A couple of things to keep in mind before we get started:
The Milviz SR-71 Blackbird is still in an alpha state with nearly everything in this particular build still a work in progress. What’s shown in this first look does not represent the final product, as changes and improvements will be made as the aircraft progresses to later alphas and, eventually, the beta stage.
As a tester for Milviz, I signed an NDA that would normally have prevented me from talking about an unreleased product in depth like I have below. That being said, the kind folks at Milviz (specific shoutout to Osh and Dutch!) graciously gave me permission to write about, and show off, the Milviz SR-71 Blackbird, thus I’m not in breach of my NDA in any way, shape, or form.
With that out of the way, enjoy!
The SR-71 Blackbird; the Habu. The SR-71 has to be one of my all-time favorite aircraft, even beating out Concorde and the B-1 for the top slot. Ever since I discovered that the flight manual for this seemingly invincible aircraft was declassified, my obsession for the aircraft has only grown as I read more about the legendary aircraft.
Being the massive Blackbird enthusiast I am, imagine my excitement when I saw the first cockpit renders of the Milviz SR-71 back in 2014; I couldn’t believe my eyes! (Funnily enough, this is actually the moment when I first discovered flight sims were a thing). Following this, I patiently waited, and waited, and waited until I had almost forgotten about it. And then I did forget, and I took my time (and money) to other interests, mainly racing games. I hadn’t yet made the jump into flight simulation as this was the aircraft that was going to get me to commit, but it wasn’t here yet.
Fast forward to November 19th, 2018: I’m fully entrenched in the flight sim ‘culture’ and I’m checking my Facebook feed looking for news to pop into our internal news queue when I stumble across a post from Milviz saying they’re looking for beta testers for their upcoming SR-71. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve never sent an email faster than I had in this instance. Thanks to my relationship with Milviz with the T-38C and King Air, I was admitted into the beta not even 50 minutes after I sent my initial email (thanks Osh, I owe you one!). I played around with it for a while and put it through its paces when I first received the aircraft, but for some reason, it only recently dawned on me to share with the community the current state of the Milviz SR-71 Blackbird, and here it is! (Be warned, you may want to grab your beverage and snack of choice because this is going to be a long one.) Welcome to the FSElite First Look of the Milviz SR-71 Blackbird!
We start this first look parked at the military cargo section of Washington Dulles International Airport. Why Dulles, you ask? Well, a few reasons. The first is that the SR-71 currently displayed at the Udvar-Hazy (which is the annex facility for the Air and Space Smithsonian and located on the premises of Dulles) flew the last ever USAF SR-71 flight and set 4 speed records in doing so. This alone seemed fitting for the airport to launch the SR-71’s first flight back in service, albeit virtually. As for the second reason, well, I wanted to pick a nice, detailed addon scenery to start with so we wouldn’t be starting at default military bases the entire time, and Dulles seemed like a solid pick.
Back to the aircraft. I’m currently loaded in the “Ready to Start” panel state which is how the cockpit would’ve been set up when the pilot and reconnaissance systems officer (RSO) boarded the aircraft. In theory, all the switches have been set in the right places by the ground crew and the bird is ready to start its engines. I say in theory for a good reason, because that’s what it is: a theory. You see, Milviz decided to take a different approach to panel states. In this, especially the Ready-to-Start state, the switches are usually in the correct position as set by the ground crew but sometimes they aren’t and in an aircraft as sensitive as the SR-71, one little switch in the wrong position can spell disaster if not caught.
Never again will you skip your checklists oh no, you’ll run through all 89 items on the preflight checklist One. By. One. (If running through close to 100 checklist items isn’t your idea of fun, you’re able to sidestep them by setting the reliability sliders fully to the right; that’ll ensure everything is set where it should for the given panel state). And those 89 items don’t even leave you with engines running, just in a state ready to start them. Running this massive checklist is daunting at first, but you’ll soon find you’re much more comfortable in the cockpit after you’ve run through it a few times and thus managed to memorize the complex cockpit layout.
As I ran through the checklists, I encountered the infamous “lamp test” item. This is infamous in the world of flight sim for an obvious, and extremely simple, reason: nearly everyone skips it. I can’t remember the last time I tested the indicator lights in an A320 or 747, and I doubt you could either. In what is quickly becoming a trend with the Milviz SR-71 Blackbird, you won’t want to skip this item either as any one of the tiny, 1960s era incandescent bulbs has the potential to be burnt out. Luckily for maintenance, all lights are indicating as they should, and the show goes on.
With the preflight checklist completed (after quite a lot of switch hunting and manual consulting), it was time to run the Starting Engines checklist and start them up at long last. Now in the real world, each engine would be started by a power cart which had 2 V8 Buick engines on it in order to generate the power needed to spin the turbine. Since this is, of course, a sim and we don’t have the luxury of a trained ground crew to start our temperamental engines, Milviz implemented a handy-dandy menu to allow us to call for the connection of the start cart and rotation of each individual engine.
After calling for rotation of the left engine, the RPM starts to rise and I move the left throttle to idle, a shot of triethyl borane, or more commonly known as ‘TEB’, gets the ignition process going, and spool up from here is a relatively normal affair when compared with any other jet engine aircraft. Starting the second engine is the same procedure. One thing to be careful of is to remember to open the menu back up (if you closed it in the first place) to disconnect the rotation of the engine you just started if you plan to only start one and leave it. Normally, the menu system will not automatically disconnect rotation after the engine has successfully started (in compliance with real-world procedures) but it will indeed disconnect if rotation of the opposite engine is called for.
With the fuel clock ticking (each engine burns around 2,700 lbs an hour just idling), I sped through the flight control checks and the last of the Starting Engine checklist. Both engines running meant it was time for the DAFICS test. The Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System, or DAFICS for short, is a system upgrade that all the original SR-71s underwent that added 3 computers to manage the flight controls, stabilization system, and inlet controls. The DAFICS powers the SAS (stability augmentation system), inlet control system, ADI and TDI, as well as the entirety of the fuel and environmental/life support systems. Suffice to say, it’s a critical system that needs to be checked for faults before every flight, and so I did.
The test system is very temperamental on the Blackbird, with a stringent set of conditions having to be met for the test to even be able to run at all. Once everything is set in its correct place, a quick flip of the test switch sends the system into its routine, and it’s largely hands-off and a lot observing from here. The test indicator flashed green once it had finished, indicating a successful test and a green light to continue with the preflight.
With the DAFICS test out of the way, it was now onto yet another test: the fuel derich test. Essentially, running this test increases the EGT of the engine to test whether or not the automatic derich system works. This system aims to keep the EGT within limits by, as you guessed it, deriching the fuel-air mixture going into the engines. I saw the EGT peak at around 89C and the test did its job by lowering it, indicating the system was working correctly.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity later, we were ready to taxi out to the departure runway. Brakes released, and with a tad bit of extra thrust to breakaway, I swung the nose right to make the turnout of our ‘gate’ and we were on our way to runway 1C. The taxi dynamics of the Blackbird felt incredibly good and natural, with only idle thrust being necessary to keep us moving at a nice clip. The steering felt smooth and linear and made for some nice turns ’round the bends of the taxiways. The entire experience controlling it on the ground just felt..right, in a way I can’t quite describe. Since 1C was but a couple thousand feet from our gate of choice, the taxi was quick and I soon found myself lined up and ready to firewall the throttles, with one small issue: the before takeoff checklist.
As I’ve come to expect with the SR-71, there were yet more checks to run while we sat on the runway. I ran the IGV lockout test for both engines (IGV stands for Internal Guide Vanes which shift in the engine in order to sustain supersonic cruise) as well as checked that manually trimming the EGT actually decreased, it in case that was necessary. Mercifully, both tests returned satisfactory results, so it was finally time to launch into the sky: Blackbird style!
Takeoff is a powerful affair (even with the throttles in the middle of the afterburner range) and great care must be taken to lift the nose at the correct speed of 170 knots, immediately retract the gear as to not overspeed it, and pitch up to a steep climb of around 35 degrees, all the while not exceeding AOA limitations or overspeeding the gear. I must emphasize that takeoff in the SR-71 was one of the fastest things I’ve ever experienced in flight sim (and I’m no lightweight when it comes to fast jets), so you’ve really got to be on the ball as to not break anything in your charge into the sky, or you’ll (quite literally) find yourself back on the ground before you even knew what went wrong. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when the overspeed warning lights up as you’re already past gear speeds, or the stick shaker sounds when you hit the AOA limit!
Climb out is a similar, fast-paced experience to behold, and I was at 30 thousand feet before I even had the aircraft stabilized in a 400-knot climb. You’ll most likely find you’re at your refueling altitude before you’ve even thought about running the climb checklist, as this is no ordinary aircraft in terms of climb performance (Space Shuttle status, anyone?) Be careful not to overshoot your tanker, though, as they’re your lifeline and the key to continuing on with your mission, having taken off with the little fuel allowed due to single engine climb performance being nonexistent with full tanks. (The Milviz SR-71 does have capabilities for aerial refueling, either via TacPack or within a pop-out menu, but I did not have TacPack at the time of writing, so I elected to use the menu option, which doesn’t yet display a tanker. A visual KC-135Q will be included in coming builds for menu-style refueling).
With refueling done (although I did cheat somewhat by using the menu instead of having to hook up with an actual tanker), it was time to go supersonic. The Blackbird’s method of doing so is a tad, well, unorthodox, to say the least. Due to there being an oddly substantial amount of drag between Mach .95 and Mach 1.05, it’s necessary to execute one of two acceleration maneuvers. The most common one, and the one I used in this flight, is called a ‘dipsy doodle’. To start the ‘doodle’, we climb to 33,000 feet at Mach .90. Once at 33k, we throttle up to maximum afterburner, increase speed to Mach .95, then enter a gentle 2,000 foot-per-minute descent. The name of the game here is to break through Mach 1.05 as quickly as possible, but at a safe descent rate, in order to break through that drag region in a timely fashion and start upwards again.
Pulling out of the descent is based on speed, not Mach, and will begin once the aircraft hits 435 KEAS indicated. Once we’re out of the dive and climbing, a 450-knot climb is established and maintained all the way on up to our cruise altitude while rapidly accelerating to our target speed of just over Mach 3. (The second way is simply to accelerate straight and level through the drag region, but this will burn more fuel than the ‘doodle’ and thus was rarely used in the real aircraft.)
All that’s really left to do on the climb up to our cruise altitude of 80 thousand feet is to keep a close eye on the airspeed and AOA, adjust the aft bypass doors as we pass specific Mach numbers, and move the IGV switches to lockout once they retract into the coaxial position.. Now, we just sit back, relax (as much as the Blackbird will allow) and keep an eye on our inlets and temperatures as we blast our way across the American countryside. (this last bit about temperatures is crucial as you don’t want to cook the expensive electronics in the electronics bay as I nearly did).
Normally in the cruise portion of flight in an ordinary aircraft, you’re able to get up and grab a bite to eat, hit the restroom, or just generally unwind and enjoy the scenery zipping past below you. As we are all painfully aware by now, the SR-71 is no ordinary aircraft, and the cruise portion isn’t any different: like everything else about this aircraft, it requires your full attention. In the Blackbird, a daunting phenomenon known as unstarts were a very common occurrence, happening usually ever 1-4 flights.
Unstarts happened when the inlet spike of one of the engines ‘lost’ the shockwave that was fed into the engine in order to propel it to new thrust levels (nearly 80 percent of the thrust the engines put out at a Mach 3 cruise came from the shockwaves themselves). This, in turn, would cause the inlet to ‘unstart’ and would cause an extremely violent yawing in the direction of the unstarted engine. The DAFICS system I previously talked about introduced ‘sympathetic’ unstarts, where the opposite engine inlet would unstart as well in order to reduce the yawing movement, but the event still requires a focused and attentive pilot to correct in order to avoid literally falling out of the sky. Like the failures in the front, unstarts can be disabled entirely for those feeling less-than-confident in their first flight in the bird, but represent an added challenge and incentive to stay focused for those desiring a more..unforgiving experience. While I didn’t experience any unstarts in this particular flight, I did jump in afterward to trigger them manually to practice recovering. You can see what an unstart looks like below.
Since this flight from IAD-PDX isn’t exactly the SR’s normal mission type, I had to make a best guess in terms of descent and decel points. My logic is that it’s better to be safe than sorry in an aircraft I don’t know all that well yet, and by this point, I had more than enough fuel, so I chose to start down 150 miles out from the airport. Happily enough, due to some nifty flight planning on my part (DCT-PDX), and the fact that Portland was on the 28s, I had darn near a straight in approach which made it reassuring that I wouldn’t have to shoot a complex STAR in an aircraft where you had to fly them based on headings or VORs.
The descent was, well, tricky to say the least. I’m not exactly an SR-71 pilot by any stretch, so some of the concepts such as descending at full military power with a set airspeed and EGT had me working overtime trying to keep the aircraft within the envelope. I could never seem to keep the speed at the magic number of 365 KEAS, no matter how hard I tried ( For those who don’t know, KEAS is airspeed that has been corrected for the compressibility of high-speed air and/or high altitude). You’ll quickly find out that deviating from this speed is not the best idea, as the risk of flameouts and/or unstarts are greatly increased the farther you stray from the descent speed.
In a shocker to absolutely no one, I GROSSLY miscalculated how long it would take to descend, and thus found myself 12 miles out from the airport at 30 thousand feet. It wasn’t looking too good at all, and I prepared to execute a few s-turns and 360s in an attempt to bleed off speed and altitude and, somewhat, salvage the approach. I say prepared, as this was as far as I got.
Sadly, the aircraft CTD’d right as I was over the airfield (albeit extraordinarily high), and autosave wasn’t on the ball, so that meant that I lost all my progress in the flight. This wasn’t surprising given the aircraft is still in an alpha state and I knew that going in, but it was a sad moment nonetheless. Up until this point, I hadn’t experienced any crashes in the Blackbird. First time for everything, I guess.
I’ve landed the aircraft multiple times before when I was in the pattern, working on getting familiar with the flight dynamics, so I can tell you how it handles in the last few seconds before touchdown. The aircraft feels more like an airliner than a military bird, albeit much smaller, lighter, and faster, and it certainly flares like one too. It’ll drop like a stone if enough speed bleeds off and is rather unforgiving should you find yourself behind the power curve on final. Upon touchdown, you pull the chute, enable nose wheel steering, check the brakes, and finally jettison the chute once you’re sufficiently slowed down, and that’s that. The end of an SR-71’s glamourous flight.
So, with (the vast majority of) our flight behind us, it’s time to recap and summarize my experience with the Milviz SR-71 Blackbird in its current state. While it’s still heavily a work in progress, I found the modeling to be of extremely high quality in both the interior and exterior, and while the textures may be a tad underwhelming in their current state for my taste, the aircraft is set to receive the PBR treatment soon so this should alleviate this bother. The soundset is among the best I’ve heard, with the almost whine of the J-58s spooling up represented well. The roar as you light the afterburners gives you a sense of power that’s propelling you to both record-breaking speeds and heights, and the little boom as the TEB lights off upon startup and afterburner ignition is a nice reminder of the caliber plane you’re flying. This isn’t your dad’s F-15 we’re talking about, after all: it’s the fastest air-breathing aircraft ever built!
Overall, and in my opinion, the Milviz SR-71 Blackbird is a shining example of what the term ‘study level’ should represent. The meticulously simulated systems in the front cockpit (the rear seat systems are coming in a later build), coupled with the possibility for random failures for nearly every conceivable thing in the aircraft, even the lightbulbs, make this bird one of the most fun (and terrifying) experiences I’ve had in my simulator in recent memory The end of a successful flight where you flew one of the most challenging aircraft by the book brings a level of satisfaction that can’t be found in any other aircraft, and Milviz has represented the challenge and complexity of the SR-71 Blackbird in an unparalleled way. I’m confident you’ll feel the same when you get your hands on it!