By Oliver Parken
For those of you active on Twitter, it would have been hard to miss the buzz surrounding the Oscars yesterday evening. Top Gun: Maverick, the second highest-grossing film of 2022, racked up an impressive total of six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Film Editing and Visual Effects. The film’s sound team deservedly went on to win the Oscar for Best Sound.
In celebration of Maverick’s Oscar nomination success, Lockheed Martin – whose legendary Skunk Works advanced projects division worked with the producers of the movie on the fictional “Darkstar” hypersonic aircraft – tweeted a series of “Real Top Gun” images in the lead-up to the ceremony. One tweet, in particular, caught people’s attention immediately.
In the tweet, Lockheed Martin described its famed SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft, capable of traveling at speeds well over Mach 3, as currently being the “fastest acknowledged crewed air-breathing jet aircraft [emphasis added].” As you’ll remember from the film, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell takes the Darkstar hypersonic test jet over Mach 10 before bailing out of the aircraft.
The use of the word “acknowledged” here is even more mysterious when considering the first tweet the company posted.
The first of Lockheed’s “Maverick-worthy images of real aircraft” posted to Twitter yesterday (seen below) features the fictional Darkstar, illuminated with a deep red backlight.
When it comes to Darkstar, as The War Zone has outlined extensively in the past, distinguishing between fiction and reality isn’t such an easy task.
For one, it has long been indicated that the fictional Darkstar is broadly reminiscent of existing renderings of Lockheed’s proposed SR-72 uncrewed hypersonic aircraft, suggesting Darkstar’s design is at least somewhat rooted in future Lockheed hypersonic aircraft designs. That a mysterious new SR-72-like aircraft would appear in the movie was apparent even before Maverick’s release, with one then-Lockheed official even suggesting the film could offer a “sneaky peak” at what may be the successor of the SR-71.
Exactly how much of Lockheed’s SR-72 concept may have ended up in Darkstar’s design is unknown. As we suggested several years before Maverick’s release, however, it was possible that Lockheed’s secretive SR-72 program was already further along in development than the company had let on. It’s certainly possible that to some extent at least, elements of Lockheed’s SR-72 design, or more likely a precursor demonstrator of its technologies, has been hiding in plain sight on our cinema screens.
We know from as early as 2016 that Lockheed was openly discussing the possibility of building a demonstrator aircraft, roughly the size of an F-22 Raptor, to help prove the technologies that would underpin the SR-72’s hypersonic design. Such a demonstrator would have cost less than $1 billion to produce and could be flying in just a few years time.
A rendering of Darkstar. Lockheed Martin via Twitter
Then, a couple of years later, more evidence came to light that seemed to support the possibility that such an aircraft existed. From our past report:
Early in January, 2018 more evidence to support exactly this hypothesis emerged via a speech given by Lockheed’s Jack O’Banion, Vice President of Strategy and Customer Requirements, Advanced Development Programs (Skunk Works), at The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech conference. During the address, O’Banion clearly referred to the company’s hypersonic aircraft as if it was already a reality, stating in part: “Without the digital transformation, the aircraft you see there could not have been made. In fact, five years ago, it could not have been made.”
While this was peculiar, it certainly wasn’t the smoking gun. However, fast forward to today, and Lockheed has also directly indicated that the fictional Darkstar design reflects real-world capabilities – indicating that a hypersonic aircraft that can outpace the SR-71 either does or could, in the not so distant future, exist.
As we noted in this past War Zone piece on Lockheed’s full-size mockup of Darkstar, questions continue to linger on the real-world projects Skunk Works’ Advanced Projections Division is in the process of working on, as well as other secretive USAF projects dating back decades, rumored to deal with high-speed flight. You can read more about the USAF’s more recent Mayhem high-speed hypersonic program here.
The Oscar-themed tweets yesterday only add to this speculation, alluding to the prospect that aspects of Darkstar could actually be in development, in one form or another. It’s also possible that a secret manned aircraft broke the SR-71’s records long ago.
Whatever the status of Lockheed’s mystery projects, there’s no doubt that the tweets helped to rouse even greater interest in what was one of 2022’s standout movies. But above all else, they offer further evidence of Lockheed Martin going out of its way to hint that the history of high-speed flight isn’t exactly as we understand it to be.
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