A Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in the Imperial War Museum Duxford, England. Image: Sam DeLong.

Is the SR-71 Blackbird Still in Service?

Learn when and why the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was retired from USAF and NASA service.

Tobias Holm
Tobias Holm

Table of Contents

If you have even a passing interest in aircraft, you’ve heard of the SR-71 “Blackbird.” This famous aircraft is well known for its sleek appearance and impressive capabilities. You may be wondering, “Is the SR-71 still in service?”

The SR-71 is no longer in service. No Blackbirds are being flown today. It was retired and brought out of retirement a couple of times before finally being retired for good.

The legendary SR-71 managed to have an interesting history simply by being retired. Learn all about how it was retired three times.

First USAF SR-71 Retirement

The first time the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” was retired was in 1989. The exact reason is a matter of some conjecture. However, it is most likely a result of several different reasons.

  • Too expensive
  • Improving technology
  • Pentagon politics

The first, and one of the most commonly cited, reason is that the Blackbird cost too much to fly and maintain. One figure used by Dick Cheney in a meeting with the Senate Appropriations Committee was $85,000 per hour. This is likely excluding the cost of all of the surrounding support.

Another major reason was that the reconnaissance technology of the time was advancing to the point of making the SR-71 redundant. Spy satellites for example were able to provide reconnaissance without the risk of anti-air missiles.

The last major reason for the initial retirement was politics. While there were many motivations, one of them was a lack of support for the aircraft. By 1989 all of the high-ranking U.S. Air Force officers who had been pilots of the SR-71 had retired. Without these officers, few understood the advantages of the craft.

There were other projects at the time that needed the budget, and many thought the SR-71 was a waste. One theory is that the Blackbirds were not updated as much as they could have, so they could be shown to be outdated.

After these factors came to a head, the last Blackbird missions for a time were flown in October of 1989.

Second USAF SR-71 Retirement

However, this initial retirement did not last very long. In 1993 the SR-71 reentered service. The decision to bring the SR-71 out of retirement was primarily due to US concerns over the Middle East’s political landscape.

After much debate, three of the original 32 Blackbirds were refurbished and returned to active service. The budget was $72.5 million though the initially proposed number was $100 million. The company in charge of the refurbishing, Skunk Works, managed to do it with $72 million.

These three Blackbirds flew for another five years before being retired for the second time in 1998. Over those five years, there were several discussions over the budget. These budget concerns led to President Clinton attempting to veto the budget. This was ruled unconstitutional.

This proved to be moot as, in September 1998, the USAF pulled the budget in order to redistribute it. This marked the final retirement of the SR-71 within the USAF.

NASA SR-71 Retirement

It was not, however, the last flight of the Blackbird. NASA continued to use the SR-71 for another year. By this point, NASA was only flying two Blackbirds. 

NASA used these last two in-service Blackbirds for research purposes. They flew seven of the original 32 Blackbirds during their lifetime.

The last time anyone flew a Blackbird was in October 1999. The pilot was one of NASA’s. This last flight was for an air show at Edwards Air Force Base on October 9th.

It has been over 20 years since the Blackbird was in service. Today, the remaining 20 are in various museums.

How long did the SR-71 serve?

Overall, the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” served the USAF and NASA for 35 years. The first flight was in 1964, while the last was in 1999. There were a few years of inactivity, such as the period between the first and second USAF retirements.

Final Thoughts

Now you know the answer to the question, “Is the SR-71 still in service?” There are only a few other aircraft as legendary as the SR-71 Blackbird. Certainly, there are few others that have been retired three times. Though no longer in service, the SR-71 will continue to inspire.

Also read:

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Tobias Holm Twitter

Founder of Planenerd, based in Denmark. Got a LEGO plane as a kid. Obsessed with aviation since. None of my friends want to talk about airplanes.