SPOILER ALERT – This story contains Top Gun: Maverick plot points: In the opening moments of Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise’s Capt. Pete Mitchell takes an experimental hypersonic plane called “The Darkstar” on an unauthorized test run. Those who’ve seen the trailer — or the movie, at this point — will recall a low-flying triangular aircraft blowing past a lonely guard post on the desert floor. In a half-second, the flyby literally blows the roof off the shack.
A flash of the scene in an early behind-the-scenes trailer set the aviation blogosphere aflutter — and not just because of the visual mind-blowing. The aircraft’s unusual shape raised eyebrows. Some posited that it could be the legendary SR-71 Blackbird, once dubbed “the fastest plane ever.” Topping out at Mach 3, the high-altitude reconnaissance plane could literally outrun missiles shot at it by Russian MiGs.
Others guessed it could be something even more exotic: The near-mythical hypersonic SR-72, the Blackbird’s rumored descendant, which is designed to fly at six times the speed of sound.
Lockheed Martin had uncharacteristically announced plans for the plane in 2013. Not much more was heard about the so-called “Son of Blackbird” until Lockheed confirmed engine tests in 2017. Some reports have maintained the SR-72 could be “rolled out for initial flight demonstrations by no later than 2023.” Lockheed, in its original announcement, claimed the game-changer could be operational by 2030. Oh, and it pegged the development cost at $1 billion.
Not much more has ever been officially revealed about the SR-72. That, along with its game-changing speed, has only added to the plane’s mystique.
It was odd, then, that Lockheed CEO James Taiclet posted publicly on LinkedIn this month that the company’s ultra-secret Skunk Works, which handles many of its most boundary-stretching projects including the SR-72, “partnered with Top Gun’s producers to bring cutting-edge, future forward technology to the big screen,” including tech around “hypersonic flight.” He also shared a photo of himself at the film’s premiere.
Lockheed Martin Director of Communications for Europe, the Middle East and Africa John Neilson was even more explicit in a recent tweet writing, “Rumours that Top Gun: Maverick, in cinemas May 27, features a sneaky peek at what might be the @LockheedMartin SR-72, successor to the super-impressive SR-71 Blackbird. This still photo from promotional materials seems to support that thinking.”
Rumors that ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, in cinemas May 27, features a sneaky peek at what might be the @LockheedMartin SR-72, successor to the super-impressive SR-71 Blackbird. This still photo from promotional materials seems to support that thinking. I can’t wait #avgeek #wingfriday pic.twitter.com/PyAak69qOj
— John Neilson (@flyingjok) April 29, 2022
So is it the fabled “Son of Blackbird” that’s featured in Top Gun: Maverick? The answer is, “sort of.”
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer told military blog Sandboxx News that director “Joe [Kosinski] worked with Skunk Works and Lockheed [Martin] to design the plane that’s in there.”
Kosinski revealed that details of the plane are, indeed, taken “out of real experimental aircraft” from Skunk Works.
“For me, just being kind of an aviation buff, and always loving that world, the idea to give people a peek behind the curtain of secret projects…I worked with Skunk Works, which is the division of Lockheed, that actually makes these type of aircraft because I wanted it to feel as real as possible,” he told Comic Book Movie.com this week. “So, every detail of that is based on reality, the way the aircraft functions, the way it looks, all the switches, and stick are actually taken out of real experimental aircraft.”
And in the spirit of creating as many Top Gun: Maverick’s effects in the real world vs. the digital, “We built a full-scale model, a full-scale mock-up of the Darkstar aircraft that you see Maverick fly in the movie. Yeah, I just wanted to show the audience that the first few minutes definitely feels like a top gun movie, but once he gets in that jet, I do also want you to know that we’re telling a whole new story, and that sequence kind of helped set that tone up for the movie.”
A very good shot of the Darkstar is featured in Lady Gaga’s video for her song for the film, “Hold My Hand.” See it below.
“The reason it looks so real is because it was the engineers from Skunk Works who helped us design it,” the director told Sandboxx News. “So those are the same people who are working on real aircraft.”
So, did Cruise — or someone — actually fly a hypersonic plane for the film? The short answer is likely “No.”
Not only would the SR-72 — if a prototype actually exists — be prohibitively expensive to operate even on a blockbuster-level budget, bringing such a plane itself out into the open would have national security implications.
To that point, Bruckheimer made news earlier this month when he told Sandboxx that the Chinese government kept an eye on the plane used in the film.
“The Navy told us that a Chinese satellite turned and headed on a different route to photograph that plane. They thought it was real. That’s how real it looks.”
According to production documents obtained and verified as authentic by Deadline, the scenes involving the Darkstar were scheduled to be shot between November 7 and 9, 2018 out in the Mojave Desert at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, near Ridgecrest.
The Darkstar was filmed both inside and outside a hanger at China Lake, including VFX plate shots and drone shots of the hypersonic clone rolling onto the tarmac. The plane was housed outside over night, but under a “temporary hanger,” likely frustrating interested parties overseas.
If it had been visible, those interested parties might have noticed one crucial difference between what we know of the SR-72 and the plane that Cruise’s Capt. Pete Mitchell flies in the film: Lockheed’s plane is unmanned and has no windows, which would be a problem for a wow-factor aircraft in a film about naval aviators. One other big difference is that the Darkstar, being Tom Cruise’s plane, goes to Mach 10.
For an even closer look at Maverick’s Darkstar, inside and out, here’s a video review of the expansion pack for it which was just released in Microsoft Flight Simulator.