The SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft throughout its career. From an altitude of 80,000 ft (24Â km), it could survey 100,000Â square miles (260,000Â km2) per hour (72 square kilometers per second) of the Earth’s surface. In addition, it was accurate enough to take a picture of a car’s license plate from this altitude. On 28 July 1976, an SR-71 broke the world record for its class: an absolute speed record of 1905.81 knots (2,193.17 mph, 3,529.56Â km/h), and an “absolute altitude record” of 85,069 feet (25,929 m). Several aircraft exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs but not in sustained flight.
When the SR-71 was retired in 1990, one example was flown from its birthplace at United States Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, to go on exhibit at what is now the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (an annex of the National Air & Space Museum) in Chantilly, Virginia. On 6 March 1990, Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and Lt. Col. J. T. Vida piloted the Blackbird, setting a coast-to-coast aircraft speed record: 67 minutes 54 seconds, at an average speed 2,125 mph (3,419Â km/h). Three additional records were set within segments of the flight, including an average speed of 2,190 mph (3,524Â km/h) measured between the radar gates set up in St. Louis and Cincinnati. These four speed records were accepted by the National Aeronautic Association (NAA), the recognized body for aviation records in the United States.. An enthusiast site devoted to the Blackbird lists a record time of 64 minutes 20 seconds between Los Angeles and Washington DC for that 6 March 1990 flight.
The SR-71 also holds the record for flying from New York to London in 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds, set on 1 September 1974. This equates to an average velocity of about Mach 2.68, including deceleration for in-flight refueling. Peak speeds during this flight were probably closer to the declassified top speed of Mach 3.2+. (For comparison, the best commercial Concorde flight time was 2 hours 52 minutes, and the Boeing 747 averages 6 hours 15 minutes.)