It was an incident to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. On August 26, 1981, an American reconnaissance aircraft was flying a little too close for comfort to the contentious zone between North and South Korea. Then, suddenly, the spy plane came under threat from a missile fired from the northern side of the border. And what happened next captured eyeballs around the globe.
The aircraft involved was an SR-71, known as the Blackbird – a long-range surveillance asset. At the time, it was one of the fastest planes in production, its turbojet engines capable of propelling it at two times the speed of sound. Not only that, but it was capable of flying at very high altitudes – heights not all military planes could achieve.
The story behind the SR-71, from conception to finished article, is fascinating. The Pentagon asked Lockheed for an update of the manufacturer’s iconic U-2 for use in the ever-developing Cold War. The objective: a plane that could be both fast and stealthy, with the ultimate aim of it being impossible to shoot down.
However, saying that you want a new type of plane doesn’t just wish it into being. The creators of the SR-71 were faced with a variety of design challenges in order to make this aircraft a reality. One of the most significant of these challenges was how to deal with the tremendous heat levels generated by a plane traveling so fast over such long distances. It was feared that the aircraft would simply melt.
Lockheed’s engineers therefore had to try and think of a way around the problem. They used titanium to build the plane, but this proved not to be wholly effective. That was when Ben Rich, a member of Lockheed’s advanced development team, Skunk Works, came up with a simple but elegant solution.
Rich hit upon a design feature that is now industry standard in stealth technology. He remembered from a university course that the color black both absorbs and re-emits heat. Consequently, he had the new aircraft painted completely black.
This is the reason why the SR-71 was fittingly dubbed Blackbird; and it went into manufacture in 1964. Moreover, it was this model of supersonic surveillance plane which the North Koreans had in their sights that day in August almost 20 years later. As they were to learn, however, this was no ordinary aircraft that they were trying to shoot down.
The Blackbird in question was flying high in a demilitarized zone on a strictly reconnaissance mission that day in 1981. At the time, spying operations of this kind were very common in the region. After all, American leaders wanted to know more about North Korean military capability and the location of both troops and anti-aircraft batteries. Which is where the Blackbird came in.
At the controls of such an advanced aircraft, the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Maury Rosenberg, quite literally saw the missile coming from miles away. He had clear visibility of the vapor trail given off by the missile as well as the “airbursts” it produced. Newspaper reports of the time do not state whether evasive actions were necessary – but more of the story has come to light since.
You see, in subsequent years the plane’s crew would reveal more about what happened that day. Rosenberg had been helming the SR-71, performing routine reconnaissance. Yet he claims to have been aware of the danger that he was in. “You never really relax,” he said in a YouTube video that’s been watched almost five million times.
It is important to remember that the Blackbird was full of hi-tech kit to study terrain – but that it was also equipped with advanced technology to monitor for incoming enemy fire. For their part, Rosenberg and his co-pilot had actually done two of their assigned “passes” before the attempted strike happened.
Once Rosenberg then realized that a missile had been fired, he estimated that he had about a minute before it would hit. Over time, we have learned that the projectile in question was a Soviet-made guided missile. And back then it was widely known that the USSR was in the practice of supplying its Communist allies with state-of-the-art weaponry during the Cold War.
Rosenberg, meanwhile, knew that with a matter of seconds to go before potential impact, he needed to move fast. He and his co-pilot therefore agreed to maneuver to the left – because leaning the aircraft right would have taken them into North Korean airspace.
Now although the Blackbird was super advanced, it didn’t have the quick maneuverability of a fighter jet. Additionally, since it wasn’t armed, it was incapable of shooting the missile down. As a result, Rosenberg’s only option was to try and evade the danger using the plane’s superior speed.
Having altered course and increased velocity, Rosenberg could see from his cockpit that the missile’s course was not changing. This is because although it was a “guided” missile, it had to be operated from the ground. The Blackbird was simply moving too fast for the North Koreans to re-calibrate their projectile’s co-ordinates. Speed had won the day.
Thanks to his quick thinking and the impressive plane he was piloting, then, Rosenberg was able to maneuver out of harm’s way. He claims to have seen the missile detonate on his right side. And he estimates that the missile exploded between a mile and a mile and a half from its intended target.
Ultimately, the Blackbird was an incredibly stealthy aircraft – giving new meaning to the phrase “flying blind.” And even when it was detected or spotted, the plane’s speed meant that it could get out of trouble very rapidly. As a result, U.S. pilots could survey hostile territory in relative safety.
It’s also worth noting that this incident in 1981 was not an isolated occurrence. It was a time of greatly heightened tension between the then superpowers of the USA and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it should be remembered with sadness that there were other occasions when planes were shot down.
The border between North and South Korea was a particularly troubled area during those years, too. North Korea regularly complained about intrusions into its territory by South Korean or Western aircraft and ships. Consequently, it was an extremely dangerous zone and one that Western leaders kept an eye on – with some help from our friend the Blackbird.
The SR-71 was an incredibly advanced and effective piece of engineering. Indeed, it is telling that from the time it made its debut to its 1998 retirement, not one Blackbird was brought down. And as the long-retired Rosenberg would probably agree: if you’re going to be fired upon by a missile, make sure you’re in a Blackbird.