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Aircraft Review: SR-71-TB Project by VSKYLABS for X-Plane 12

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VSL SR-71_XP12_Header.jpg


Aircraft Review: SR-71-TB Project by VSKYLABS for X-PLane 12

By Michael Hayward

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a mainstay in the US Air Force for three decades, was renowned for its high-speed, long-distance reconnaissance capabilities. Constructed by Lockheed Martin in the 1960s, it initially took shape as the YF-12, then the A-12, serving as a successor to the older and slower U-2. The Blackbird was created under the stringent secrecy of Lockheed Martin’s Clarence “Kelly” Johnson as part of the “Skunk Works” programme. It was publicly unveiled by President Johnson during his 1964 election campaign.

In this review, we delve into the intricacies of the recently released model from VSKYLABS, a developer acclaimed for their meticulously detailed recreations of both military and civilian aircraft, as well as helicopters, for X-Plane. VSKYLABS, with their reputation for intense detail and realism, offers a plethora of features in this model, which I aim to explore comprehensively. Boasting full VR compatibility and an intricate FMOD sound system, this add-on presents us with a wealth of details to examine. Let’s dive in, shall we?



Installation & Manuals 
The installation process for the SR-71 adheres to the standard procedure for most X-Plane models. Upon purchase, you receive a zip file containing the model. Run the installer, direct it to your simulator folder, and the aircraft will be ready in your virtual hangar.


Alongside the aircraft, you gain access to a comprehensive, 982-page 'declassified' document. Initially, this manual may seem daunting, but it becomes more approachable with familiarity. For those seeking additional support, VSKYLABS maintains a dedicated SR-71 support forum at the .org. This forum serves as a professional support hub and a growing knowledge base for the SR-71, continuously expanding to cater to user needs.

Within this support forum, you'll find several 'EXPLAINED' topics. These are designed for on-the-go information and instructions, including various 'Cheat-Sheets' to enhance user-friendliness. Initially, navigating through the SR-71 manual might feel like a heavy task, but these resources are structured to ease users into it, gradually transforming it into an easy read. The SR-71, with its complexity, invites you to delve deeper into its intricacies, and these additional resources, including the forum and 'EXPLAINED' topics, are invaluable for learning the ropes.




Exterior Modelling & Visuals 

Right from the outset, it's clear that VSKYLABS has invested considerable effort in accurately recreating the SR-71, ensuring it mirrors its real-world counterpart. The model boasts a sleek, black, pointed body, supported by a rear delta wing, and is powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58 engines with vertical stabilisers on top.


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This aerodynamic design enabled it to surpass the speeds and altitudes of nearly all contemporary fighter jets, while remaining undetected by most aircraft radar and defence systems. Its capability to penetrate deep into foreign territories, including the USSR, for reconnaissance was unparalleled. Attention to detail is evident in the flight surface animations.


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Close inspection reveals intricate detailing around the landing gear extension, engine movements, and lighting. Particularly noteworthy is the operation of the afterburners, complete with trailing shock diamonds, adding to the realism.


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As for liveries, there are three options available. The aircraft's surface features weathering effects, giving all three a “lived-in”, brushed appearance, further enhanced by X-Plane’s PBR rendering. Bump mapping is judiciously used around different panel gaps to add depth and texture. The textures are rendered in ultra-high resolution, with 8k and 4k options, allowing for fine detailing on the body, as well as subtle weathering effects. These nuances bring a sense of realism and age to the aircraft, making it a standout within the X-Plane world. The SR-71 is not just a model; it's a visually stunning representation that is as much a joy to behold from a high-altitude perspective as it is up close.


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Interior & Environmental Systems 

Mastering the cockpit of the SR-71 is a formidable task. Initially, the plethora of switches, gauges, and buttons scattered across the panels can seem overwhelming. Having reviewed and flown a significant number of jets from the mid-50s and 60s on platforms like X-Plane, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and DCS: World, the SR-71 still presents a unique challenge, comparable perhaps only to the Space Shuttle in its complexity.

The aircraft is replete with a myriad of systems, ranging from aircraft functionality and engine controls to pressurisation and life support. It's difficult to know where to start. In this regard, I strongly advise consulting the manual or watching YouTube playthroughs to visually grasp the necessary steps for flight. I often emphasize in my jetliner reviews that practice is key to mastering the flows, but in the SR-71's case, I find myself repeatedly heeding my own advice to avoid getting lost in the cockpit.


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While it might seem that the exterior overshadows the interior, the sheer volume of activity within the cockpit argues otherwise. It's so densely packed and 'busy' that focusing on any gauge requires full attention to the plane's operation. Forward visibility is limited due to the large window framing, necessary to withstand the intense pressure and airflow. This requires some adjustment, especially in VR, where you might find yourself sitting slightly off-centre or tilting your head for a better view. Every gauge is meticulously modelled in 3D, offering depth and functionality. The central console is a labyrinth of systems and gauges, all designed to be fully functional within the simulator.


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Like the exterior, the cockpit benefits from full 4K textures, complete with weathering effects that add realism and a sense of history to the interior. Every detail has been included to ensure the cockpit looks authentic from every angle. While it's easy to get lost in the complexity, with practice, the intricacies of flying and managing the aircraft's systems become more manageable.


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Flight Controls & Instruments
The fidelity with which the control system of the SR-71 has been recreated within X-Plane 12 is remarkable, and much of this is owed to the expertise of former SR-71 pilot BC Thomas. A legend in the Blackbird community, Thomas, with over 1,000 flight hours in the aircraft, has provided invaluable technical support to VSKYLABS in the development of this model.


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In flight, the SR-71 demands a delicate touch. Pilots will often find themselves fine-tuning control sensitivity curves. At altitudes of 80,000 feet and speeds reaching Mach 3.5, the slightest movement of the joystick can result in a course deviation of several hundred miles. Even a minor bank or roll at such speeds can dramatically alter your trajectory. Mastering the SR-71 is about understanding and adapting to these subtle control inputs.


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The aircraft's behaviour changes significantly during descent. From being a supremely agile, high-speed vehicle slicing through the sky, it transforms into a much heavier, more cumbersome machine at lower altitudes and speeds. This is a common trait among aircraft designed for high-speed stability – their performance characteristics vary greatly with speed.


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An interesting anecdote about the SR-71's recruitment process highlights the immense responsibility bestowed upon its pilots. Reportedly, the key question asked was, “are you married?”, symbolizing the need for a sense of responsibility and stability. This also hinted at a strategic consideration: married pilots were perceived as less likely to defect to the USSR with such a valuable asset. The SR-71 is at its best at high altitudes and speeds. While takeoff and landing require a period of adjustment, once airborne and with the afterburners engaged, the exhilaration of flying the SR-71 comes to the fore. It's a thrilling experience that combines technical mastery with the sheer joy of high-speed, high-altitude flight.


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VSKYLABS’ SR-71 is equipped with an array of systems and switches, offering a comprehensive virtual experience. We've already discussed some cockpit functions, such as the afterburners and fuel systems, but there's much more to explore. A key feature is the functioning autopilot system, located on the right-hand side of the cockpit. It includes standard controls like heading, altitude, and pitch, but also a unique KEAS bleed and hold function. This system is crucial for managing aircraft pitch during high-altitude climbs as you accelerate from Mach 2.6 to 3.0. The autopilot is complemented by a default X-Plane FMS, facilitating easier navigation compared to the ANS, which requires manual coordinate inputs for flight plan formation.


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VSKYLABS has also integrated an air-to-air refuelling feature. For this operation, you need to stabilize your aircraft in the cruise corridor of the tanker plane (26,000-30,000ft) and reduce speed to around three hundred knots. The autopilot is invaluable here for maintaining stability. When you request refuelling, a green indicator light and an audio cue are activated, featuring real radio recordings of air refuelling processes provided by BC Thomas. A KC-135 tanker then spawns above, connecting to your fuel probe for refuelling. It’s crucial to fill your tanks completely to prevent air from entering the system, as this could ignite when afterburners are activated.




VSKYLABS is committed to the long-term development of this model, with plans for numerous future updates. These include a manual control for the pressurisation schedule and overhauls of the electrical and hydraulics systems. Additionally, they plan to introduce interactive pressure suit support systems, a unique feature that allows direct interaction with the pilot's wellbeing during flight. With the current level of detail in the SR-71 model, these upcoming features promise to add even more depth and realism, and as such, this is a project I’m excited to follow closely, as it continues to evolve.


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Night Lighting

The night lighting is executed with exceptional attention to detail, both inside and out. The cockpit comes to life after dark with an array of adjustable dials, allowing precise control over the intensity of side panel illumination as well as gauge and switch lighting. This functionality not only adds to the realism but also enhances the pilot's experience during night flights. Externally, the aircraft is equipped with tail, taxi, and positional lights, all performing flawlessly. Under the right conditions, the SR-71 takes on a rather imposing and menacing appearance in the dark, embodying the intrigue and awe that this legendary aircraft inspires.


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In summary, the experience of flying the SR-71 has been nothing short of extraordinary! Soaring at 85,000 feet and cruising at speeds surpassing Mach 3, one truly appreciates the thrill of speed and the finesse required to pilot this engineering wonder. The SR-71 is a top-tier add-on that astounds in its visual, tactile, and auditory fidelity. It’s a must-try for anyone with an affinity for high-speed flight or a keen interest in detailed military systems. While there is a learning curve, the sense of achievement and enjoyment you gain after mastering the aircraft's nuances is immense.  The authenticity of this recreation owes much to the technical guidance from a real SR-71 pilot, coupled with VSKYLABS’s expertise, evidenced by their background with the USAF F4 Phantom. This collaboration has resulted in a remarkably accurate representations of one of the most iconic military spy jets in history.


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The commitment to long-term support further enhances the appeal of this add-on, which at $37, is exceptional value. With advanced systems and updates in the pipeline, users can look forward to an evolving and deepening simulation experience. VSKYLABS has thoughtfully included a log within the aircraft's file structure to keep users informed of new developments. With more enhancements on the horizon, I highly recommend keeping a close eye on future updates from VSKYLABS for the SR-71 Blackbird. The journey with this aircraft is set to become even more captivating!






SR-71-TB Project by VSKYLABS is available from the Org store here:


SR-71-TB Project by VSKYLABS
Priced at US$37.00



  • Early Access phase - The project is being updated rapidly
  • VSKYLABS 'Test-Pilot' Project - Utilizing X-Plane 12 cutting edge systems and flight dynamics models
  • Highly engineered SR-71A flight dynamics and propulsion systems (including spikes and bypasses simulation)
  • Authentic SR-71A SAS/Autopilot (including all authentic modes of operation, KEAS bleed and with extended usability using on-board FMS as replacement of the SR-71 ANS).
  • Authentic SR-71A performance and handling characteristics
  • Highly accurate climb and cruise profiles
  • Air-refueling (including tanker visualization and authentic radio recording of SR-71 during air-refueling session - courtesy of B.C. Thomas!).
  • Deep systems simulation (including TAB injection and counters, automatic fuel scheduling, nitrogen pressurization of the fuel tanks, surf-limiter, stick shaker/pusher and much more!)
  • D-21 Mach 3 Drone (currently as a piggy-bag payload, takes part in the physics. In later versions it will have launch capabilities)
  • AG-330 Starters simulation for authentic start-up procedure
  • Comprehensive FMOD sounds
  • Designed for VR (optimized for 2-d)
  • The project is under constant development - future updates are free to all existing customers
  • Full Simulation scope and update log are available here: https://forums.x-plane.org/index.php?/forums/topic/297854-vsl-sr71-tb-simulation-scope-and-update-log/
  • Highly responsive, professional support in the VSKYLABS

Special contribution:  BC Thomas is the famous, high Time SR-71 Pilot
During the air-refueling sequence in the simulation, an authentic SR-71 air-refueling radio recording is being initiated, adding immersion and excitement! The audio recording was implemented into the VSKYLABS 'Test-Pilot': SR-71-TB following Mr. BC Thomas approval. BC Thomas is the famous, high Time SR-71 Pilot who spent 1,217 hrs and 18 min in the cockpit of the legendary SR-71!



X-Plane 12 (not for XP11)
Windows, Mac, or Linux
8GB VRAM Minimum
Current Version: 1.05 (January 2nd, 2024)
Download Size: 424 MB 


Reviewers System:

Windows 10 Professional
AMD Ryzen 5 3600 Processor

Palit GeForce RTX™ 3080 GamingPro


Aircraft Review by Michael Hayward 

17th January 2024

Copyright©2024: X-Plane Reviews 


(Disclaimer. All images and text in this review are the work and property of X-PlaneReviews, no sharing or copying of the content is allowed without consent from the author as per copyright conditions) 


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  • Dominic Smith changed the title to Aircraft Review: SR-71-TB Project by VSKYLABS for X-Plane 12

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