In September 1962, Lockheed’s Clarence “Kelly” Johnson began exploring what he called a “common market” version of the A-12. A single airframe configuration, known as the R-12 Universal aircraft, would serve as the basis for a reconnaissance, recon/strike or interceptor variant, depending on customer needs. Because Air Force officials showed particular interest in the RS-12 reconnaissance/strike variant, Johnson focused on systems and structural issues related to carriage of weapons and multiple sensors. The aircraft was seen as a potential alternative to North American’s reconnaissance/strike version of the XB-70, known as the RS-70. Consequently, the RS-12 eventually came to be known as the RS-71.
On 24 July 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson announced the development of the new aircraft, by then designated SR-71 – with the words “Reconnaissance/Strike” being replaced by “Strategic Reconnaissance.” The first SR-71A, known as Article 2001, made its maiden flight on 22 December 1964 with Lockheed test pilot Robert J. Gilliland at the controls.
Construction of the 24th SR-71 airframe, Article 2024, with Air Force serial number 61-7973 began on 14 January 1966 with rollout of the completed airframe nine months later. Lockheed test pilots Bill Weaver and Darryl Greenamyer took it up on its maiden flight on 8 February 1967.
The aircraft was assigned to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California. While much of its operational history is shrouded in secrecy, it is known that Article 2024 was ferried to the 9th SRW’s operating location (OL-8) at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, on 27 September 1969. Over the course of the next 20 months, it was flown on 62 training missions and 45 operational sorties over Southeast Asia. The aircraft was returned to Beale on 8 June 1971.
The airframe was overstressed during an air show demonstration in England in May 1987. Subsequently, the aircraft was retired, making its last flight on 21 July 1987 with a total of 1,729.9 flight hours. It was placed on display at Blackbird Airpark in September 1991.
Timeline and Summary of Significant Events:
- 1966 – Assembly started on 14 January, with delivery to the USAF nine months later
- 1967 – Maiden flight on 8 February, by Lockheed test pilots Bill Weaver and Darryl Greenamyer
- 1967/1968 – Assigned to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California
- 1969 – Ferried to the 9th SRW’s operating location (OL-8) at Kadena Air Base, in Japan, on 27 September
- 1969 to1971 – Flew 62 training missions and 45 operational sorties over Southeast Asia
- 1971 – Returned to Beale AFB on 8 June
- 1987 – Damaged in May, during the RAF Mildenhall Air Fete, when the pilot tried to initiate a climb at too low a speed just as the afterburners kicked in, bending the aircraft at the manufacturing line.
- 1987 – On June 21, a flight to Site II in Palmdale was made to estimate cost of repairs and the decision was made to retire the aircraft instead
- Accumulated 1,729.9 flight hours
- 1991 – Placed on display at Blackbird Airpark in September
Information provided by Peter. W. Merlin, an aerospace historian