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Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

Mach 3 mothership: Project Tagboard and the M-21/D-21

Following the loss of Powers’ U-2 and the US Government’s subsequent decision to discontinue manned overflights of China and the Soviet Union, on October 10, 1962 the Skunk Works received authorization to begin studies into the feasibility of producing a Mach 3+ unpiloted platform, or drone, for the CIA. Initial flight tests of the A-12 had given the design team working on the drone — designated Q-12 at this early stage — considerable confidence in the aerodynamic precedent set by the chined delta, and this configuration was applied to the vehicle as it took shape. Powered by a high-speed ramjet, experience about which Lockheed was able to draw upon from their involvement in the X-7 program, the engine was built by Marquardt and designated the XRJ43-MA20S-4. To provide the necessary propulsive power to start the ramjet, the drone would be launched at Mach 3.13 from a modified A-12. A Launch Control Officer (LCO) was located in what was formally the A-12’s Q Bay, reconfigured for the purpose. Two A-12s were modified for these duties: Articles 134 (60-6940) and 135 (60-6941). This mother — daughter combination gave rise to their redesignation as M-21 (Mother) and D-21 (Daughter-drone); the numerical designation was also transposed to avoid all confusion with the Oxcart A-12. The drones were considered “one-way aircraft,” meaning that they would make one flight only, after which the palletized unit containing the platform’s INS, together with the reconnaissance camera (built by Hycon) and its all-important film, would be ejected over safe international waters and recovered during the parachute descent by means of a Mid-Air Recovery System (MARS). The remainder of the drone would then self-destruct, using an explosive charge, and its remains would fall into a watery grave.

Kelly Johnson highlighted both the cost and dangers of launching the D-21 from the M-21 at Mach 3+ and, following a fatal collision between the pair on July 30, 1966, two modified B-52Hs were used. However, Project Senior Bowl was both expensive and unsuccessful; it was canceled as Project Corona, the US satellite program, became more reliable. (Lockheed Martin)

On August 12, 1964, D-21 number 501 was sent from Burbank to Area 51, where satisfactory static tests were subsequently concluded. On December 22, 1964, the first D-21/M-21 combination flight was successfully completed. Having surmounted a number of technical difficulties, the two-aircraft combination was flown out to Mach 2.6 in May 1965; however, it wasn’t until October 21 of the same year that the team were finally able to get the M-21 up to the required launch speed, this being achieved by installing the new 34,000lb-thrust J58 engines. Delays continued, but finally on March 3, 1966, the first D-21 launch was accomplished. The drone crashed into the Pacific 120 miles after vehicle separation, but at least the launch technique had been successfully demonstrated. The second flight took place on April 27 and was a brilliant success, the D-21 achieving a range of 1,200nm — holding course to within half a mile — a speed of Mach 3.3, and an altitude of 90,000ft. The drone finally fell from the sky after a hydraulic pump burned out. Significantly, at this point Johnson proposed substituting the M-21 mother-ship for a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, and utilizing a rocket to boost the drone up to ramjet speed and altitude.

Having successfully demonstrated the concept, a second order duly arrived on April 29 for 15 D-21s. Johnson formally proposed that SAC should launch the drone from a B-52H on the basis of “greater safety, lower cost and greater deployment range” — this proved prophetic.

M-21/D-21M-21 Article 135 (serial 60-6941) was destroyed during the fourth D-21 launch, when the drone collided with its mothership during the separation maneuver. Both crewmen ejected safely over the Pacific, but tragically LCO Ray Torick then drowned when his pressure suit filled with water.When President Eisenhower committed not to undertake further manned reconnaissance overflights of the Soviet Union, use of the M-21/D-21 mother/drone combination in Project Tagboard was seen as a possible way to obtain reconnaissance data yet remain true to the President’s pledge. (Lockheed Martin)

The third launch, on June 16, went well, with the drone clocking up 1,600nm and completing eight programed turns. However, disaster struck on July 30 when, during the course of the fourth flight, D-21 number 504 collided with M-21 Article 135 during the separation maneuver. At Mach 3.25 the M-21 pitched up, the aircraft’s forward forebody broke off and despite both crewmembers successfully ejecting, the LCO, Ray Torick, tragically drowned in the subsequent feet-wet landing after his pressure suit filled with water.

Following a meeting in Washington, DC on August 15, 1966, it was decided that Project Tagboard would be canceled. During the subsequent D-21 grounding that lasted a year, a new program codenamed Senior Bowl was initiated. Two B-52Hs belonging to the 4200th Test Wing at Beale AFB in California were converted to act as launch platforms. The D-21s (as earlier envisaged by Johnson) utilized a rocket booster like the X-7’s to blast the drone to speed and altitude before separating and falling into the ocean. However, like its predecessor, Tagboard, results of Senior Bowl were at best questionable and the program was eventually canceled on July 23, 1971, by which time satellites were proving to be far more reliable and cost-efficient.

Project Kedlock: the YF-12 interceptor

Spurred on by the earlier success of his A-12 design for the CIA, Kelly Johnson discussed the possibility of building a long-range interceptor version for the Air Force, during a meeting on March 16–17, 1960, with Gen Hal Estes of Air Force Systems Command and Dr Courtland Perkins, the Air Force Secretary for Research and Development. Referred to as the AF-12, the idea was keenly received and subsequently forwarded to Gen Martin Demler, at Wright-Patterson AFB, for further discussion and analysis. During late October 1960, Lockheed received a letter of intent for $1 million and was directed to “go forward with Plan 3A” and produce an interceptor version of the A-12 equipped with the Hughes ASG-18 Fire Control System (FCS) and the GAR-9 missile (both radar and missile systems had already been developed for the USAF North American F-108 Rapier, which had been subsequently canceled on September 23, 1959 due to escalating costs). The program was accorded the classified codename Kedlock, and the seventh A-12 was nominated to become the AF-12 prototype.

The modified A-12 accommodated a fire control system operator in a second cockpit, similar to the M-21. The forward fuselage chines were cut back to incorporate a radome that housed a 40in-diameter scanning dish, and four weapons bays were cut into the underside to house the FCS in the forward right bay and a GAR-9 missile in each of the other three bays. But by June, wind tunnel tests revealed that these modifications had resulted in directional stability problems. To alleviate these, two fixed ventral fins were installed on the underside of each engine nacelle. In addition, a large sideways-folding fin was mounted at the rear of the aircraft’s centerline. Retraction and extension of the folding fin worked out of phase with the cycling of the landing gear — as the gear retracted, the fin extended and vice versa.

Concurrent to activity on the AF-12, a two-seat bomber version of the A-12, referred to as the RB-12, was also being studied. A full-scale mock-up of the forward fuselage was built and then reviewed by Gen Curtis LeMay and Gen Thomas Power on July 5, 1961; but despite considerable interest, this program would prove to be stillborn.

In total, three AF-12s were constructed, with the maiden flight of the prototype being conducted by Lockheed test pilot Jim Eastham from Area 51 on August 7, 1963. To draw attention away from the covert CIA A-12 program, President Lyndon Johnson announced the existence of the “A-11” at Edwards AFB on February 29, 1963. The “A-11” title was a deliberate piece of deception engineered by Kelly Johnson; but with the AF-12 now assigned an official Air Force designation (YF-12A), this further compounded the confusion!

Test flights of the new interceptor from Edwards AFB continued with increased frequency and confidence and on April 16, 1964, the first missile — now designated AIM-47 — was ejected in flight. Between March 18, 1965 and September 21, 1966, the three YF-12As fired a total of seven AIM-47s. The final mission (G-20), flown in YF-12A 60-6936, successfully intercepted a QB-47 remotely piloted target drone whilst cruising at Mach 3.2 and an altitude of 74,000ft — the target drone was at sea level!

Aerospace Defense Command officials calculated that 96 F-12B production aircraft could replace its entire fleet of Convair F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart interceptors and provide protection for the entire United States against incoming Soviet high-speed, low-level bombers; but it wasn’t to be. Instead, political shenanigans and a long-simmering feud over the appropriation of defense funds between Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Air Force resulted in McNamara denying $90 million worth of funds that had been appropriated by Congress to begin F-12B production. These delaying tactics played out by McNamara eventually paid off and on January 5, 1968, the Skunk Works finally received official notification from the Air Force to close down the F-12B production line. To seal the fate of future Mach 3 aircraft production, Johnson received a letter from the Air Force dated February 5, 1968, instructing Lockheed to destroy the A-12/F-12 tooling, including that used in SR-71 production. In a later response the designer wrote, “We have proceeded to store such items as are required for producing spare parts at Norton. The large jigs have now been cut up for scrap and we are finishing the clean-up of the complete area. Ten years from now the country will be very sorry for taking this decision of stopping production on the whole Mach 3 series of aircraft in the USA.”

YF-12A records

It is probably no coincidence that the date chosen to demonstrate some of the YF-12A’s awesome capabilities was May 1, 1965 — five years to the day since Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 during a U-2 overflight. It should also be noted that as impressive as the figures below are, they are not demonstrations of the airplane’s absolute capabilities. For example, on November 20, 1965, an A-12 attained speeds in excess of Mach 3.2 and a sustained altitude capability above 90,000ft. During the first operational deployment of a CIA A-12, from Area 51 to Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa, pilot Mele Vojvodich covered the distance in Article 131 (60-6937) in just six hours, six minutes; had it not been for security considerations, this could easily have been recognized as a new trans-Pacific speed record.

Note the cut-back chine of the YF-12A to accommodate a radome within which was located a 40in-diameter scanning dish for the AN/ASG-18 radar. The GAR-9 or AIM-47 radar-guided air-to-air missile sits on its trolley. The three AIM-47 mission marks below the cockpit indicate that this aircraft is Article 1003 (60-6936), it having participated in three missile firings. (Lockheed Martin)

On May 1, 1965, Article 1003 (60-6936), crewed by Col Robert L. “Fox” Stephens and Fire Control Officer (FCO) Lt Col Daniel Andre, simultaneously achieved an absolute altitude record of 80,257ft and an absolute speed over a straight course of 2,070.101mph. Lt Col Walter F. Daniel and FCO Maj James P. Cooney took 60-6936 to a speed of 1,688.889mph over a 500km closed course and the same crew got the 1,000km closed course record in 60-6936 at 1,643.041mph.


The final variation of the A-12 design was of course the legendary SR-71, but this will be covered in depth in a separate Air Vanguard volume.

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