almost 20 years ago.

Lockheed built the Blackbird in the early 60s after Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was hit by surface-to-air missiles over the Soviet Union, a Cold War crisis that revealed the real need for faster planes and better spy capabilities. Built and tested at Groom Lake in Nevada -- right around the corner from Area 51 -- the Blackbird was designed to fly far faster than anything else around, maintaining speeds in excess of 2,000 mph.

'Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location.'

- Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin program manager for hypersonics

The SR-71 was flown from New York to London in less than two hours in 1976 by U.S. Air Force crews, reaching speeds exceeding Mach 3 and setting world records that have held up for nearly four decades.

But Son of Blackbird? The SR-72 should make its aging ancestor look like a Sunday driver out taking in the fall foliage.

“Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour,” said Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin program manager for hypersonics. “Speed is the next aviation advancement to counter emerging threats in the next several decades. The technology would be a game-changer in theater, similar to how stealth is changing the battlespace today.”

The plane would achieve those mind-numbing speeds through a new engine designed in partnership with Aerojet Rocketdyne; the two companies have been working for seven years on a technique to integrate air-breathing "scramjets" with turbine engines, Lockheed’s Brad Leland told AviationWeek.

“We have developed a way to work with an off-the-shelf fighter-class engine like the F100/F110,” Leland said. The plan builds off a conceptual design called the Blackswift created in recent years. That plane never succeeded, but the design proved viable.

“It was controllable and kept the pointy end forward,” Leland said.

An SR-72 could take years to be realized, however. The path calls for a demonstration model that would fly by 2023. Working planes could arrive by 2030, boosting U.S. military secrecy and might not through anti-radar coatings and invisibility but by sheer speed.

“speed is the new stealth,” Al Romig, Skunk Works engineering and advanced systems vice president, told Aviation Week.