The truth about Elon Musk’s favorite plane, the SR-71

If the X-Men say it’s cool, and if Mr. SpaceX/Tesla Motors himself, Elon Musk, says it’s cool, then it has to be very cool indeed. And indeed it is: It’s the SR-71, sometimes referred to as the Blackbird, adapted (quite radically, albeit artistically) for toting mutants to battle evil on behalf of all of us. Mostly.

The actual plane, designated as the favorite aircraft of both Musk and his significant other, Grimes (Claire Elise Boucher, as CNN tells us), had a direct predecessor, the A-12, which is part of the name of the couple’s child, X Æ A-12 (it’s pronounced just the way it’s spelled). The SR-71 itself is their “favorite aircraft,” Grimes announced in a tweet, not because it’s super cool and awesome, which it is, but because the aircraft has “no weapons, no defenses. Just speed. Great in battle, but non-violent.”

Which seems to approach the land of oxymoron, but it’s true. The Blackbird was commissioned as a response to an international incident in which a U-2 “Dragon Lady” U.S. reconnaissance plane was shot down over Russia. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered a new plane to be made that essentially could outrun enemy missiles. Lockheed, which also came up with the A-12 for the CIA, produced the Blackbird for the Air Force, rolling the plane out in 1964.

Calling it “fast” doesn’t quite do it justice

It has a two-person crew, a pilot and a navigator. It’s fast — very fast — and capable of very high-altitude flight (up to 80,000 feet, according to Business Insider). As for speed: try more than three times the speed of sound. If enemy missiles approach, the pilot can kick in the afterburners and outrun the menace. Think of that little cloud of dust the Road Runner kicks up just before it disappears beyond Wile E. Coyote’s reach. Only in real life.

That kind of speed does make it difficult to arm the machine, since it’s moving faster than the aforementioned missiles, let alone bullets. And since it’s so fast, it doesn’t really need defensive weaponry anyway. There’s only a slim chance it’s going to be detected. One of the Blackbird’s improvements over the A-12 is its expanded surface that deflects radar.

The Blackbird was retired from active service in 1990 — some say because of budget cuts; some say because of the collapse of the Soviet Union — though it still performed research work as recently as 1997. As How Stuff Works phrases it, “No weapon system has ever maintained that same degree of superiority over a period of four decades.” Nothing that came before was anything like it. Nothing since has improved on it. Kind of a heavy burden to put on a child. Even one named X Æ A-12.