For over 30 years, one question has remained unanswered: after all, will the SR-71 Blackbird have a replacement? Lockheed’s supersonic jet was retired in the late 1990s and to date no aircraft has taken on its high-speed strategic reconnaissance role.
The wait may be nearing its end, however. Earlier this month, the US Air Force (USAF) released a video showing a digital rendering of a hypersonic jet, informally known as the SR-72 or “son of the Blackbird.”
It is the first clear mention of an aircraft with Scramjet propulsion, designed to reach speeds of up to Mach 6 at high altitude.
It had been known since 2013 that Lockheed Martin, through the Skunk Works division, was working on a hypersonic aircraft project, a fact that was confirmed in 2017 when information emerged about a smaller-scale prototype being assembled.
The video corroborates the layout seen in an illustration by the US manufacturer, which shows an aircraft with huge ventral air intakes, a single vertical stabilizer and a bulky fuselage without a windshield.
It remains to be seen whether the concept will be manned, but highly automated, or whether we will actually have an unmanned aircraft. According to reports, the SR-72 will be the size of an F-22 fighter, ie, much smaller than the Blackbird.
It was estimated that the prototype aircraft would fly around 2020, but recent reports point to 2025.
The revelation takes us back to 1989 when people aboard a boat in the North Sea claimed to have spotted a triangular-shaped aircraft refueling in flight in a KC-135, accompanied by two F-111s.
The following year, Aviation & Week magazine published an article that featured the term “Aurora” as part of the US military budget in 1987, with resources of $455 million at the time. Later, USAF members assured that it was the B-2 bomber, however.
Despite this, several sonic booms were noted in Southern California in 1991, in addition to other alleged sightings in the following years.
It was believed then that the hypersonic plane would already be operational in the 1990s, however, to date, no evidence has emerged to confirm the rumors.
In 2006, Bill Sweetman, a veteran journalist who discovered the term Aurora, claimed that after years of investigation he had identified about $9 billion earmarked for secret programs that would be sufficient for the development of a hypersonic aircraft.
Whether the SR-72 is an Aurora offshoot is still unknown, but it is increasingly clear that the US has always sought a successor to the magnificent Blackbird.