Monday, October 19, 2009

Mega Machines: SR-71 Blackbird vs Ducati Desmosedici GP9

In their own way, the Ducati Desmosedici GP9 MotoGP bike and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird military aircraft are two of the most badass machines ever made by man...

We love fast motorcycles more than airplanes, no question about that. For most journeys, if we could, we’d rather ride a Ducati 1198S than sit in the first class section of the latest Boeing passenger aircraft. Even the best of food, drink and smiling, pampering airhostesses aren’t really enough to outweigh the sheer adrenaline rush of riding a 180 horsepower motorcycle at full chat…

But there is indeed one aircraft that we lust after – the mighty SR-71 Blackbird – which makes even MotoGP bikes look as dull as 50cc Chinese-built mopeds. Designed by Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson and his team, the SR-71 was built by Lockheed Skunk Works, first flew in 1964 and was finally retired in 1998. Only 32 were ever built, of which about 20 are still supposed to exist in aviation museums, NASA research centres and the like.

So why is the SR-71 so special? Hmmm… built for ‘strategic reconnaissance’ (hence the ‘SR’ in its name), this US military aircraft was fitted with twin Pratt & Whitney J58-P4 turbojet/ramjet engines, which together produced 65,000 pounds of thrust. While we can’t quote the equivalent horsepower figure (to find out why, see here), the thrust was enough to allow the Blackbird to accelerate away from most missiles. Yes, standard evasive action for SR-71 pilots, if they ever detected a missile coming towards the plane, was simply to accelerate away!

While the Ducati GP9 is definitely one of the hardest accelerating vehicles on the planet, it still can't outrun a missile, which the Blackbird could!

With its airframe made of lightweight titanium (imported from the erstwhile USSR), the SR-71 weighed 77,000 kilos fully loaded. With two people on board, the plane could climb at an astounding rate of 11,800 feet per minute and fly at heights of as much as 26km above the earth’s surface. Top speed was more than 3,500km/h, which is more than three times the speed of sound (Mach 3.2+). The Blackbird could fly for 5,400km before needing to be refueled.

For those who might be interested, you can read more about the late, great SR-71 here. In the meanwhile, we’ll move on to the Ducati Desmosedici GP9 MotoGP machine, which is about as powerful, fast and exotic as a motorcycle – any motorcycle – can get. And for most ordinary mortals, the GP9 is also almost as inaccessible as the mighty SR-71. You can look, but you can’t touch…

Ducati returned to MotoGP in 2003, after an absence of around three decades, and the Italian company won the 2007 MotoGP world championship with Aussie rider Casey Stoner. Beating the might of the Japanese factories couldn’t have been a mean task, but the Ducati Desmosedici GP7 machine proved they could do it.

The latest GP9, which weighs 148 kilos, is fitted with a 799cc four-stroke liquid-cooled 16-valve DOHC V4 that produces about 230 horsepower – enough to catapult the bike from zero to 100km/h in less than 2.5 seconds and on to a top speed of around 350km/h. The bike’s chassis is made of carbonfibre (rather than Ducati’s traditional steel tube trellis frame), the gearbox is a six-speed unit and Öhlins suspension is used at both ends.

The GP9's on-board computer is probably a hundred times more powerful that the 1960s SR-71's analog computers, which makes you respect the SR-71's performance even more

The Ducati GP9 is fitted with twin 320mm carbon brake discs at the front that provide immense stopping power. Also, the bike is fitted with advanced electronics (details of which are not available) that provide traction control functions that can be fine-tuned and controlled by the rider. And though we don’t know that for sure, we wouldn’t be surprised if the Ducati’s on-board computer is a hundred times more powerful than the analog computers that controlled the 1960s SR-71 Blackbird!

So which machine do you think is more impressive – the Ducati GP9 that can do 350km/h, or the SR-71, which could fly at 10 times that speed? For us, it would have to be the SR-71, and that’s because of what its designers managed to do with the technology available in the 1960s. To design and build a plane that could fly as fast as the SR-71 did, without using computers, processing power or CAD software (as we know those things today), has to be an unmatched miracle of engineering.

However, for accessible performance, motorcycles remain the best bet. For an almost-reasonable sum of money, street legal bikes like the Ducati 1198S (or, for that matter, the Desmosedici RR, MV Agusta F4 CC or the 2010 Yamaha R1) can at least provide a glimpse of the kind of performance a MotoGP bike is capable of. But completely regardless of how much money you might have, there is simply no way you can experience an SR-71’s performance. So when it comes to choosing between taking a bike or flying, we’d still take the 1198S…

With a bit of money, you can buy bikes that will let you have a glimpse of a real MotoGP bike's performance potential. But completely regardless of how much you are prepared to spend, the SR-71 Blackbird experience remains completely inaccessible. What a great pity that this great plane will never fly again...
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