This will be the third and final installment in the Oxcart series. In the first part we looked at the early airborne reconnaissance missions of the Cold War and the requirements which led to the creation of the A-12. In the second part we took a closer look at the aircraft itself and the extraordinary engineering that went into creating a spy plane which could maintain speeds of over Mach 3 at an altitude of 90,000ft. This part we’ll cover the A-12 in service as well as the derivative aircraft which were developed from it.
First of all I need to make a couple of corrections. I actually completed the second part of the series some months ago but lost it when the memory stick I was storing it on became corrupted. Thus, the second part as published was written largely from memory and some errors crept in:
- The A-12 didn’t first fly with the J79 engine as I wrote. It first flew with the J75 engine, which was the military designation for the Pratt & Whitney JT4A turbojet used on the Lockheed U-2, Republic F-105 Thunderchief, Convair F-106 Delta Dart and the later variants of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 airliners. You’ll remember this was until the delayed J58 engine was ready for the A-12.
- Lockheed developed ultrasonic welding not for the A-12 canopy, but for the quartz window for the spy camera. This was an especially challenging aspect as the window had to have zero optical distortion whilst subjected to the heat of flying at speeds over Mach 3. It took nearly five years and over $3 million (that’s $25m in 2019 Dollars) to develop. Lockheed pioneered ultrasonic welding as a way to fix this window to the aircraft’s fuselage.
The first thing I need to tell you is officially at least, the A-12 never flew over the Soviet Union. At the end of this article I will indulge in some juicy speculation about that. For now at least the official line is after Gary Powers’ U-2 shootdown over Sverdlovsk in 1960 the political leadership in the US deemed it simply too risky to continue flying manned spy planes over the Soviet Union. Thus it was in 1964, whilst the aircraft was still under development and testing/validation the CIA began to look at possible places it could use the A-12.
At the time Cuba was a place of great interest to the Americans. U-2 overflights were keeping an eye on things following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. There was some concern that it was only a matter of time before the Soviets gave the Cubans surface to air missiles (SAM) which would threaten the U-2. The CIA began Project Skylark which would provide a contingency plan to fly the A-12 over Cuba should U-2 operations become untenable. The order to prepare for Skylark was given on 5th August 1964. The timeline was incredibly tight, the aircraft were to be at operational readiness by 5th November. In mitigation, the aircraft were only expected to operate at Mach 2.8 and 80,000ft, and a small number of aircraft and pilots at that. At this stage the aircraft’s camera performance had yet to be validated and only one of the aircraft’s several defensive electronic countermeasures systems was projected to be ready by November. After discussion it was agreed it would be possible to conduct the first overflights without a full electronic countermeasure suite, but they would be required for subsequent overflights of Cuba. The mission profiles would have to be developed, as would the procedures to deconflict with the US Air Force’s air defence operations and the Federal Aviation Administration’s civilian air traffic control. Five aircraft and five pilots were to be made available for Skylark. All of this had to be achieved without delaying or impeding the larger Oxcart development and testing programme.
Skylark’s requirements were met, and on time. However, it was never put into operation. The enhanced SAM threat never materialised and it was deemed the U-2 was able to operate safely over Cuba. The A-12 would be reserved for other potentially more critical targets.
In March 1965 it became apparent U-2 operations over the People’s Republic of China were coming under increasing threat from improving capabilities of Soviet supplied SAMs. The CIA instigated Project Black Shield to deploy the A-12 to Kadena airbase on Okinawa in order to fly spy flights over China. The plan initially called for three aircraft to be deployed to Kadena twice per year for a sixty day period. Once these operations were established the plan called for Black Shield operations to ramp up to a permanent deployment of A-12s at Kadena. The funds were allocated to build the necessary A-12 support facilities at Kadena and it was planned for the first aircraft to be deployed in the autumn of 1965.
Three months after Black Shield preparations began reports came back from North Vietnam that the communists were deploying Soviet sourced SAMs around Hanoi, and that these represented a major threat to U-2 operations there. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara asked about the feasibility of using the A-12 over North Vietnam. The CIA response was Black Shield could be expanded to include operations over Vietnam.
Back in the United States the A-12 was well on the way to completing it’s testing and just about all the major systems had demonstrated the required level of capability. The aircraft did have ongoing electrical problems which were blamed for various failures of systems in flight. The electrical problems were traced back to wiring faults. The heat problem was rearing its ugly head again; the wiring and connectors had to withstand tremendous temperatures at the aircraft’s operational speed. Perhaps more concerning evidence of shoddy workmanship during aircraft maintenance was found too. Lockheed were responsible for providing all the maintenance so this problem rested firmly at their feet. The solution was for the A-12’s chief designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson to relocate from the Lockheed plant at Burbank to the operational base at Groom Lake where he took direct management of operations on-site. Johnson soon whipped things into shape and the quality of maintenance improved and aircraft reliability along with it.
By 20th November 1965 Oxcart was ready to provide four aircraft for Black Shield. These aircraft had demonstrated a capability of achieving Mach 3.29 at 90,000ft and a sustained flight time above Mach 3.20 of 74 minutes as well as a maximum flight time duration of six hours and twenty minutes. On 22nd November “Kelly” Johnson reported to Brigadier General Jack Ledford, Director of the Office of Special Activities:
“… Over-all, my considered opinion is that the aircraft can be successfully deployed for the BLACK SHIELD mission with what I would consider to be at least as low a degree of risk as in the early U-2 deployment days. Actually, considering our performance level of more than four times the U-2 speed and three miles more operating altitude, it is probably much less risky than our first U-2 deployments. I think the time has come when the bird should leave its nest. “
Ten days later the 303 Committee (a joint military-civilian committee which oversaw all covert operations) received a proposal to deploy the A-12 to Kadena and begin Black Shield operations. The committee did not approve. Over the next year multiple requests were made to begin Black Shield operations and every request was turned down. Opinion was split among the committee members. The members representing the CIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board were in favour of beginning Black Shield. The members representing the State Department and Defence Department opposed it on the grounds that the intelligence Black Shield would gather wasn’t worth the risk of exposing the Oxcart capability to the world. A direct appeal to President Johnson was made in 1966 but he ruled that the decision of the 303 Committee be upheld.
The 303 Committee did however direct that Oxcart be made ready to deploy three aircraft to Kadena and commence operations with twenty one day’s notice. Throughout 1966 the personnel of Oxcart trained, prepared and refined their plans to the point where they could deploy aircraft to Kadena and fly the first operational sortie with just eleven day’s notice, and be at full operational tempo fifteen days after being given the order.
Just before Christmas 1966 an A-12 set an unofficial record when it flew 10,198 statute miles in a criss-cross pattern over the Continental United States in six hours. The record was unofficial because remember the A-12 was still a black programme and thus the record could not be officially recognised.
In May 1967 intelligence was received indicating North Vietnam might be preparing to deploy surface to surface missiles. Activating Black Shield was once again proposed to the 303 Committee, but whilst they were deliberating the matter was raised directly with President Johnson and he gave personal approval for Black Shield to begin on 16th May. The following day the airlift operation for personnel and equipment to Kadena began. The three aircraft deployed to Kadena on the 22nd, 24th and 26th May respectively. The third aircraft had to divert to Wake Island after a malfunction of its navigation system and arrived at Kadena the following day. On 29th May Black Shield was ready to fly its first mission having deployed three aircraft and 260 personnel thirteen days after the order had been received.
The first Black Shield sortie was flown on 31st May when an aircraft photographed all 190 known surface to air missiles sites in North Vietnam plus a further nine priority targets. No radar tracking signals were intercepted by the A-12 indicating the mission had gone totally unnoticed by the North Vietnamese and Chinese. Over the next ten weeks a further seven sorties were flown over North Vietnam. Four of these were tracked on radar but no attempt to shoot them down was made. It was determined there were no surface to surface missiles deployed in North Vietnam.
During the period a typical Black Shield sortie would involve aerial refueling over the sea south of Okinawa shortly after take off. At it’s operational speed the A-12 would spend only 12.5 minutes over North Vietnam if it were making just one pass for photos, or 21.5 minutes if the mission profile called for two photographic passes. On some missions the A-12’s turning radius of over eighty miles meant it would enter Chinese airspace. Aerial refueling on egress would be in the vicinity of Thailand before returning to Kadena. On the early Black Shield sorties the camera film would be removed and taken straight to an Eastman Kodak plant in New York for developing. Later on a local facility on Okinawa was built for this purpose and the photographs from Black Shield sorties could be in the hands of American commanders in Vietnam within twenty four hours of them being taken.
Between mid-August and the end of December 1967 a further fifteen Black Shield sorties were flown. On 17th September a North Vietnamese SAM site tracked the A-12 on its radar but was unable to track the aircraft with its missile guidance radar. On 28th October the A-12 was fired on for the first time, but the missile did not achieve an intercept. The A-12 returned with photos of the missile being launched from the SAM site. On 30th October whilst on its second pass over the target no less than six missiles were fired at an A-12. The pilot observed three missile detonations. Upon returning to Kadena a small fragment of one of the missiles was found to have lodged itself in the lower starboard wing.
In the first three months of 1968 a further six sorties were flown, two of which were over North Korea. The Chinese tracked the aircraft on the first North Korean sortie but no missiles were fired. The State Department were very reluctant for the second mission to take place. This was not long after the USS Pueblo incident and the Secretary of State Dean Rusk feared the diplomatic implications should an A-12 be downed over North Korea. He was reassured that the A-12 would only be over North Korea for less than seven minutes and was allowed to alter the mission routing himself. Between April and June 1968 just one more Black Shield sortie was conducted, and that was over North Korea. This was to be the A-12’s last operational sortie.
In 1964 the North American XB-70 Valkyrie took to the air. This was a Mach 3 capable strategic bomber. Whilst it was under flight testing the US Air Force intended to build a strategic reconnaissance version called the RS-70. However, with the advent of the A-12 it became clear this would be a superior reconnaissance platform to the RS-70. Thus, the US Air Force ordered its own version of the A-12, initially dubbed the R-12. The US Air Force was also studying a bomber variant developed from the A-12 which it dubbed B-71. In time, the R-12 was re-designated SR-71, the famous “Blackbird”.
So how did the Blackbird differ from the A-12? Blackbird had an approximately six foot longer fuselage which could house more fuel for increased range, it could carry signals intelligence gathering equipment and a sideways looking airborne radar (a device which can take a high resolution radar “photo”) in addition to a traditional camera. It also had an additional cockpit for a two man crew and a re-profiled chine. However, this all made the Blackbird heavier and impacted performance. The Blackbird would only reach 88,000ft and Mach 3.2 versus the A-12’s 90,000ft and Mach 3.3. The Blackbird first flew in 1964, two years after the A-12 and it entered service in 1966, roughly a year after the A-12 achieved operational capability. It should be noted that the parallel development of the Blackbird lowered the cost of the A-12 development, and provided something of a cover for the CIA’s even more secret aircraft.
The existence of the Blackbird however, was the very thing which brought an early end to the A-12. As early as 1966 moves were afoot among bean counters to cut costs. Various options were explored such as retiring the A-12 and having the mission taken over by the SR-71, placing the SR-71 in storage and giving the A-12 to the US Air Force, or having the CIA and US Air Force share the SR-71. These were resisted by the CIA who pointed out the A-12’s superiority as a photographic platform, and being a civilian asset was far less conspicuous and easier to operate in a covert manner. They were unsuccessful and just after Christmas 1966 the order came from the White House that the A-12 was to be retired in favour of the SR-71. The schedule was set and the SR-71 was to be ready to assume Skylark duties by July 1967, and Black Shield duties by the end of the year.
As you’ve just read though, things didn’t turn out that way. With the activation of Black Shield in May 1967 the A-12 was given the opportunity to demonstrate its capabilities. It did so with aplomb. Voices were raised in concern at the wisdom of phasing out what was now a successful and proven intelligence gathering platform. The A-12 retirement was put on hold for around a year. In the spring of 1968 the future of the A-12 was back on the agenda again. The initial options on the table were:
- Transfer the A-12s to the US Air Force.
- Transfer the A-12s to the US Air Force and store eight SR-71.
- Move the A-12 fleet to Beale Air Force Base (home of the SR-71) but keep the A-12 under CIA management.
- Continue to operate the A-12 from Groom Lake under CIA management.
The CIA obviously lobbied for the last option, but once again 16th May 1968 it was decided to retire the A-12 and place the aircraft into storage. SR-71s had already begun to arrive at Kadena in March 1968 and were in the process of taking over Black Shield duties from the A-12. The A-12s were all returned to the US and placed in storage by the end of June 1968.
The A-12 spawned another couple of variants we haven’t talked about yet. The final two A-12s to be built, known as “Article 134” and “Article 135” were part of the Lockheed D-21 programme. The D-21 was a Mach 3+ unmanned drone which was to be launched from the back of a specially modified A-12 known as M-21. The M-21 had a second cockpit fitted for a Launch Control Operator. After launch the D-21 would fly along a pre-programmed path and take photographs of the target. It would egress and recover to non-hostile safe airspace, where it would eject it’s camera film which would be recovered in mid-air by a C-130 Hercules. After ejecting its camera film the D-21 would self destruct. During testing in 1966 a D-21 collided with the launch aircraft (Article 135) over the Pacific Ocean somewhere in the vicinity of Midway Island. Both crew members ejected from the stricken M-21 but the LCO drowned after his flight suit filled with water when he landed in the sea. The M-21 programme was cancelled and the B-52 Stratofortress was modified as the new launch platform. The D-21 went on to have a short career consisting of four unsuccessful flights over China before it was cancelled in 1971.
Finally there was the YF-12. Back in the mid-50s the US Air Force wanted a long range very high performance interceptor for shooting down Soviet bombers approaching the US. A design submission from North American called the XF-108 Rapier was selected for development. The Rapier was to be a Mach 3 capable interceptor which would replace the F-102 and F-106 interceptors then in service, and would counter the fleets of supersonic bombers the Soviets were expected to develop. The Rapier was cancelled in 1959 after it became clear the Soviets were focusing on the development of ballistic missiles and not supersonic bombers.
During the early development of the A-12 Kelly Johnson proposed to develop a fighter interceptor version for the US Air Force which would provide a much cheaper alternative to the Rapier. The US Air Force took him up on the offer, and the seventh, eighth and ninth aircraft to come off the A-12 production line were designated YF-12A. This variant added a second cockpit for a weapons systems operator, the chine around the nose was cut back and the Hughes AN/ASG-18 radar (originally developed for the XF-108 Rapier) was installed in the nose and the mission equipment bays of the original A-12 were modified to carry the AIM-47 Falcon missile. In 1965 the US Air Force placed an order for 93 production F-12. The YF-12 wasn’t a “black programme” and so could be revealed to the public. The YF-12 development aircraft went on to set speed and altitude records which were later broken by the SR-71. The F-12 programme was cancelled in 1968 after an assessment of the Soviet threat concluded the aircraft wasn’t needed (and the Vietnam war was gobbling up a lot of the defence budget). The YF-12A development aircraft went on to be flown by NASA as research aircraft.
In fact, there are some who believe the YF-12 was never seriously intended to go into service and served two purposes; it was a very convenient cover for the A-12, and President Johnson was coming under a lot of criticism from his political opponents that he was allowing the US to fall behind the Soviets in terms of military technology, so showing the YF-12 was a smart way of silencing the critics.
The SR-71 continued in service until 1989 when it was retired. A major justification given for its retirement was it lacked a datalink to transmit real time intelligence back to analysts. The U-2 was given such a datalink and astonishingly remains in service to this very day. At the time many critics believed the retirement of the SR-71 was orchestrated by factions within the US Air Force who wanted to pilfer its budget for their own projects. In what was perhaps a tacit admission of the mistake to retire the SR-71 in 1989, three aircraft were reactivated in 1993 to support intelligence gathering operations in the Middle East and North Korea. These aircraft were retired again, finally, in 1998. Again critics say this came after intense lobbying by UAV manufacturers who wanted to sell their products to the US Air Force. The U-2 is supposed to be replaced by the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, but it would appear all is not well with the Global Hawk and it may be inferior even to the U-2 as an airborne intelligence gathering platform.
All told, Lockheed built thirteen A-12, two M-21, three YF-12A and thirty two SR-71.
Four A-12 were lost in accidents killing two pilots. One M-21 was lost in an accident killing the Launch Control Operator. One YF-12A was lost in an accident. Twelve SR-71 were lost in accidents and one pilot died.
That, ladies and gentlemen is the story of the Lockheed A-12.
The nine surviving A-12 are all on display at various locations in the United States. If you want to see one in the United Kingdom the closest you’re going to get is the SR-71 Blackbird displayed at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.
Finally, I want to indulge in some idle speculation and conspiracy mongering. The A-12 was ready to start operations in 1965. The Soviets didn’t deploy a missile which could on paper at least even hope to intercept the A-12 until 1967; the S-200 (NATO reporting name SA-5 Gammon). That leaves a two year gap where the A-12 could potentially have operated over the Soviet Union with impunity. Are we really expected to believe the CIA sat on its hands and didn’t use the A-12 for the target it was designed to spy on? Remember the CIA had intended to use foreign pilots for the U-2. Pilots selected for the A-12 programme had to be immensely competent and have extensive experience operating the very fastest fighters of the day. Most of them came from the US Air Force’s F-104 Starfighter cadre. What possible foreign candidates could there have been in the early to mid 1960s? There was one fighter which had an even higher performance than the Starfighter, and was flown by immensely competent pilots. It was the English Electric Lightning and it was flown by the cream of the RAF’s fighter pilots. In the early 60s only already very experienced fighter pilots were selected for the Lightning. Thus, I submit RAF Lightning pilots would have been excellent candidates if the CIA were looking for foreign pilots to fly the A-12. Now remember the collaborations between the British and Americans in airborne intelligence gathering I told you about in the first article.
I find it a very intriguing and very real possibility the A-12 did fly over the Soviet Union in 1965-67 and was flown by RAF pilots. You can start by looking for any Lightning pilots who suddenly resigned their commission in the early to mid 1960s and disappeared for a couple of years.
© Æthelberht 2019
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