Lockheed YF-12: The Fighter-Interceptor Precursor of the SR-71 Blackbird

The YF-12 was a Mach 3 interceptor designed with one mission: to shoot down Soviet bombers before they could enter US airspace.
Lockheed YF-12

The YF-12 was one of those aircraft that inspired the creation of other top military planes despite not having a big name – and not even having gone into mass production.

But, its legacy has left a mark and has been the basis for creating new technologies and iconic aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird – the fastest aircraft in the USAF’s history so far.

What was the YF-12?

NASA YF-12, Dryden history gallery
NASA YF-12, Dryden history gallery by nara.getarchive.net. Public Domain.

The YF-12 Blackbird was an experimental fighter-interceptor developed by Lockheed Corporation in the 1960s.

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This prototype was the interceptor version of the famous SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane… and it was designed to shoot down Soviet bombers before they could reach US airspace.

The YF-12 had a top speed of Mach 3.2 and could fly at altitudes of over 85,000 feet (26,000 meters), which is very impressive.

This aircraft was faster than a top modern fighter jet like the F-22, which is capable of reaching Mach 2.25 and a maximum altitude of 65,000 feet (20,000 meters). 

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So, the interceptor had superior performance and was flown by a select group of pilots who all claimed it was an amazing aircraft.

Although the YF-12 was an exceptional aircraft, it was never put into production because the SR-71 was felt to be more versatile and less expensive to operate.

Nevertheless, the experimental plane paved the way for future generations of superfast jets.

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Built to intercept Soviet bombers with its superior speed

During the Cold War, the United States developed the cutting-edge YF-12 to defend the country against the threat of Soviet aircraft that could enter US space.

So, unlike the SR-71 Blackbird, which carried cameras that would serve as aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union, this interceptor would carry missiles to shoot down any Soviet bomber in a combat scenario.

And because of its specifications, it was believed to be a lethal adversary for Soviet bombers.

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YF-12 specs

Lockheed YF-12.
Lockheed YF-12 by Greg Goebel. Licensed under CC by 2.0

  • Manufacturer: Lockheed Corporation
  • First flight: 1963
  • Status: Canceled
  • Number built: 3
  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 101 feet 8 inches (31 meters)
  • Wingspan: 55 feet 7 inches (17 meters)
  • Height: 18 feet 6 inches (5.6 meters)
  • Empty weight: 60,730 pounds (27,604 kilograms)
  • Gross weight: 124,000 pounds (56,200 kilograms)
  • Max takeoff weight: 140,000 pounds (63,504 kilograms)
  • Maximum speed: 2,275 mph; 3,661 km/h; Mach 3.35
  • Combat range: 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers)
  • Service ceiling: 90,000 feet (27,400 meters)

In addition, it had a powerful radar system that could detect targets at long range and was equipped with a state-of-the-art electronic warfare suite.

But, its biggest differentiator was the missiles it carried. The plane was armed with three AIM-47 air-to-air missiles, the most powerful missiles of any military in the world.

The AIM-47 had a range of over 100 miles (160 kilometers) and could reach speeds of up to Mach 6, which is six times the speed of sound.

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AIM-47 AAM with YF-12A
AIM-47 AAM with YF-12A by Greg Goebel. Licensed under CC by 2.0.

In addition, it had a special system that allowed it to refuel in midair, which meant that it could stay up for very long periods of time.

The YF-12 was a pioneer of the top aircraft we see today

The YF-12 was truly a trendsetting aircraft, and it is still considered to be one of the most impressive experimental aircraft ever built in the US.

It performed quite well in its tests with NASA and the Air Force – it showed what was possible regarding aircraft performance and paved the way for future generations of superfast jets.

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Featured image credit: Lockheed YF-12 by Clemens Vasters. Licensed under CC by 2.0