|An A-12 aircraft (serial number 06932)|
|Role||High-altitude reconnaissance aircraft|
|First flight||26 April 1962|
|Primary user||Central Intelligence Agency|
|Number built||A-12: 13; M-21: 2|
|Developed into||Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird|
The Lockheed A-12 was a reconnaissance aircraft built for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by Lockheed's famed Skunk Works, based on the designs of Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. The aircraft was designated A-12, the 12th in a series of internal design efforts with the A referring to "Archangel", the internal code name of the aircraft. It competed in the CIA's Oxcart program against the Convair Kingfish proposal in 1959, and won for a variety of reasons.
The A-12's specifications were slightly better than those of the Kingfish, and its projected cost was significantly less. Convair's design had the smaller radar cross section, however, and CIA's representatives initially favored it for that reason. The companies' respective track records proved decisive. Convair's work on the B-58 had been plagued with delays and cost overruns, whereas Lockheed had produced the U-2 on time and under budget. In addition, it had experience running a “black” project.
The A-12 was produced from 1962 to 1964, and was in operation from 1963 until 1968. It was the precursor to the twin-seat U.S. Air Force YF-12 prototype interceptor, M-21 drone launcher, and the famous SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. The A-12's final mission was flown in May 1968, and the program and aircraft retired in June of that year. The program was officially revealed in the mid-1990s.
Over the life of the Oxcart project, the participating US government departments and officials associated the project name "Oxcart" specifically with the A-12. An Agency officer later wrote, "OXCART was selected from a random list of codenames to designate this R&D and all later work on the A-12. The aircraft itself came to be called that as well." The crews named the A-12 the Cygnus which was suggested by the pilot Jack Weeks to follow the Lockheed practice of naming aircraft after celestial bodies.
- 1 Design and development
- 2 Operational history
- 3 Variants
- 4 Accidents and incidents
- 5 Aircraft on display
- 6 Specifications (A-12)
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Design and development
With the failure of the CIA's Project Rainbow to reduce the radar cross section of the U-2, preliminary work began inside Lockheed in late 1957 to develop a follow-on aircraft to overfly the Soviet Union. Under Project Gusto the designs were nicknamed "Archangel", after the U-2 program, which had been known as "Angel". As the aircraft designs evolved and configuration changes occurred, the internal Lockheed designation changed from Archangel-1 to Archangel-2, and so on. These names for the evolving designs soon simply became known as "A-1", "A-2", etc. The CIA program to develop the follow-on aircraft to the U-2 was code-named Oxcart.
These designs had reached the A-11 stage when the program was reviewed. The A-11 was competing against a Convair proposal called Kingfish, of roughly similar performance. However, the Kingfish included a number of features that greatly reduced its radar cross section, which was seen as favorable to the board. Lockheed responded with a simple update of the A-11, adding twin canted fins instead of a single right-angle one, and adding a number of areas of non-metallic materials. This became the A-12 design. On 26 January 1960, the CIA ordered 12 A-12 aircraft.
New materials and production techniques
Because the A-12 was way ahead of its time, many new technologies had to be invented specifically for the Oxcart project, some still in use today. One of the biggest problems that engineers faced at that time was working with titanium.
In his book Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, Ben Rich stated, "Our supplier, Titanium Metals Corporation, had only limited reserves of the precious alloy, so the CIA conducted a worldwide search and using third parties and dummy companies, managed to unobtrusively purchase the base metal from one of the world's leading exporters - the Soviet Union. The Russians never had an inkling of how they were actually contributing to the creation of the airplane being rushed into construction to spy on their homeland."
Before the A-12, titanium was used only in high-temperature exhaust fairings and other small parts directly related to supporting, cooling, or shaping high-temperature areas on aircraft like those subject to the greatest kinetic heating from the airstream, such as wing leading edges. The A-12, however, was constructed mainly of titanium and some high-end composite materials.
After development and production at the Skunk Works, in Burbank, California, the first A-12 was transferred to Groom Lake test facility. On 25 April 1962 it was taken on its first (unofficial and unannounced) flight with Lockheed test pilot Louis Schalk at the controls. The first official flight later took place on 30 April and subsequent supersonic flight on 4 May 1962, reaching speeds of Mach 1.1 at 40,000 ft (12,000 m).
The first five A-12s, in 1962, were initially flown with Pratt & Whitney J75 engines capable of 17,000 lbf (76 kN) thrust each, enabling the J75-equipped A-12s to obtain speeds of approximately Mach 2.0. On 5 October 1962, with the newly developed J58 engines, an A-12 flew with one J75 engine, and one J58 engine. By early 1963, the A-12 was flying with J58 engines, and during 1963 these J58-equipped A-12s obtained speeds of Mach 3.2. Also, in 1963, the program experienced its first loss when, on 24 May, "Article 123" piloted by Kenneth S. Collins crashed near Wendover, Utah.
The reaction to the crash illustrated the secrecy and importance of the project. The CIA called the aircraft a Republic F-105 Thunderchief as a cover story; local law enforcement and a passing family were warned with "dire consequences" to keep quiet about the crash. Each was also paid $25,000 in cash to do so; the project often used such cash payments to avoid outside inquiries into its operations. The project received ample funding; contracted security guards were paid $1,000 monthly with free housing on base, and chefs from Las Vegas were available 24 hours a day for steak, Maine lobster, or other requests.
In June 1964, the last A-12 was delivered to Groom Lake, from where the fleet made a total of 2,850 test flights. A total of 18 aircraft were built through the program's production run. Of these, 13 were A-12s, three were prototype YF-12A interceptors for the U.S. Air Force (not funded under the OXCART program), and two were M-21 reconnaissance drone carriers. One of the 13 A-12s was a dedicated trainer aircraft with a second seat, located behind the pilot and raised to permit the Instructor Pilot to see forward. The A-12 trainer "Titanium Goose", retained the J75 powerplants for its entire service life.
Three more A-12s were lost in later testing. On 9 July 1964, "Article 133" crashed while making its final approach to the runway when a pitch-control servo device froze at an altitude of 500 feet (150 metres) and airspeed of 200 knots (370 kilometres per hour) causing it to begin a smooth steady roll to the left. Lockheed test pilot Bill Parks could not overcome the roll. At about a 45 degree bank angle and 200 feet (61 metres) altitude he ejected and was blown sideways out of the aircraft. Although he was not very high off the ground, his parachute did open and he landed safely.
On the 28 December 1965 the third A-12 was lost when "Article 126" crashed 30 seconds after take off when a series of violent yawing and pitching actions followed very rapidly with the aircraft becoming uncontrollable. Mele Vojvodich was scheduled to take aircraft number 126 on a performance check flight which included a rendezvous beacon test with a KC-135 tanker and managed to eject safely 150 feet (46 metres) to 200 feet (61 metres) above the ground. A post crash investigation revealed that the primary cause of the accident was a maintenance error in that the flight line technician was negligent in performing his duty when he connected the wiring harnesses for the yaw and pitch rate gyroscopes of the stability augmentation system in reverse. It was also found that a contributing cause was a design deficiency which made it possible to physically connect the wiring harnesses in reverse.
The first fatality of the Oxcart program occurred on 5 January 1967, when "Article 125" crashed, killing CIA pilot Walter Ray when the aircraft ran out of fuel while on its descent to the test site. No precise cause could be established for the loss and it was considered most probable that a fuel gauging error led to fuel starvation and engine flame-out 67 miles (108 kilometres) from the base. Ray ejected successfully but was unable to separate from the seat and was killed on impact.
Although originally designed to succeed the U-2 in overflights over the Soviet Union and Cuba, the A-12 was never used for either role. After a U-2 was shot down in May 1960, the Soviet Union was considered too dangerous to overfly except in an emergency (and overflights were no longer necessary due to reconnaissance satellites) and, although crews trained for the role of flying over Cuba, U-2s continued to be adequate there.
The Director of the CIA decided to deploy some A-12s to Asia. The first A-12 arrived at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa on 22 May 1967. With the arrival of two more aircraft on 24 May, and 27 May this unit was declared to be operational on 30 May, and it began Operation Black Shield on 31 May. Mel Vojvodich flew the first Black Shield operation, over North Vietnam, photographing surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, flying at 80,000 ft (24,000 m), and at about Mach 3.1. During 1967 from the Kadena Air Base, the A-12s carried out 22 sorties in support of the War in Vietnam. Then in 1968, Black Shield conducted operations in Vietnam and it also carried out sorties during the Pueblo Crisis with North Korea.
Operations and maintenance at Kadena began with the receipt of alert notification. Both a primary aircraft and pilot and a back-up aircraft and pilot were selected. The aircraft were given thorough inspection and servicing, all systems were checked, and the cameras loaded into the aircraft. Pilots received a detailed route briefing in the early evening prior to the day of flight. On the morning of the flight a final briefing occurred, at which time the condition of the aircraft and its systems was reported, last-minute weather forecasts reviewed, and other relevant intelligence communicated, together with any amendments or changes in the flight plan. Two hours prior to take-off the primary pilot had a medical examination, got into his suit, and was taken to the aircraft. If any malfunctions developed on the primary aircraft, the back-up could execute the mission one hour later.
A typical route profile for a mission over North Vietnam included a refueling shortly after take-off, south of Okinawa, the planned photographic pass or passes, withdrawal to a second aerial refueling in the Thailand area, and return to Kadena. Its turning radius of 86 miles (138 kilometres) was such, however, that on some mission profiles it might be forced during its turn to intrude into Chinese airspace.
Once landed, the camera film was removed from the aircraft, boxed, and sent by special plane to the processing facilities. Film from earlier missions was developed at the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York. Later an Air Force Center in Japan carried out the processing in order to place the photointelligence in the hands of American commanders in Vietnam within 24 hours of completion of a mission.
SAM evasion over North Vietnam
There were a number of reasons leading to the retirement of the A-12, but one major concern was the growing sophistication of Soviet-supplied SAM sites that it had to contend with over mission routes. In 1967 the vehicle was tracked with acquisition radar over North Vietnam, but the SAM site was unsuccessful with the Fan Song guidance radar used to home the missile to the target. On 28 October a North Vietnamese SAM site launched a single, albeit unsuccessful, missile. Photography from this mission documented the event with photographs of missile smoke above the SAM firing site, and with pictures of the missile and of its contrail. Electronic countermeasures equipment appeared to perform well against the missile firing.
During a flight on 30 October 1967, pilot Dennis Sullivan detected radar tracking on his first pass over North Vietnam. Two sites prepared to launch missiles but neither did. During the second pass at least six missiles were fired, each confirmed by missile vapor trails on mission photography. Looking through his rear-view periscope, Sullivan saw six missile vapor trails climb to about 90,000 ft (27,000 m) before converging on his aircraft. He noted the approach of four missiles, and although they all detonated behind him, one came within 100 yards (91 metres) to 200 yards (180 metres) of his aircraft. Post-flight inspection revealed that a piece of metal had penetrated the lower right wing fillet area and lodged against the support structure of the wing tank. The fragment was not a warhead pellet but may have been a part of the debris from one of the missile detonations observed by the pilot.
The SA-2 'Guideline' was an early design intended to counter lower and slower aircraft like the B-52 and B-58. In response to faster, higher-flying designs like the B-70, the Soviets had begun development of greatly improved missile systems, notably the SA-5 'Gamon'. The Soviet Air Defence Forces (Protivo-Vozdushnaya Oborona, PVO) cleared the SA-5 for service in 1967 and if deployed to Vietnam would have added an additional risk to the A-12.
The final Black Shield mission over North Vietnam and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was flown on the 8 March 1968. Good quality photography was obtained of Khe Sanh and the Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnamese border areas. No usable photography was obtained of North Vietnam due to adverse weather conditions. There was no indication of a hostile weapons reaction and no ECM systems were activated.
Final missions over North Korea
In 1968 three missions were flown over North Korea. The first mission occurred during a very tense period following seizure of the Navy intelligence ship Pueblo on the 23rd of January. The aim was to discover whether the North Koreans were preparing any large scale hostile move following this incident and to actually find where the Pueblo was hidden. The ship was found anchored in an inlet in Wonsan Bay attended by two North Korean patrol boats and guarded by three Komars. Chinese tracking of the flight was apparent, but no missiles were fired at the Oxcart.
The second mission on the 19 February 1968 was also the first two-pass mission over North Korea. The Oxcart vehicle photographed 84 primary targets plus 89 bonus targets. Scattered clouds covered 20 percent of the area, concealing the area in which the USS Pueblo was photographed on the previous mission. One new SA-2 site was identified near Wonsan.
Facing changed circumstances in relations with the Soviet Union, US policymakers and intelligence officials had to decide with how best to use the A-12. Its intended purpose, replacing the U-2 in overflights of the Soviet Union, had become less likely well before the A-12 was operational. Soviet air defenses had advanced to the point that even an aircraft flying faster than a rifle bullet at the edge of space could be tracked. In any event, President Kennedy had stated publicly that the United States would not resume such missions. By 1965, moreover, the photoreconnaissance satellite programs had progressed to the point that manned flights over the Soviet Union were unnecessary to collect strategic intelligence.
The A-12 program was ended on 28 December 1966 — even before Black Shield began in 1967 — due to budget concerns and because of the forthcoming twin-seat SR-71 that began to arrive at Kadena during March 1968. Being a twin-seater, the SR-71 was heavier and therefore flew slightly lower and slower than the A-12.
Ronald L. Layton flew the 29th and final A-12 mission on 8 May 1968, over North Korea. On 4 June 1968, just 2½ weeks before the retirement of the entire A-12 fleet, an A-12 out of Kadena, piloted by Jack Weeks, was lost over the Pacific Ocean near the Philippines while conducting a functional check flight after the replacement of one of its engines. Frank Murray made the final A-12 flight on 21 June 1968, to Palmdale, California storage facility.
On 26 June 1968, Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor, the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, presented the CIA Intelligence Star for valor to Weeks' widow and pilots Collins, Layton, Murray, Vojvodich, and Dennis B. Sullivan for participation in Black Shield.
The deployed A-12s and the eight non-deployed aircraft were placed in storage at Palmdale. All surviving aircraft remained there for nearly 20 years before being sent to museums around the U.S. On 20 January 2007, despite protests by Minnesota's legislature and volunteers who had maintained it in display condition, the A-12 preserved in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was dismantled to ship to CIA Headquarters to be displayed there.
The following timeline lists major events in the A-12's development and operation, and related events of its successor, the SR-71.
- 16 August 1956: Following Soviet protest of U-2 overflights, Richard M. Bissell, Jr. conducts the first meeting on reducing the radar cross section of the U-2. This evolves into Project Rainbow. To prolong the aircraft's operational capabilities Lockheed introduced a number of modifications, called "Trapeze", to the U-2. This included the use of wires and paints impregnated with tiny iron ferrite beads. ECM systems were also introduced at this time. U-2's with these enhancements were called "Dirty Birds" and the program was not successful in substantially reducing the RCS of the aircraft. A completely new aircraft with stealth characteristics integrated into the design would have to be conceived.
- December 1957: Lockheed begins designing subsonic stealthy aircraft under what will become Project Gusto.
- 24 December 1957: First J-58 engine run.
- 21 April 1958: Kelly Johnson makes first notes on a Mach 3 aircraft, initially called the U-3, but eventually evolving into Archangel I. Kelly Johnson and his team of Skunk Works engineers had already been looking at various designs that would replace the U-2 and were referring to it inhouse as the "U-3". Kelly noted in what was to become his A-12 diary. "I drew up the first Archangel proposal for a Mach-3.0 cruise airplane having a 4,000-nm [4,606-mile;7412-km] range at 90,000 to 95,000 ft [27432 to 28956 m]".
- November 1958: The Land panel provisionally selects Convair FISH (B-58-launched parasite) over Lockheed's A-3. The A-3 was an unstaged (not a parasite) aircraft that cruised at Mach 3.2 at 95,000 feet (29,000 metres). The Land Panel favored the Convair design, which had a significantly smaller radar cross section than the A-3. On 22 December, Convair was instructed to continue the development of FISH and to plan for a production program. While Convair prepared for production and struggled with aerodynamic issues, Lockheed pursued its own design efforts on a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance platform. Lockheed's own designs evolved from A-4 through A-11. The first three configurations, A-4 through A-6, were smaller, self-launched aircraft with vertical surfaces hidden above the wing. The aircraft employed a variety of propulsion schemes that included turbojets, ramjets, and rockets. None met the required mission radius of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 kilometres), leading Lockheed to conclude that maximum performance and low radar cross section were mutually exclusive. The A-10 and A-11 configurations were larger aircraft that also focused on performance at the expense of radar cross section. The more refined A-11 was submitted by Lockheed at the next Land Panel review.
- June 1959: The Land panel provisionally selects Lockheed A-11 over Convair Fish. Both companies instructed to re-design their aircraft. The following month, in July, the Land panel rejected both the Convair and Lockheed proposals. The Convair FISH vehicle used the as yet unproven technology of ramjet engines and would be launched from a modified version of a B-58B Hustler which was canceled in June. The susceptubility of Lockheed's A-11 proposal to radar detection was considered too great. The following month, on 20 August, the two contractors provided specifications for their revised proposals.
- 14 September 1959: CIA awards antiradar study, aerodynamic structural tests, and engineering designs, selecting Lockheed's A-12 over rival Convair's Kingfish. Project Oxcart established. The A-12 design, a combination of their A-7 and A-11 submissions, emphasized low radar cross section and extremely high altitude and high-speed performance. Earlier in the month, on 3 September, project GUSTO was concluded and project OXCART, to build the A-12, was begun.
- 26 January 1960: CIA orders 12 A-12 aircraft.
- 1 May 1960: Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 over the Soviet Union. He ejected safely and was turned over to Soviet authorities. A well-publicized trial followed and he was sentenced to 10 years "deprivation of liberty," the first three in a Soviet prison, but was exchanged in 1962 for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Upon return he was debriefed extensively.
- 26 April 1962: First flight of A-12 with Lockheed test pilot Louis Schalk at Groom Lake. The previous day on 25 April - unofficial and unannounced in keeping with a Lockheed tradition - the first flight actually took place and almost caused the loss of the only Oxcart aircraft built so far. Lou Schalk flew the plane less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometres), at an altitude of about 20 feet (6.1 metres), because of serious wobbling caused by improper hookup of some navigational controls. Instead of circling around and landing, Schalk put it down in the lake bed beyond the end of the runway. The next day, the official flight took place, this time with the landing gear down, just in case. The flight lasted about 40 minutes. The takeoff was perfect, but after the A-12 got to about 300 feet (91 metres) it started shedding all the "pie slice" fillets of titanium on the left side of the aircraft and one fillet on the right. (On later aircraft, those pieces were paired with triangular inserts made of radar-absorbing composite material.) Technicians spent four days finding and reattaching the pieces. Nonetheless, the flight pleased Johnson.
- 13 June 1962: SR-71 mock-up reviewed by USAF.
- 30 July 1962: J58 engine completes pre-flight testing.
- October 1962: A-12s first flown with J58 engines
- 28 December 1962: Lockheed signs contract to build six SR-71 aircraft. Earlier in the month, on 17 December the 5th A-12 arrived at Groom Lake and the Air Force expressed an interest in obtaining reconnaissance versions of the Blackbird. Lockheed begins weapons systems development for the AF-12. Kelly Johnson obtained approval to design a Mach 3 Blackbird fighter/bomber.
- January 1963: A-12 fleet operating with J58 engines
- 24 May 1963: Loss of first A-12 (#60–6926)
- 20 July 1963: First mach 3 flight
- 7 August 1963: First flight of the YF-12A with Lockheed test pilot James Eastham at Groom Lake.
- June 1964: Last production A-12 delivered to Groom Lake.
- 25 July 1964: President Johnson makes public announcement of SR-71.
- 29 October 1964: SR-71 prototype (#61-7950) delivered to Palmdale.
- 22 December 1964: First flight of the SR-71 with Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland at AF Plant #42. First mated flight of the MD-21 with Lockheed test pilot Bill Park at Groom Lake.
- 28 December 1966: Decision to terminate A-12 program by June 1968.
- 31 May 1967: A-12s conduct Black Shield operations out of Kadena
- 3 November 1967: A-12 and SR-71 conduct a reconnaissance fly-off. Results were questionable. To resolve the question, the aircraft competed one-on-one in a flyoff codenamed NICE GIRL. Between 20 October and 3 November 1967, A-12s and SR-71s flew three identical routes along the Mississippi River about one hour apart with their collection systems on. The results were inconclusive. The A-12's camera worked better as it had a wider swath but the SR-71 collected types of intelligence the CIA aircraft could not, although not yet, of very good quality. However, some of its sensors would have to be removed to make room for ECM gear. With respect to performance, there was little difference in range between the two aircraft - the SR-71 carried more fuel - but the A-12 had an altitude advantage of from 2,000 feet (610 metres) to 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) over the SR-71 at the same Mach number since it was a lighter aircraft. The radar cross section of the two aircraft in a clean configuration was relatively low for both the SR-71 and A-12. The SR-71 in its full sensor configuration was somewhat higher due to its larger size and was appreciably larger again with the side-looking radar antenna installed. The A-12 was designed to utilize as options, one of three different types of high resolution cameras. The highest resolution camera provided a 63 nautical miles (117 kilometres) wide continuous swath of 1 foot (0.30 metres) resolution. The SR-71 had the simultaneous capability for photography and ELINT. Its photography was 1 foot (0.30 metres) resolution but was is in two separate 5 miles (8.0 kilometres) swath wide strips. These strips could be positioned up to 19.6 miles (31.5 kilometres) apart on either side of the aircraft.
- 26 January 1968: North Korea A-12 overflight by Jack Weeks photo-locates the captured USS Pueblo in Changjahwan Bay harbor.
- 5 February 1968: Lockheed ordered to destroy A-12, YF-12 and SR-71 tooling.
- 8 March 1968: First SR-71A (#61-7978) arrives at Kadena AB to replace A-12s.
- 21 March 1968: First SR-71 (#61-7976) operational mission flown from Kadena AB over Vietnam.
- 8 May 1968: Jack Layton flies last operational A-12 sortie, over North Korea.
- 5 June 1968: Loss of last A-12 (#60–6932) During Functional Checkout Flight (FCF) flown out of Kadena, Jack W. Weeks became the second and last CIA pilot killed in the line of duty during Oxcart and is so honored in the "Book of Honor" at CIA Headquarters. The A-12 took off from Kadena at 1400 that day. It was to be a routine functional check flight on the starboard engine that had just been installed in the aircraft, by flying towards the Philippines and then a long turn back towards Kadena. The aerial refueling took place about 20 minutes after takeoff, the aircraft taking on 34,000 pounds (15,000 kilograms) of fuel. The A-12 had a radio telemetry system called "Birdwatcher", that monitored the most critical aircraft system functions and transmitted this data to ground monitoring facilities so that they would know the status of the aircraft. After the refueling the ground monitoring facility received a signal from "Birdwatcher" that the starboard engine exhaust gas temperature was in excess of 1,580 °F (860 °C), the fuel flow on the starboard engine was less than 7,500 lb (3,400 kg) per hour and that the aircraft was below 68,500 feet (20,900 metres). Several attempts were made to contact Weeks and "Birdwatcher" without success. Operation of the monitoring facilities continued until the time that the aircraft's fuel would have been depleted. The aircraft was declared missing 520 miles (840 kilometres) east of the Philippines and 625 miles (1,006 kilometres) south of Okinawa in the South China Sea. The loss was due to an in flight emergency. To maintain security the official news release identified the loss as an SR-71. An intense air and sea search was conducted but no wreckage of "Article 129" was ever recovered. It was presumed totally destroyed at sea. The "Birdwatcher" system provided the only clues to what happened on this fight so the accident report was based on "Birdwatchers" limited information. It was ascertained that some kind of malfunction involving an engine over temperature and low fuel flow on the starboard engine had contributed to a catastrophic failure and subsequent aircraft break-up.
- 21 June 1968: Final A-12 flight to Palmdale, California.
See SR-71 timeline for later SR-71 events.
The A-12 training variant (60-6927 "Titanium Goose") was a two-seat model with two cockpits in tandem with the rear cockpit raised and slightly offset. In case of emergency, the trainer was designed to allow the flight instructor to take control.
The YF-12 program was a limited production variant of the A-12. Lockheed convinced the U.S. Air Force that an aircraft based on the A-12 would provide a less costly alternative to the recently canceled North American Aviation XF-108, since much of the design and development work on the YF-12 had already been done and paid for. Thus, in 1960 the Air Force agreed to take the seventh through ninth slots on the A-12 production line and have them completed in the YF-12A interceptor configuration.
The M-21 variant carried and launched the Lockheed D-21, an unmanned, faster and higher-flying reconnaissance drone. The M-21 had a pylon on its back for mounting the drone and a second cockpit for a Launch Control Operator/Officer (LCO) in the place of the A-12's Q bay. The D-21 was autonomous; after launch, it would fly over the target, travel to a predetermined rendezvous point, eject its data package, and self-destruct. A C-130 Hercules would catch the package in midair.
The M-21 program was canceled in 1966 after a drone collided with the mother ship at launch. The crew ejected safely, but the LCO drowned when he landed in the ocean and his flight suit filled with water. The D-21 lived on in the form of a B-model launched from a pylon under the wing of the B-52 bomber. The D-21B performed operational missions over China from 1969 to 1971.
Accidents and incidents
Six of the 15 A-12s were lost in accidents, with the loss of two pilots and an engineer:
- 24 May 1963 - 60-6926 (Article 123) lost during a test flight when the aircraft stalled. The aircraft was flying a sub-sonic engine test flight, as the aircraft entered cloud it pitched up and went out of control, the CIA pilot ejected. Article 123 crashed fifty miles west of the Great Salt Lake. The investigation found that cloud vapour had formed ice in the pitot tube causing the airspeed indicator to show an erroneous reading, the aircraft stalled then pitched up, a move that could not be recovered from. As a low-altitude flight the pilot was wearing a standard flight suit so he did not look suspicious to the truck driver or the highway patrol office where he was taken, the press were told it was a Republic F-105 Thunderchief that had crashed.
- 9 July 1964 - 60-6939 (Article 133) lost on approach to Groom Dry Lake due to a complete hydraulic failure.
- 30 July 1966 - 60-6941 (Article 135) one of the two drone carriers, lost during a test flight of the California coast, pilot and launch control engineer ejected safely but the engineer was drowned. Article 135 was operating 300 miles from the California coast to carry out a test launch of a D-21, the aircraft was flying at Mach 3.2+ when the crew made sure that Marquardt engine on the D-21 had the required airflow. The drone was launched but the D-21 engine failed to start and it slammed down on the launch pylon causing the mother ship to pitch up. The large pressure from the Mach 3.2 airflow ripped the fuselage forebody from the wing planform, the crew were unable to escape at this high speed as the forebody tumbled down towards the sea, the crew then managed to eject from the forebody. The pilot was picked up by helicopter from the sea but the LCO had drowned.
- 5 January 1967 - 60-6928 (Article 125) lost during a training flight, pilot ejected but failed to separate from his seat and was killed. Article 125 had run out of fuel due to a faulty fuel gauge seventy miles from Groom Dry Lake, the pilot had glided to a lower altitude to perform a controlled bailout but he then could not separate his parachute from his ejection seat,he was the first Cygnus pilot to be killed in an A-12 accident.
- 28 December 1967 - 60-6929 (Article 126) lost on take-off from Groom Lake due to incorrect installation of the Stability Augmentation System (SAS).
- 5 June 1968 - 60-6932 (Article 129) lost off the Philippines during a functional check flight, pilot killed.
Aircraft on display
Media related to Lockheed A-12 museum aircraft at Wikimedia Commons
All nine surviving aircraft are on display in the United States:
- A-12 60-6924 at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum Annex, Blackbird Airpark, at Plant 42, Palmdale, California.
- A-12 60-6925 at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, parked on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, New York City
- A-12 60-6927 the two-seat trainer at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California.
- A-12 60-6930 at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama
- A-12 60-6931 at the CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia[N 1]
- A-12 60-6933 at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
- A-12 60-6937 at the Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham, Alabama
- A-12 60-6938 at the Battleship Memorial Park (USS Alabama), Mobile, Alabama
- M-21 60-6940 at the Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington
- Crew: 1 (2 for trainer variant)
- Length: 101.6 ft (30.97 m)
- Wingspan: 55.62 ft (16.95 m)
- Height: 18.45 ft (5.62 m)
- Wing area: 1,795 ft² (170 m²)
- Empty weight: 54,600 lb (24,800 kg)
- Loaded weight: 124,600 lb (56,500 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney J58-1 afterburning turbojets, 32,500 lbf (144 kN) each
- Payload: 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) of reconnaissance sensors
- Maximum speed: Mach 3.35 (2,210 mph, 3,560 km/h) at 75,000 ft (23,000 m)
- Range: 2,200 nmi (2,500 mi, 4,000 km)
- Service ceiling: 95,000 ft (29,000 m)
- Rate of climb: 11,800 ft/min (60 m/s)
- Wing loading: 65 lb/ft² (320 kg/m²)
- Thrust/weight: 0.56
- Related development
- Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
- Related lists
- "Article 128", unveiled on Wednesday, 19 September 2007, at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. On hand was Ken Collins, a retired Air Force Colonel, one of only six pilots to fly the A-12s.
- Robarge, David. "Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft - From Drawing Board to Factory Floor". Central Intelligence Agency.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lockheed A-12.|
- Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft by David Robarge. (Cia.gov)
- Project Oxcart: CIA Report
- FOIA documents on OXCART (Declassified 21 January 2008)
- Differences between the A-12 and SR-71
- Blackbird Spotting maps the location of every existing Blackbird, with aerial photos from Google Maps
- Photographs and disposition of the "Habu" aircraft at habu.org
- The U-2's Intended Successor: Project Oxcart (Chapter 6 of "The CIA and Overhead Reconnaissance", by Pedlow & Welzenbach)
- USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers for 1960, including all A-12s, YF-12As and M-21s
- "The Real X-Jet", Air & Space magazine, March 1999
- Secret A-12 Spy Plane Officially Unveiled at CIA's Headquarters