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Dispelling the SR-91 Aurora Myth

The SR-91 Aurora was supposedly a Mach 6 spy plane designed in the 1980s. But it’s only partially apparent whether or not this is real. The SR-91 Aurora legend endures. Hypersonic has been a buzzword in the aviation industry for a while now, but most people identify it with missiles, which Russia and China claim to have developed; they also reported that Russia used hypersonic missiles in its invasion of Ukraine.

SR-91 Aurora, artist rendition. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Contrast this with hypersonic aircraft, which can go at Mach 5 or 3836 mph. For decades, there have been rumors that the United States, specifically Lockheed-Secretive Martin’s Skunk Works division, was developing a hypersonic spy plane to succeed the SR-71 Blackbird.

A pair of occurrences piqued U.S. interest in a potential hypersonic surveillance jet. In the 1980s, the SR-71 and the U2 were classified as “Aurora” in the Pentagon’s budget proposal.

An oil exploration engineer, Chris Gibson, claimed to have seen a triangular-shaped aircraft flying over the North Sea in August 1989, right behind a KC-135 tanker and between two F-111s. Has the United States finally debuted its hypersonic spy plane? It is proof suggests that this is not the case.

The U.S. Air Force plans to develop a Mach 4–6 aircraft, according to a May 2006 report from the British Ministry of Defense. It just served to spread speculation even further about the Aurora.

Alex Hollings has written an excellent account of the U.S. Air Force’s decades-long experimentation with hypersonic aircraft prototypes.

If the United States needed a successor for the U2, the SR-71 Blackbird was there. It first appeared in 1964. In 1976, it achieved an official record by flying 2193 miles per hour in a straight and level flight above Mach 3. At the time, it was the fastest and highest-flying aircraft in the world, with a ceiling of more than 80,000 feet.

Other pilots have claimed later, in confidential reports, that the Blackbirds flew more than that during operational flights. And launched more than four thousand missiles at the SR-71 during its service life, but none were ever successful in shooting down the Blackbird because of its incredible speed.

However, the Blackbird was retired due to the prohibitive costs associated with maintaining the aircraft and the increased security risks associated with operating it due to advancements in spy satellite technology.

After a series of sonic booms over Los Angeles in 1991, nicknamed “sky quakes,” speculation persisted regarding the aircraft’s destination: Groom Lake, site of the infamous “Area 51,” where the United States tests top-secret aircraft designs.

Not long after that funding request, the SR-91 Aurora’s hypersonic spy plane theory began to show signs of strain. The Aurora wasn’t a make-believe plane; the B-2 Spirit bomber is an actual Air Force staple. After years of development and testing in the 1980s and 1990s, this plane finally saw service in 1997. Author Ben Rich, the former facility director, acknowledged in his book Skunk Works that Aurora was the B-2 bomber’s codename.

Gibson may have seen an F-117 stealth fighter or bomber.

While the SR-72 “Son of a Blackbird” program is a fundamental concept with a possible artist’s rendition in an Air Force movie titled “History Today, ISR, and Innovation.” Assuming it existed, the Aurora concept never made it off the drawing board. The plane may be an uncrewed spy plane.

The way Rich sees it, it did not. According to his 1994 book, “there is no codename for the hypersonic plane (Aurora) because it simply does not exist.”

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