I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the picture above and thinking “that’s an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest jet powered aircraft ever to fly”. You’d be wrong. First of all, it’s not an SR-71, it’s an A-12. Secondly, the SR-71 isn’t the fastest jet powered aircraft ever to fly, the A-12 is.
You’ve likely never heard of the A-12 because it was a so-called “black programme”. Developed for the CIA and extremely highly classified, even though it first flew in 1962 the US Government didn’t officially reveal its existence until 1994. The SR-71 was closely related, a lower and slower flying version of the aircraft developed for the United States Air Force.
After the Iron Curtain descended across Europe the West found it incredibly difficult to get any information about what was going on in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Especially with regards to their military capabilities. The nature of society behind the Iron Curtain also made it incredibly difficult to use human intelligence sources. The West would have to rely on other methods to gather intelligence, and perhaps the most important one at the time was strategic aerial reconnaissance.
Or if you prefer, spy planes.
At the time there were some very real political concerns about escalating tensions between the United States and Soviet Union. President Truman, not wanting to exacerbate the situation and possibly start a war, forbade the United States Air Force from flying reconnaissance missions over Soviet territory. Nevertheless, certain elements within the US military and intelligence communities were desperate to see what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.
One of those interested parties was the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, led by General Curtis LeMay. SAC wanted radar images of the approaches into Soviet targets which would be used by its bomber crews in the event of a war. It’s rumoured, but never been confirmed that from as early as 1948 the Royal Air Force was flying shallow penetration missions into Soviet airspace using the DeHavilland Mosquito PR.34 flying out of Crete, Iraq and possibly other unknown locations. The US had already broached the idea of collaborative intelligence gathering but had been rebuffed by the post-war Labour governments. The return of Churchill in 1951 signalled a hardening of attitudes towards the Soviets and the Americans asked once more if the British would collaborate in gathering aerial reconnaissance over the Soviet Union.
The first major collaboration was known as Operation Ju-Jitsu. In late 1951 three aircrews were picked from 35 and 115 Squadrons at RAF Sculthorpe and sent to the United States where they were trained how to fly the North American RB-45C Tornado. This was a special reconnaissance version of the B-45 Tornado, America’s first jet powered bomber and the best reconnaissance platform available at the time. They returned to RAF Sculthorpe with a number of RB-45C stripped of all their previous USAF markings and identification, replaced with basic RAF markings. The aircraft were serviced by American ground crews and other support duties were carried out by USAF officers and enlisted airmen. On the night of 21st-22nd March 1952 RAF Sculthorpe’s “Special Duties Flight” conducted a successful trial run over East Germany. On the night of 17th-18th April 1951 the Sculthorpe Special Duties Flight undertook the main event of Operation Ju-Jitsu. Three RB-45C took off from RAF Sculthorpe and were refuelled by USAF KB-29 tankers over Denmark and West Germany, before splitting up and heading on three different routes. The first aircraft headed over the Soviet Baltic states, the second aircraft penetrated directly into the Soviet Union travelling as far east as Moscow, whilst the third aircraft headed south east over Ukraine. The mission targets were Soviet airbases which were known to accommodate nuclear bombers. The reconnaissance flights were over ten hours in length and it is known the aircraft came under ground fire and several unsuccessful interception attempts by Soviet night fighters. All three aircraft and their crews returned to Sculthorpe. So delighted was General LeMay with the results he sent a personal telegram congratulating the RAF crews.
Later in the same year the Americans asked once again for the Sculthorpe Special Duties Flight to conduct a similar operation, this time against a wider range of targets. High level Cabinet meetings revealed serious opposition to this second round of missions. Anthony Eden in particular was opposed to them, saying that whilst the first set of missions gave invaluable targeting intelligence for Soviet nuclear bases, this second set of missions was clearly geared more towards a general nuclear offensive against the Soviets and was thus of lower value to the British but still entailed a mighty risk. The Cabinet ultimately voted against approving this second round of Ju-Jitsu missions.
In 1953 a number of German scientists and engineers captured by the Soviets at the end of WW2 were repatriated to West Germany. They were extensively debriefed by both British and American intelligence and revealed that the Soviets had established a large research and testing facility at Kapustin Yar – on the Volga river between Volgograd (then known as Stalingrad) and Astrakhan in the south west Soviet Union. The Germans revealed that Kapustin Yar was a major test centre for the Soviet’s ballistic missile research programme. British and American intelligence were very keen to get photographs of Kapustin Yar, but the Americans didn’t have a suitable aircraft for the mission. The RAF however, did. The English Electric Canberra had entered service in 1951 and was at the time the highest flying jet aircraft in the world. Details are very sketchy, but it would appear in August 1953 an RAF Canberra, sometimes described as a specially modified B.2 and other times said to be a new PR.3 variant took off from Giebelstadt in West Germany. It headed directly for Kapustin Yar at an altitude of 46-48,000ft. After photographing the facility it continued on to recover at an RAF base in Iran. It is written the aircraft was tracked by Soviet radar and dozens of MiG-15 fighters were scrambled to intercept as the Canberra made its way across the Soviet Union. The MiG-15 couldn’t achieve sustained flight at the altitude of the Canberra so had to make a “zoom” climb in an attempt to get a shot on the Canberra before stalling. It has been written by the CIA historians that one MiG-15 managed to score one or two hits on the Canberra which caused light damage. The damage created a slight vibration in the airframe which degraded the quality of the photographs taken of Kapustin Yar. The CIA historians also wrote that the British reaction after the operation was along the lines of “please don’t ask us to do that again”.
To this day the British Government denies such a flight ever took place. However, multiple CIA historians in the US have written about it. In fact, several Soviet defectors have also spoken about it, including one who was a ground based radar intercept officer on that day. He said the Soviet response to the overflight and attempts to bring down the Canberra was nothing short of farcical. Most of the fighters launched to intercept the Canberra never even made visual contact with it and those that did were almost entirely unable to attack it. Some were sent by their ground controllers in completely the wrong direction. Others ended up attacking each other in cases of friendly fire. So displeased were the Soviet authorities they carried out a purge of the air defence forces. One General was reported to have committed suicide after being demoted to Lieutenant Colonel and other officers were sent to the gulag. It is also written that the Soviets were ready and waiting for the Canberra because they were made aware of the planned overflight by their own spies in Britain, possibly Kim Philby.
The next major Anglo-American collaboration came in 1954-55 with Operation Robin. An RAF Canberra B.2 WH726 was modified to carry a special 240 inch focal length camera. The camera was from the US and was built into a container roughly the same size and shape as a large oil drum which would fit into the Canberra’s bomb bay. The aircraft would take off from RAF Wyton and fly a course along the East-West German border at 40,000ft and take oblique photographs of targets in East Germany. The aircraft would stay well inside West German airspace during the mission.
There is still much confusion and speculation about these operations. Many sources conflate the Kapustin Yar mission with Project Robin, or even Operation Ju-Jitsu. It’s entirely possible that WH726 was also the aircraft used for the Kapustin Yar overflight, we just don’t know. It’s believed that RAF Canberras undertook several overflights of the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, but other than the Kapustin Yar mission which originated in West Germany, the others took off from Iran and Turkey. The details remain closely guarded secrets.
Nevertheless, I hope by now you have an appreciation of the problem faced by Western intelligence; how to get pictures of what was going on in the Soviet Union without getting shot down and starting a war.
Enter the Lockheed U-2.
In 1953 Lockheed came up with a proposal for an extremely high flying reconnaissance aircraft which would be able to fly high enough over the Soviet Union well out of the reach of its air defences. Lockheed built the U-2 for the CIA and gave the US a spy plane which could fly at 70,000ft. The U-2 first flew in 1955 and the initial plan was to base the aircraft in England, but after the Lionel Crabb incident in April 1956 (look it up, very interesting!) the British Government thought better of it and the CIA instead flew the U-2 out of West Germany. Within the CIA the U-2 programme was given the code name “Dragon Lady”. Within Lockheed the project was code named “Angel”.
Meanwhile back in America politics were becoming an issue again. By this stage Eisenhower was in the White House and shared Truman’s concerns about spy flights possibly starting a war. General LeMay was lobbying for the U-2 to be given to Strategic Air Command, but Eisenhower resisted and kept the U-2 as a civilian asset operated by the CIA. He also maintained the policy of not having American military pilots fly spy flights over the Soviet Union. U-2 pilots were drawn from US Air Force pilots who had resigned their commission and become civilians. In fact, Eisenhower expressed a preference that foreign pilots fly the U-2*. We know that seven Greek pilots and one Polish pilot were inducted by the CIA into U-2 training, but only two of the Greek pilots completed the training and it’s not believed they flew the U-2 operationally. Finally, Eisenhower ordered that the U-2 would only fly over the Soviet Union if the Soviets were unable to track it. American radars were unable to track the U-2 and so the CIA assumed Soviet radars wouldn’t be able to either. Early trial flights of the U-2 over East Germany revealed that the Soviets could in fact detect and track the U-2, at least partially. The CIA managed to convince Eisenhower that even though the Soviets might be able to detect the U-2 they couldn’t reliably track it. Thus Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for flights over the Soviet Union. Early U-2 targets included Soviet ballistic missile test sights and factories, shipyards building nuclear submarines, and also airfields where the new Myasishchev M-4 jet bomber were based.
* There is anecdotal evidence that British pilots flew the U-2 in this period. Some years ago a former Lockheed employee went on the record with a BBC film crew and described how he was involved in training British pilots to fly the U-2 in the United States during the late 1950s. This possibly could have involved volunteer RAF pilots who resigned their RAF commission in order to fly the U-2. This isn’t unprecedented, during the Dhofar Rebellion the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force consisted of aircraft flown by volunteer RAF pilots who had resigned their RAF commission and flew often in support of SAS units on the ground as part of Britain’s “secret war” in Oman.
The photographs which the U-2 brought back were of massive value to Western intelligence. In fact the CIA considered the U-2 to be a roaring success and this aircraft probably ensured that Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects division, led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and which you may have heard of referred to as the “Skunk Works” assured their place in aviation history.
Any doubts about the Soviet’s capability to track the U-2 were erased on 5th July 1956 when a U-2 flown by CIA pilot Carmine Vito was tracked over Smolensk and the Soviet air defences were able to accurately determine the U-2’s altitude of 20km. It’s reported that the Soviet military authorities believed this altitude calculation was an error and that no aircraft could possibly fly that high.
Even before the U-2’s first flight over the Soviet Union in the summer of 1956 the CIA had estimated that it would take 18-24 months for the Soviets to develop the capability to shoot one down. In August 1956 after the first overflights had begun and the CIA knew for sure the Soviets were tracking the U-2 this estimate was revised downwards to six months. By the end of the summer the CIA had begun Project Rainbow, a programme to develop countermeasures against the Soviet radars. Various methods were developed and trialled, including radar scattering coatings for the aircraft and a system which would transmit the anti-phase of the Soviet radar. This method is today known as Active Cancellation and is speculated to be a capability of modern combat aircraft like Rafale, Typhoon, F-22 and F-35. None of the Project Rainbow modifications were particularly successful, and in fact the added weight of the Rainbow equipment reduced the U-2’s service ceiling and forced it to fly lower. The CIA was also worried about just how many people and organisations had become involved in Project Rainbow and the security of the project was brought into doubt.
At the end of 1957 Project Rainbow submitted a report with recommendations for various methods to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section including shielding the engine’s turbine blades from radar, using non-metallic materials for structural components which can’t be shielded from radar, and shaping the airframe in such a way as to reflect radar away from the source. All of these methods would later go on to be used by “stealth” aircraft in later years.
By the time Project Rainbow had started to wind up at the end of 1957 it had already been superceded by Project Gusto. This was a programme to explore the construction of a new type which would replace the U-2. The CIA had concluded that there was time for one more manned spy plane before satellites took over the main intelligence gathering burden.
In 1958 the CIA examined design proposals from various sources. Lockheed submitted several proposals for a high speed aircraft with reduced radar cross section. Convair submitted a proposal for a Mach 4 capable parasite aircraft, again with reduced radar cross section. Boeing submitted a proposal for a liquid hydrogen powered inflatable aircraft (yes, that really is as bonkers mental as it sounds), and finally the US Navy submitted a proposal for a high speed aircraft which would be lifted to altitude by a balloon before launching. The Navy submission was very quickly eliminated when it was shown to require an unfeasibly large balloon, a mile across, to lift the aircraft to altitude.
The Lockheed and Convair proposals were selected for further development.
Convair proposed the First Invisible Super Hustler, or FISH. This was a parasite aircraft which would be launched from the proposed B-58B Super Hustler, a larger and faster version of the Convair B-58A Hustler supersonic bomber already in service. The FISH itself was a lifting body design powered by two ramjets. After launch at 35,000ft at Mach 2, FISH would accelerate to Mach 4 at 75,000ft and would reach 90,000ft as it burned off its fuel. To deal with the extreme heat created by the atmospheric friction of flight at Mach 4, its nose and wing leading edges were made of ceramic and the rest of the airframe would be made from a stainless steel honeycomb. After egressing from the target area FISH would descend and slow down, before deploying two small turbojet engines for landing.
The Lockheed designs were given the internal company codename “Archangel”, a nod towards the U-2’s original company codename “Angel”. The first Lockheed proposal submitted to the CIA was Archangel-2 (i.e. the second iteration of the design). This looked a bit like a scaled up F-104 Starfighter with two turbojet engines mounted in the fuselage and two ramjets mounted on the wings. It was to fly at 90,000-100,000ft at Mach 3.2.
These were the two most promising design submissions but the CIA still wasn’t too keen on either of them. They didn’t like Convair’s idea of a parasite aircraft, and when the B-58B was cancelled by the US Air Force this left them in a spot of bother. They abandoned FISH and developed a totally new design called Kingfish which would take off under it’s own power. It was a delta wing design which made extensive use of ceramic and non-metal materials such as fibreglass to reduce its radar cross section.
Meanwhile at Lockheed their design submission went through a number of changes and revisions, each numbered sequentially. Eventually the CIA indicated that it rather liked the look of Archangel-11 which had similar performance to Kingfish. However, Kingfish promised a smaller radar cross section than Archangel-11. Lockheed responded by altering Archangel-11 to include engines buried in the wings and replacing the single vertical tail surface with two smaller surfaces on the wings, canted inwards, as well as adding the distinctive chine to the nose and forward fuselage. This revision was called Archangel-12.
In late 1959 President Eisenhower was briefed on the programme and gave his approval for the CIA to select one aircraft to progress to full scale development. Kelly Johnson was of the opinion that Convair had overpromised with their design that that it would have neither the performance nor the low radar cross section they had promised. As the designer of the U-2 Johnson had the ear of the CIA. Speaking of whom, the CIA were also wary of Convair as their most recent military aircraft programme, the B-58 Hustler, was plagued by delays, big cost overruns and the aircraft had proven problematic in service. Thus, in January 1960 the CIA selected Lockheed’s Archangel-12 as the winner and would go on to full scale development. It was known within the CIA as Project Oxcart.
The Lockheed A-12 had arrived.
The A-12 was built in great secrecy at Lockheed’s Burbank plant, just north of Los Angeles. Given how highly classified this programme was Lockheed could hardly operate it from Burbank Airport in what was effectively a suburb of Los Angeles. The prototype with wings and engines removed was transported by road to the US Air Force’s remote Groom Lake test facility in the Nevada desert, more commonly known as Area 51. After being reassembled at Groom Lake the A-12 first took to the air for an unannounced and unofficial flight on 25th April 1962 flown by Lockheed test pilot Louis Shalk. The unofficial and unannounced test flight was a quirk of Johnson’s, something he had previously done with the U-2. The official first flight took place five days later on 30th April. On 4th May the A-12 went supersonic for the first time, achieving Mach 1.1 at 40,000ft. Even then, such was the extraordinary requirements and characteristics of the A-12 it took another five years of highly secret testing and development to produce the final product which entered operational service in 1967.
What was so special about the A-12?
It was designed to fly faster and higher than any aeroplane that had been built up to that point. It was also designed from the outset to have as small a radar cross section as possible, effectively it was the first stealth aircraft.
Today one of the surviving A-12 is displayed outside the US Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, California. The plate on the display gives the aircraft’s top speed as Mach 3.35. That’s a bit over 2,200 mph. However, even that number is very likely a low ball and it’s quite likely the A-12 could achieve at least Mach 3.5, or 2,300 mph. That’s over 38 miles per minute, four times faster than a typical airliner. Or if you prefer, over 3,300 feet per second, which is about 20% faster than a 7.62mm bullet leaves the muzzle of an SLR.
Like the A-12’s top speed, not many people know for sure, and they’re still not telling. At least 90,000 ft is a good figure to start with. That’s 17 miles high, or about three times higher than a typical airliner cruises at and over five miles higher than the altitude at which the blood in the human body will start to boil.
Now given this aeroplane first flew fifty seven years ago, I hope you can appreciate some bloody tremendous engineering went into it.
One final note though – to this day we still don’t know the names of the RAF crew which flew the Kapustin Yar mission, nor any of the other Soviet overflights by the RAF which are believed to have taken place in the same period. I think it’s high time their names were made public. They have almost certainly passed away by now but an official Government acknowledgement that the missions took place would at least allow their children and grandchildren to recognise and perhaps learn more of the skill and bravery which these men demonstrated in the service of their country.
In the next part we’ll take a closer look at the A-12 and the features which made it such a remarkable aircraft.
© Æthelberht 2019
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