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The Museum of Aviation


Thunderbird’s F-16 and Record-Holding SR-71 are in a collection of 90 Historic U.S. Air Force Aircraft

The Museum of Aviation opened a permanent “Thunderbirds” F-16 aircraft exhibit May 3, 2009 – the same day the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team performed at Robins Air Force Base.
Thanks to a generous donation from Carl Vinson Chapter 296 of the Air Force Association, the Museum’s F-16A aircraft - once a part of the famous flying team from 1982-1991 – was repainted in the red-white-and-blue paint scheme and is now on display in the Century of Flight Hangar. The Air Force Association donated over $17,700 for supplies and paint to put the Thunderbirds paint scheme on the aircraft and help build the exhibit. The paint scheme is the same one used by the team today.
Thunderbirds Team Leader Lt. Col. Greg Thomas, then Warner Robins Air Logistics Commander Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer and a group of Museum of civic leaders helped “cut the ribbon” on the new display at an Air Show reception Saturday night, May 2. The entire Thunderbirds Team along with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team attended the event in the Museum’s Century of Flight Hangar. The two-day air show at Robins Air Force Base was attended by more than 150,000 people.
The Air Force Association’s Chapter 296 and its Community Partners are privileged to sponsor the Museum of Aviation’s fantastic Thunderbird Exhibit,” said Jack Steed, AFA National Director Emeritus. “This exhibit will not only tell the story of the Ambassadors in Blue but will also serve as a model of extraordinary service to which our youth may aspire while giving all museum visitors a sense of great pride not only in the Thunderbirds but for the entire United States Air Force as well”.
“We are proud to be one of only two Air Force museums to have such a display,” said Museum Director Ken Emery. “Besides the aircraft, we have on display some of the uniforms and equipment used by the Thunderbirds team and we show how the team represents all U.S. Air Force men and women doing their jobs around the world.” The exhibit includes a flight simulation program which allows visitors to “take the stick” and fly an F-16.
The Museum gained the F-16 Fighting Falcon in 2008 from Sheppard Air Force Base (Texas) where it had been used as a maintenance trainer for several years. It flew as the Number 2 and Number 3 aircraft in the Thunderbirds formation from 1983 until 1991 when the Air Force team converted to the newer model F-16C.
The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon is a multi-role jet fighter aircraft originally developed by General Dynamics for the United States Air Force. Designed as a lightweight fighter, it evolved into a successful multi-role aircraft. The Fighting Falcon’s versatility is a paramount reason it has proven a success on the export market, having been selected to serve in the air forces of 25 nations. The F-16 is the largest Western jet fighter program with over 4,400 aircraft built since production was approved in 1976. Though no longer being bought by the U.S. Air Force, advanced versions are still being built for export customers. In 1993, General Dynamics sold its aircraft manufacturing business to the Lockheed Corporation, which in turn became part of Lockheed Martin after a 1995 merger with Martin Marietta.
For 24 years, from 1966 through the 1980s, American leaders from field commanders to the President of the United States relied on data gathered by SR 71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. Flying missions around the globe at speeds above Mach 3 and altitudes of 85,000 feet (26,000 m) or more, Blackbirds became a vital tool of international decision-making as their advanced photographic and electronic sensor systems collected intelligence for the Air Force and other federal agencies.
A congressional appropriation approved in late 1994 provided funds to return two or more SR-71s to reconnaissance flying. Subsequently, Lock-heed Martin Skunk Works was awarded an Air Force contract to refurbish Blackbirds that had been kept in storage since 1990.
Program History
Origins of the SR 71 date back to the late 1950s when legendary Lockheed designer and Skunk Works founder Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson proposed a high speed, high altitude alternative to supplement the Lockheed-built U-2 subsonic reconnaissance plane that would soon become vulnerable to Soviet missiles. As a result, the Blackbird family was initiated with the A 12, which first flew in April 1962. The single-seat A-12s were the smallest of the Blackbird series. Designed for reconnaissance missions, the A-12 spawned a two-place, armed version designated YF-12A, which was proposed as an interceptor.
Although never adopted for this role, the YF-12s made important contributions as research aircraft, serving for more than a decade with NASA. It was the first aircraft capable of sustaining speeds above Mach 3.
A limited number of A 12 and YF 12 aircraft were produced before the design evolved into the SR-71, which first flew in 1964 and entered operational service in January 1966. Slightly larger than its predecessors, the SR-71 carried more fuel and featured chines that extended forward to the tip of the nose.
Blackbird Design
The aircraft remains a technological marvel. Practically every area of design required new approaches or breakthroughs in technology. To withstand high temperatures generated by friction in the upper atmosphere during sustained Mach 3 flight, the Blackbird required an array of specially developed materials including high temperature fuel, sealants, lubricants, wiring and other components. Ninety-three percent of the Blackbird’s airframe consists of titanium alloy that allows the aircraft to operate in a regime where temperatures range from 450 degrees Fahrenheit at its aft midsection to 950 degrees Fahrenheit near the engine exhaust. The cockpit canopy, made of special heat resistant glass, must withstand surface temperatures as high as 640 degrees Fahrenheit.
Two Pratt & Whitney J58 turbojet engines with afterburners, each supplying more than 35,000 pounds of thrust, are housed in wing nacelles with diameters larger than the fuselage itself. Virtually every part of these complex powerplants had to be fabricated from special materials to meet the demands of triple-sonic flight. A translating (moveable) spike in each inlet controls airflow, retracting at speeds above Mach 1.6 to capture more air for the engines.
Although its many contributions to national security will never be fully revealed to the public, the SR-71 holds many world aviation records for speed and altitude.
In 1971 an Air Force crew demonstrated the SR-71’s extended supersonic capabilities on a non-stop, mile (24,140 km) flight -- the equivalent of a non-stop trip from San Francisco to Paris and back -- in 10-1/2 hours. Slowing to subsonic speeds for periodic aerial refueling, the Blackbird still averaged nearly 1,500 mph. For this feat the crew was awarded the 1971 Mackay trophy for “most meritorious flight of the year” and the 1972 Harmon International Trophy for the “most outstanding international achievement in the art/ science of aeronautics.”
On Sept. 1, 1974, an SR-71 flew from New York to London in 1 hour, 54 minutes, 56 seconds, smashing the previous trans-Atlantic speed record by nearly three hours! Returning to the U.S. on Sept. 13, 1974, the same aircraft established a world speed record of 3 hours, 47 minutes, 36 seconds for the 5,463 mile (8,790 km) flight from London to Los Angeles. It literally out-raced the sun, landing some four hours before the time of day it took off.
Three SR-71s flown by three different crews set seven world speed and altitude records on July 27 and 28, 1976. They captured three records previously held by a specially modified Russian MiG 25 Foxbat and bettered four records held by the Lockheed/USAF YF-12. The new marks included absolute and class records of 2,193 mph (3,530 kph) for speed over a straight course and 85,069 feet (25,930 m) for altitude in sustained level flight.
In achieving these milestones the SR-71 was never extended to its ultimate capabilities. The aircraft used were stock, operational SR-71s, unlike the specially prepared aircraft commonly used to set such records. Air Force crews always stayed well within the SR-71’s normal operational envelope.
In January 1990 the Air Force officially retired its fleet of SR-71s from service. On March 6, 1990, aircraft number 17972, the same aircraft that had set the 1974 records, was delivered to the Smithsonian Institution for permanent display at Dulles International Airport. Enroute, flying at “normal” operating speeds, this SR-71 set four more world records including a Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., flight time of 64 minutes, 2 seconds, averaging 2,144 mph (3,452 kph). That was the last SR-71 mission flown by an Air Force crew until the spring of 1995, when the crew retraining program began.
Between 1990 and 1995, NASA crews at the Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards AFB flew two SR-71s for training and scientific flights, and kept a third in storage. Those Blackbirds had been loaned to NASA by the Air Force when the military flying ceased.
The Museum of Aviation received its SR-71 on February 23, 1990 after it flew from Beale AFB, Ca to Robins AFB, GA for delivery to the Museum.
Lockheed Martin Archives
Miller, J. (1982). Lockheed’s Skunk
Works: The First Fifty Years.
Arlington, Texas: Aerofax, Inc
How to Get There
The Museum is located adjacent to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia, on GA Hwy 247 and Russell Parkway approximately 90 miles south of Atlanta. Take I-75 exit 144 and go east 10 miles. The Museum has free admission and is open daily from 9:00 am to5:00 pm except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and News Year’s Day.
Contact Us
Museum of Aviation
P.O. Box 2469 Warner Robins, GA 31099
Bob Dubiel
Director of Marketing
(479) 926-6870
(478) 923-8807 fax
Aviators Hot Line WARBIRDS January/February 2011
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