SR-71 Blackbird

The fastest operational aircraft in history, the SR-71 Blackbird, was used by the CIA and the US Air Force to spy on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After decades of unchallenged flight, Swedish Air Force Saab JA-37 Viggen fighters managed to contact and lock on a missile at the Blackbird visually.

Speed ​​and efficiency of the SR-71 Blackbird

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a super-fast stealth spy plane, set multiple speed records over its nearly 25 years in service, including 2,200 mph on July 28, 1976. The Blackbird was flying at 35 miles per minute, faster than the bullet in the M1 Garand rifle of World War II.

The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and its encounter with the Swedish Saab JA-37 Viggen fighters
SR-71 Blackbird: Let us show you the fastest plane on Earth.

The Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat fighter attempted to intercept the SR-71 on several occasions but failed. SR-71 spy planes were flying close to the coast of Russia, challenging MiG-25s trying to intercept them.

The SR-71 “Baltic Express” mission

The 1980s “Baltic Express” mission of the SR-71 involved high-altitude flights to important targets. The route included flying through a narrow stretch of international airspace near Sweden to reach Soviet targets. Although Sweden was neutral, its government did not allow American spy planes into its airspace.

The challenge of the Saab JA-37 Viggen fighters

The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and its encounter with the Swedish Saab JA-37 Viggen fighters

Swedish Saab JA-37 Jaktviggen (Fighter Viggen) fighters entered service with a top speed of over Mach 2, excellent maneuverability, robust weapon systems, and advanced avionics, changing the equation. The JA-37s devised a risky tactic to intercept the SR-71 head-on since doing so from behind was nearly impossible.

Swedish pilot Per-Olof Eldh received an alert of an SR-71 entering Swedish airspace in January 1986 and followed frontal attack protocol to engage the Blackbird.

 Eldh managed to completely jam a missile on the incoming Blackbird, proving that he could no longer fly without being challenged. Eldh intercepted five more SR-71s using a similar approach.

Protection of the Viggens to the Blackbirds

In 1987, Viggens fighters protected a Blackbird that violated Swedish airspace. On June 29, 1987, Lieutenant Colonels Duane Noll and Tom Veltri flew an SR-71 flying across the Baltic Sea from RAF Mildenhall airbase in the United Kingdom. 

Swedish radars alerted the Viggens to intercept it. The SR-71 diverted, entered Swedish airspace over Gotland, descended to 25,000 feet (nearly a third of its usual mission altitude), and reduced its speed.

The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and its encounter with the Swedish Saab JA-37 Viggen fighters

The Viggens flew alongside the Blackbird and observed that one of the SR-71’s massive jet engines had exploded mid-flight, hampering its ability to fly. Soviet MiG-25 fighters and Swedish Viggens knew the route of the Baltic Express, so the Blackbird’s engine failure left it vulnerable to Soviet pilots wanting to shoot down one of America’s spy planes.

Viggen’s pilots formed a formation to defend the Blackbird, which landed safely in West Germany and was recovered by the US Air Force. A Viggen pilot even photographed the SR-71 flying on a single engine.

Recognition and medals

The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and its encounter with the Swedish Saab JA-37 Viggen fighters
The SR-71

After the incident was declassified in 2017, the four Swedish pilots, Col. Lars-Eric Blad, Majors Roger Moller, and Krister Sjoberg, and Lt. Bo Ignell, were awarded the US Air Medal for bravery in Stockholm, Sweden, on November 28, 2018.

In short, the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aircraft ever, was challenged and ultimately protected by Swedish Saab JA-37 Viggen fighters. Despite its technological superiority and speed, the Blackbird could not avoid being intercepted by the innovative tactics of the Swedish pilots. This historic meeting demonstrates the importance of innovation and cooperation in the field of military aviation.