Last month, we hinted that Lockheed Martin's super-secret experimental spy plane follow-up to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird, designated as the SR-72, might have made a cameo in the "Top Gun: Maverick" trailers.
Now that the film has been released (check out our "Top Gun: Maverick" review for more) we can confirm that a modified variant of the mysterious conceptual SR-72 does indeed appear in the opening set piece in a piloted form sporting a few fictional Hollywood touches and it definitely makes a bold impression!
Those clips from the pre-release teasers showed Maverick suited up in an astronaut pressure suit while strapped into a futuristic aircraft that looked suspiciously like Lockheed Martin's clandestine successor to their iconic high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft from the Cold War.
The setup is that Tom Cruise's Maverick is employed as an Air Force test pilot who's dying to take a high-speed hop in the latest and greatest hypersonic plane called the Darkstar. But the powers that be are skeptical as to its capabilities have cut the program's budget and are about to pull the plug. Being the renegade that he is, Maverick disobeys orders to stand down and makes an unauthorized dash before the high-flying party ends.
He roars down the runway and streaks past Rear Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris) who's come to shut the lights off on the Darkstar program. We won't spoil what transpires after that, but suffice it to say that Maverick pushes the envelope ala Sam Shepard's Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff" and hits some stratospheric velocity records just north of Mach 10 or 7,672 mph.
In real-life, the SR-72 has yet to officially take its first flight, which is due to occur sometime next year. But who knows about these closed-door aerospace projects and the general public rarely gets the full scoop on test flights until years later. Thanks to the magic of Tinseltown, we get to see a stealthy aircraft dart across the sky at unthinkable speeds, scramjet engines blazing.
To help director Joseph Kosinski and Paramount Pictures, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works partnered up with the "Top Gun: Maverick" production team to engineer what might be an adaptation of their hypersonic SR-72 plane with a few modifications to make it look even cooler on the big screen as both a full-sized physical mock-up and an airborne CGI version. Lockheed Martin's logo even appears on the pilot's stick.
As reported by The Drive (opens in new tab), James Taiclet, chairman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation confirmed that his firm's famous Skunk Works advanced projects division aided "Maverick's" producers to conjure up the fictional spy plane.
Taiclet revealed in a LinkedIn post that engineers at the legendary Skunk Works had "partnered with "Top Gun's" producers to bring cutting-edge, future forward technology to the big screen."
Artists' conceptual renderings released over the past few years do appear to look suspiciously like "Maverick's" Darkstar and speculations and rumors have swarmed around it since the $170 million film went into pre-production way back in 2017.
There are certain differences between the SR-72 concept art and the Darkstar, one being the movie model having two inward-tilting tail fins instead of one. Another is the blind cockpit setup of the fictional Darkstar having no forward visibility. Skunk Works' actual SR-72 would be configured as an unpiloted aircraft, but there could be a demonstration plane with room for a single pilot. Also, the real jet being developed is engineered to max out at Mach 6, not Mach 10.
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So is the Darkstar hypersonic aircraft in "Top Gun: Maverick" really a veiled sneak peek at what the actual Lockheed Martin SR-72 will look like once the public is offered an official viewing, or is it simply an expensive prop whose inspirations make it one of the most memorable concept jets to ever come out of Hollywood?
While Lockheed's Skunk Works division did help "Top Gun: Maverick" bring the Mach 10 Darkstar plane to life in the film, a company spokesman did remind Space.com that it is only a movie.
"It is important to note that Darkstar is a hyper-realistic aircraft concept designed specifically for the movie and is otherwise fictitious," Lockheed's Ananda Costa
But, there is one Easter egg for eagle-eyed Lockheed fans to look out for: The Skunk Works mascot.
"I hope you also spotted the Skunk on the vertical tail of the vehicle!" Costa said.