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Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

Sir Sydney Camm, the renowned British aerospace design engineer, once remarked, “All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics.” In this particular instance, he was referring to the British-built BAC TSR-2; but this fourth, political, dimension exerted an almost exponential influence throughout the development and operational life of Lockheed’s aviation icon.

Built by Lockheed to replace their earlier, high-flying, subsonic, reconnaissance-gathering U-2, the A-12 and its stablemate, the SR-71, catapulted high performance into a different orbit. They remain the fastest and highest-flying jet-propelled operational aircraft ever, cruising in afterburner at the designed speed of Mach 3.2 (that’s 1.8 miles per second) and at altitudes in excess of 16 miles. However, the political sensitivity surrounding the “Black World” strategic reconnaissance mission caused US President Dwight Eisenhower to insist that such vital covert business should be conducted by an aircraft not only immune from interception, but also blind to hostile radar detection. This necessitated the development of a range of radar “camouflaging” techniques that today we have all come to know as “stealth.” But when CIA U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) whilst in the middle of a deep-penetration reconnaissance sortie of the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, politics came to the fore and the fallout would have a profound impact on all such future US aviation programs.

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DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT


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