Phantom of the night sky

Phantom of the night sky

This is the story of the Blackbird. A tale of how one aircraft shaped the society we live in today and influenced the Pacific 66 timepiece that you now see before you.

In contemplating and executing the design process of the Pacific, I was inspired by several distinct eras within the jet age; one of which is a long-held fascination with ‘the stealth era’. Within this period of rapid technological advancements, while world powers flexed their muscles amid the Cold War, one aircraft stood out from the rest; the SR-71.

By the early 1960s, turbojet technology powering the first jet-powered aircraft had been refined and iterated, but one unfortunate fact remained; turbojet engines are pretty inefficient below supersonic speeds due to the inherent mechanics of that engine design. In order to address this and to develop quieter and more efficient engines, a new engine design was developed and subsequently called the turbofan. These huge, multi-bladed engines can be seen today on most passenger jets, and affords the pilots increased thrust at lower speeds, due to the majority of the airflow bypassing around the turbojet centred within, and giving them both more flexibility in flight dynamics, and a quieter overall experience.

The turbojet technology, borne from conflict and, in peacetime, powering people to the dizzying heights of 40,000ft, was still being developed for military use. Despite the world finding itself on the quiet side of a world war, tensions were continuing to brew under the surface and soon a new conflict would emerge; one that was conducted under a blanket of simmering suspicion and deception. The Cold War welcomed many more technological advancements in the militaries of all countries - submarines were now nuclear, aircraft faster and deadlier, capable of carrying many magnitudes more powerful armaments and many more miles of range in their tanks. Coming into the 1960s the United States had deployed turbojet technology in the development of their new high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, capable of flying at extreme heights, armed with incredibly powerful cameras and lenses to be able to spy, from above, on the enemy. It was a crucial tool used to keep tabs on what was happening in these far-off lands; due to the nature of the Cold War; unlike the Second World War where it was very much a public show of strength and power, the Cold War was a secretive arms race of increasingly devastating consequence, conducted in private using many back-channel methods of ultra diplomacy.

World conflict, seen through the very strict prism of technological advancement, is unbeatable. Following on from the devastation of the Second World War, the two superpowers that emerged - the USA and the USSR - started their own squabble, albeit one conducted through tension, propaganda and one-upmanship in the public sphere. During this period of disquiet, there were a number of technical advancements in the military arsenal, the biggest of course being nuclear weapons - things had moved on significantly since Fat Man and Little Boy were deployed in the last throes of World War 2. New applications for jet technology were also being considered and, owing to the secretive nature of the development and expansion of arms in each country during the Cold War, as well as the US being caught by surprise at Pearl Harbour due to the lack of aerial reconnaissance, the ability to spy on the enemy from a place that cannot be touched, much less be seen, was quite a tantalising prospect; high altitude strategic reconnaissance had arrived. This was pre-satellite era, where the ever-present overhead perspective wasn’t available and so, through Lockheed Skunk Works - the blank-cheque division of Lockheed responsible for creating some of the most advanced stealth aircraft ever known - began work on development of an ultra-high altitude aircraft, titled U-2, using the letter “U” for “Utility” instead of “R” for “Reconnaissance” to avoid any unwanted interest.

U-2

So secretive was this project that the US Government established a new airbase deep in the Nevada desert, calling it Area 51. Yes, that’s right, the same UFO sighting, sci-fi teen drama spurning, Will Smith strutting dark site, celebrated and conspired in popular culture. From here the U-2 was developed to operate at altitudes far higher than ever before, allowing the “Dragon Lady” to peer down from the edge of space and report back - through pilot accounts and photographic evidence - what the enemy was up to. Soon after the U-2 was actively deployed under the pretext of gathering advanced weather reporting, and the as yet secret U-2 would be thrust into the awareness of the every-person, when one was shot down over Russia.

Upon hearing the news, the US Government announced the downed aircraft as being a NASA weather sortie with an incapacitated pilot at high-altitude, drifting over the USSR and crashing down, killing the pilot and destroying the aircraft. The Russian government saw a rare chance to expose the US government to bolster their own propaganda. As the US weaved themselves into their web of weather lies, including frantically painting another U2 in NASA colours and waving it in front of cameras as proof, Nikita Khrushchev kept the ace up his sleeve. Announcing to the world a week later, in a masterful display of giving enough rope to hang themselves, Khrushchev said that not only had they recovered the wreckage and all the cutting edge technology, they had also captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, alive. The revelation was a devastating and humiliating blow to the US Government. The worldwide public now knew, for absolute certainty, that the US had been flying over USSR airspace in direct contravention to the International Treaty. It escalated tensions between the superpowers to the brink of open warfare, something only again experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the legacy of the U-2 as an untouchable spy plane in doubt and the technology in the enemy's hands, a new, more capable reconnaissance aircraft was required.

Thus commenced Project Archangel. Led by Kelly Johnson, head of the aforementioned Lockheed’s Skunk Works unit in California, the laser focus of the project was concentrated solely on two things; flying higher and faster than the U-2, and keeping a step ahead of the enemy. Over the course of 10 months, the A-10 was designed and developed - the base design upon which many iterations would follow, but lacked the crucial, almost-invisible radar signature requirement. After consulting with the CIA, the design was tweaked to reduce radar cross-section by 90%, and a $96 million contract for Skunk Works to begin production of a dozen spy planes was signed-off by the CIA. All told, a baker’s dozen were built and all thirteen A-12’s remained in service until their retirement 8 years later, to make way for a new derivative, and what would become one of the most iconic planes ever to be built; the SR-71.

The SR-71 - titled for “Strategic Reconnaissance” - was a bit of a spec monster. Designed to fly at over Mach 3 and soar so high in the stratosphere that the curvature of Earth and the inky black of space are visible, the SR-71 was the epitome of stealth; despite measuring over 100ft long and 55ft wide, the body was shaped and calculated to minimise radar cross-section, with the resultant radar visibility of a small van. Painted a very dark blue for emissive properties, this distinctive colour earned the SR-71 the nickname of Blackbird. The SR-71’s greatest protection, amongst standard interception counter-measures, was the unique ability to fly at a very high altitude and at a very high speed simultaneously, rendering it almost untouchable. Surface-to-air missiles have a very short window of time in which to find and track an aircraft on radar and, even if they could find the Blackbird, it was usually too late to strike; the SR-71 would be long gone. At sustained speeds of over Mach 3.2, the Blackbird was not only faster than the Soviet Union’s fastest interceptor, the Mikoyan-Gurevish Mig-25, but could fly higher too. For the duration of active duty, no SR-71 was ever shot down.

To create such a marvel, Lockheed’s engineers had to innovate from the apron up. Sustaining such incredible speeds at such high altitudes was the keystone and the SR71 achieved it through the use of very clever engines often described as turboramjets. Below Mach 2, they functioned like conventional after-burning turbojet engines, but as the speed increased beyond Mach 2 the inlet cones protruding out the front of the engine would adjust to manipulate the airflow heading into the engine, thus behaving more like ramjets. Counter to intuition, the Blackbird’s speed at altitude wasn’t restricted by the engine’s power, but rather the heat generated as it sliced through the atmosphere. The body of the SR-71 could reach temperatures of over 500 degrees fahrenheit when flying at Mach 3.2, thus the Lockheed engineers used titanium for 92% of the aircraft; something which perhaps, in this day and age, doesn’t sound particularly innovative. But it was ludicrously expensive and required inventing entirely new fabrication technologies; technologies which are still used to this day. The US also didn’t have enough supply of the titanium ore, so deployed some rather creative, if a bit dangerous considering the tense climate at the time, techniques to “procure” it from Russia through the use of ghost companies and third-world countries.

The SR-71 was first deployed over Vietnam and North Korea, where they were unsuccessfully targeted by over 800 surface-to-air missiles. They never flew into Soviet airspace, because - despite it being unlikely to happen, due to the Blackbird’s prowess - another spy-plane shot down would be catastrophic, and it wasn’t a risk that the US were willing to take. So they flew along the Soviet Union borders, using the Blackbird’s powerful side-looking radars and cameras, to peer hundreds of miles into Soviet territory from a safe distance; something which enraged the Soviet Union. 

No Blackbird was ever lost in a mission, because there was almost no risk for the SR-71; but more than a third were lost in accidents. They were also enormously expensive to operate; each one syphoning around $300 million per year out of America’s defence budget. A fleet of specialist aerial refuellers and a small army’s worth of specialists and engineers were necessary to keep these birds in flight. Added to growing political in-fighting, advances in spy satellites and drones, and competition for defence budgets, the SR-71 - despite being a true behemoth of engineering and function - was retired in 1998, with two sent to NASA for testing.

Pacific 66

The spirit of the Blackbird is apparent within the Pacific 66. The most obvious is the monochrome, aircraft instrument colour palette. In a unique departure from the norm, the hour blocks are entirely machined from Superluminova C3, resulting in an unmatched intensity of glow. Encapsulated within a stealth-like, tri-finish DLC black case, it’s our tribute to the Blackbird. The tech behind the Blackbird is now well over 50 years old; yet this plane still resonates with us on a level which not many - if any - other aircraft does. It speaks not just of the past, of the ground broken and barriers shattered, but of the future; of humanity’s ability to look at a challenge, which seems impossible, squarely in the eye and to give it a damn good go anyway. Perhaps that is why this almost imperceptible phantom of the night sky is so enthralling; it stands for everything that we now cling onto, as we begin to explore ever-greater heights outside of our own stratosphere, not knowing where our explorations will take us or what they will mean for humanity. Those adventures and discoveries which are just out of reach - just as the Blackbird was to its enemies - are, after all, always the most tantalising.

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