The first flight of an SR-71 took place on 22 December 1964, at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. She went on to become the world's fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft throughout her long and distinguished career.
On 28 July 1976, SR-71 serial number 61-7962, piloted by then Captain Robert Helt, broke the world record: an "absolute altitude record" of 85,069 feet. Several aircraft have exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs, but only the Blackbird was able to achieve it in sustained flight. That same day SR-71 serial number 61-7958 set an absolute speed record of 1,905.81 knots (2,193.2 mph), approximately Mach 3.3. SR-71 pilot Brian Shul states in his book The Untouchables that he flew in excess of Mach 3.5 on 15 April 1986 over Libya to evade a missile.
The SR-71 also holds the "Speed Over a Recognized Course" record for flying from New York to London—distance 3,461.53 miles, 1,806.964 miles per hour, and an elapsed time of 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds—set on 1 September 1974 while flown by U.S. Air Force pilot James V. Sullivan and Noel F. Widdifield, reconnaissance systems officer (RSO). This equates to an average velocity of about Mach 2.72, including deceleration for in-flight refueling. Peak speeds during this flight were likely closer to the declassified top speed of Mach 3.2+. For comparison, the best commercial Concorde flight time was 2 hours 52 minutes and the Boeing 747 averages 6 hours 15 minutes.
When the SR-71 was retired in 1990, one Blackbird was flown from its birthplace at United States Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, to go on exhibit at what is now the Smithsonian Institution's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. On 6 March 1990, Lt. Col. Raymond E. Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph T. Vida piloted SR-71 S/N 61-7972 on its final Senior Crown flight and set four new speed records in the process:
Los Angeles, California, to Washington, D.C., distance 2,299.7 miles, average speed 2,144.8 miles per hour, and an elapsed time of 64 minutes 20 seconds.
West Coast to East Coast, distance 2,404 miles, average speed 2,124.5 miles per hour, and an elapsed time of 67 minutes 54 seconds.
Kansas City, Missouri, to Washington, D.C., distance 942 miles, average speed 2,176 miles per hour, and an elapsed time of 25 minutes 59 seconds.
St. Louis, Missouri, to Cincinnati, Ohio, distance 311.4 miles, average speed 2,189.9 miles per hour, and an elapsed time of 8 minutes 32 seconds.
These four speed records were accepted by the National Aeronautic Association (NAA), the recognized body for aviation records in the United States. Additionally, Air & Space/Smithsonian reported that the Air Force clocked the SR-71 at one point in its flight reaching 2,242.48 miles per hour.
March 6th, 1990; SR-71 Blackbird (AF Ser. No. 61-7980/NASA 844) flew her final flight. Her engines wound down and titanium surface cooled on the ramp at Washington-Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC. From there she would be quietly rolled into the Smithsonian Institution's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Aviation museum, where she remains today...signalling the end of an impressive military career spanning over 35 years...
And finally, on October 9th 1999: At the Edwards Air Force Base Open House air show, NASA Research Pilot Rogers E. Smith and Flight Test Engineer Robert R. Meyer, Jr., flew #61-7980, NASA 844, on what would be the very last flight of a Blackbird. The crowd was a treated to a once in a lifetime spectacle...a high speed pass at no less than Mach 3.2, 80,000ft over their heads.
Operational highlights for the entire Blackbird family (YF-12, A-12, and SR-71) during her service include :
3,551 mission sorties flown
17,300 total sorties flown
11,008 mission flight hours
53,490 total flight hours
2,752 hours Mach 3 time (missions)
11,675 hours Mach 3 time (total)
"You know the part in 'High Flight where it talks about putting out your hand to touch the face of God? Well, when we're at speed and altitude in the SR, we have to slow down and descend in order to do that."
USAF Lt. Col. Gil Bertelson, SR-71 pilot