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Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

Lockheed A-12: The CIAs Blackbird and other variants

Since the May 1, 1960 U-2 shoot-down, successive US Presidents continued Eisenhower’s pledge not to sanction manned overflights of the Soviet Union. The loss of Maj Rudy Anderson’s U-2 to an SA-2 over Cuba both highlighted the aircraft’s vulnerability and vindicated the decision to build a replacement, but still the question remained: where could Oxcart, this highly sophisticated, multi-million-dollar program, be deployed?

One possible mission arose in 1964, when KH-4 Corona satellite imagery obtained what some analysts believed was an antiballistic missile site, located at Tallinn in Estonia. The Office of Special Activities (OSA) proposed that a composite mission should be flown consisting of a camera-equipped Oxcart, and a U-2 configured for gathering ELINT. The highly classified proposal had the classified cryptonym Project Upwind. The plan was to fly the A-12, with air refueling support, from the United States to the Baltic Sea, where it would rendezvous with the U-2. The Oxcart would then fly down the Baltic Sea, skirting the coasts of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and East Germany before heading back west to the United States. The 11,000-mile flight would take eight hours, 40 minutes to complete and require four air refuelings. Remaining outside Soviet airspace, it was hoped that the high-speed, high-altitude target would provoke Soviet radar operators into activating the Tallinn system. The A-12 would secure high-resolution imagery of the Tallinn site whilst the more vulnerable U-2 would be standing off, beyond SA-2 range, recording the radar’s signal characteristics. Both Agency and Defense Department officials supported the proposal; however, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was strongly opposed and the influential 303 Committee never forwarded the proposal to President Johnson for his approval.

Another possible area of operations for Oxcart was Cuba. By early 1964, Project Headquarters had already begun planning for possible “contingency overflights” under a program codenamed Skylark. Four of the 13 A-12s then at Area 51 were initially designated as primary Skylark aircraft, namely Articles 125, 127, 128, and 132, and they were later joined by Articles 129 and 131 following the installation of further modifications.

A meeting on September 15, 1964 between Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and DCI John McCone, discussed the limitations of satellite coverage of Cuba in the context of monitoring assurances made by the Soviet Union following the 1962 missile crisis not to redeploy nuclear missiles on the island. The discussion also covered the vulnerability of the U-2 to undertake such missions in the light of past events and the very real SAM threat. It was agreed that Oxcart overflights would be less vulnerable than the U-2, but not entirely invulnerable. McNamara believed that one flight every 30 days would provide enough coverage of the island to fulfill the United States Intelligence Board requirements; but others in attendance disagreed, particularly on the number of sorties required, given a study of the history of weather over Cuba. The parties adjourned, agreeing that the subject should receive further study that should include Oxcart vulnerability under the Skylark program and a substantive judgment as to the number of flights required from November 1964 to November 1965 in order to accomplish acceptable coverage of the island with usable photography.

When deployed to Kadena AB on the island of Okinawa during Black Shield, the three Oxcarts wore an all-black paint scheme with no national insignia and a dark red, bogus serial number applied to the tail. Article 125 (60-6928) was not one of the three aircraft deployed on operations as it had crashed, with the loss of its pilot, Walt Ray, on January 5, 1967. (Lockheed Martin)Mele Vojvodich, pictured in his David Clark S-901 full pressure suit, was the first to deploy an Oxcart to Kadena AB and also the first to fly an operational mission — BX001 on May 31, 1967. (CIA)

To bring the A-12s up to the necessary standard required to participate in the envisaged missions, a two-point plan was developed, and both Phase I and Phase II were to begin simultaneously on March 1, 1965. Phase I focused on increasing the aircraft’s speed envelope out from Mach 2.9 to Mach 3.05; Phase II concentrated on providing Oxcart with the capability to undertake three air refuelings during the course of a mission and an element, codenamed Supermarket, related to improvements in the A-12’s ECM system. As an interim, on August 5, 1965, the Director of the National Security Agency, Gen Marshall S. Carter, directed that Skylark was to achieve emergency operational readiness by November 5. Should security considerations dictate, any contingency sorties would have to be executed below the optimum capability of the A-12 — nearer to Mach 2.8. In order to meet this tight timeframe, the Oxcarts would have to deploy without their full ECM suite; but despite all the difficulties, a limited Skylark capability was ready on the prescribed date. In the event, these Cuban contingencies were never implemented: on September 15, 1966, the 303 Committee voted not to commit Oxcart to Cuban reconnaissance missions, on the basis that it could disturb the prevailing political calm. Instead, a more critical situation developing in Southeast Asia took priority.

Black Shield

On March 22, 1965, Brig Gen Jack Ledford, Director of the CIA’s Office of Special Activities, briefed Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance on Project Black Shield — the planned deployment of Oxcart to Okinawa, in response to the increased SA-2 threat facing U-2s and Firebee drone reconnaissance vehicles. Secretary Vance was willing to make $3.7 million available to provide support facilities at Kadena AB, which were to be ready by the fall of 1965. On June 3, 1965, Secretary of Defense McNamara consulted with the Under Secretary of the Air Force on the build-up of SA-2 missile sites around Hanoi and the possibility of substituting A-12s for the vulnerable U-2s on recce flights over the North Vietnamese capital. He was informed that Black Shield could operate over Vietnam as soon as adequate aircraft performance was validated.

On November 20, 1965, Bill Park completed the final stage of Project Silver Javelin, the Oxcart validation process, with a maximum-endurance flight of six hours and 20 minutes, during which time he demonstrated sustained speeds above Mach 3.2 at altitudes approaching 90,000ft. Four A-12s were selected for Black Shield operations, Kelly Johnson taking personal responsibility for ensuring that the aircraft were completely “squawk-free.” On December 2, 1965, the highly secretive 303 Committee received a formal proposal to deploy Oxcart operations to the Far East. The proposal was quickly rejected, but the Committee agreed that all steps should be taken to develop a quick-reaction capability for deploying the A-12 reconnaissance system within a 21-day period anytime after January 1, 1966.

A rearward-facing cine camera was mounted behind the cockpit of the three Black Shield Oxcarts, the idea being to film SA-2 attacks, although it isn’t known if any footage was ever captured during at least three of the known incidents. In this picture the aircraft is seen at speed and altitude — note the position of the fully retracted spike to produce the maximum inlet capture area. (Roadrunners Internationale)

Throughout 1966, numerous requests were made to the 303 Committee to implement the Black Shield Operations Order, but all requests were turned down. A difference of opinion had arisen between two important governmental factions that advised the Committee: the CIA, the Joint Services Committee, and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board favored the deployment; but Alexis Johnson of the State Department, Robert McNamara and Cyrus Vance of the Defense Department opposed it.

Whilst the political wrangling continued, mission plans and tactics were prepared to ready the operational “package” for deployment should the Black Shield plan be executed. Deployment timing was further cut from 21 to 11 days, and the Okinawa-based maintenance facility was stocked with support equipment. To further underwrite the A-12’s capability to carry out long-range reconnaissance missions, Bill Park completed another nonstop sortie, this time of 10,200 miles in just over six hours on December 21, 1966. But misfortune struck the program again on January 5, 1967, when, due to a faulty fuel gauge, Article 125 was lost some 70 miles short of Area 51. The CIA pilot Walt Ray ejected safely, but tragically was unable to gain seat-separation and was killed on impact with the ground.

In May 1967, the National Security Council was briefed that North Vietnam was about to receive surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Such a serious escalation of the conflict would certainly require hard evidence to substantiate such a claim; consequently President Johnson was briefed on the threat. DCI Richard Helms again proposed that the 303 Committee authorize deployment of Oxcart, as it was ideally equipped to carry out such a surveillance task on the grounds of having both superior speed and altitude to U-2s and pilotless drones, as well as a better camera. President Johnson approved the plan and in mid-May an airlift was begun to establish Black Shield at Kadena AB.

At 0800hrs on May 22, 1967, Mele Vojvodich departed from Area 51 in Article 131 and headed west across California for his first refueling. Having topped-off, he accelerated to high Mach toward the next Air Refueling Control Point near Hawaii. A third rendezvous took place near Wake Island to ensure that he had enough reserve fuel to divert from an intended landing at Kadena AB to either Kunsan AB in South Korea or Clark AFB in the Philippines, should the weather over Okinawa deteriorate. When Vojvodich arrived at Kadena AB, however, the weather was fine and he let down for a successful landing after an uneventful flight of just over six hours’ duration.

Two days later, Jack Layton set out to repeat Vojvodich’s flight in Article 127 (60-6930); and Jack Weeks followed in Article 129 (60-6932) on May 26. However, due to INS and radio problems, Weeks was forced to divert into Wake Island. An Oxcart maintenance team arrived in a KC-135 from Okinawa the following day to prepare Article 129 for the final “hop” to Kadena AB. After completing the journey, Weeks’ aircraft was soon declared fit for operational service along with Articles 127 and 131. As a result, the Detachment was declared ready for operations on May 29 and, following a weather reconnaissance flight the day after, it was determined that conditions over North Vietnam were ideal for an A-12 photo-run.

Project Headquarters in Washington, DC then placed Black Shield on alert for its first ever operational mission. Avionics specialists checked various systems and sensors, and at 1600hrs Mele Vojvodich and back-up pilot Jack Layton attended a mission alert briefing that included such details as the projected take-off and landing times, routes to and from the target area, and a full intelligence briefing of the area to be overflown. At 2200hrs (12 hours before planned take-off time) a review of the weather confirmed the mission was still on, so the pilots went to bed to ensure they got a full eight hours of “crew rest.”

They awoke on the morning of the 31st to torrential rain, but the two pilots ate breakfast and proceeded to prepare for the mission. Despite local meteorological conditions, the weather over “the collection area” was good, so at 0800hrs Kadena received a final clearance from Washington, DC that Black Shield flight BX001 was definitely “on.” Following brief medical checks, the two pilots donned their S-901 full pressure suits and began breathing 100 percent pure oxygen to purge their bodies of potentially harmful nitrogen. By taxi-time, the rain was falling so heavily that a staff car had to lead Vojvodich’s aircraft from the hangar to the end of the main runway. After lining up for what would be the first instrument-guided take-off, on cue both afterburners were engaged and Article 131 accelerated rapidly down the runway to disappear completely into the rain and then upward, through the drenching clouds.

The only pictures to have emerged to date of Oxcart’s participation in Black Shield are these two grainy images taken from 8mm black and white cine film shot, ironically, by the CIA’s station head of security. (Roadrunners Internationale)

A few minutes later, Article 131 burst through cloud and climbed to 25,000ft to top-off its tanks from the waiting KC-135Q tanker. Once disengaged from the tanker’s boom, Vojvodich accelerated and climbed to operational speed and altitude having informed Kadena (“home-plate”) that the aircraft systems were running as per the book and the backup services of Jack Layton would not be required. Vojvodich penetrated hostile airspace at Mach 3.2 and 80,000ft during a so-called “front door” entry over Haiphong, then continued over Hanoi before exiting North Vietnam near Dien Bien Phu. A second air refueling took place over Thailand, followed by another climb to speed and altitude, and a second penetration of North Vietnamese airspace made near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), after which Vojvodich recovered the aircraft back at Kadena after three instrument approaches in driving rain. The flight had lasted three hours and 40 minutes and, during an interview with this author, the pilot claimed that several SA-2s were fired at the aircraft but all detonated above and well behind the target. (This remains a matter of controversy to this day, for when the CIA’s program manager for Oxcart, John Parangosky, wrote his classified paper about the project under the pseudonym Thomas P. McIninch, shortly after its termination, he asserted that no hostile action was taken against any of the first seven missions.) Notwithstanding, upon safe arrival back at the “barn” the film from the Type I camera was removed and flown by special courier aircraft to the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester, New York, for processing. The processed imagery was then sent to Photo Interpreters at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), located within the Washington Navy Yard, who then prepared the Initial Photographic Intelligence Report (IPIR). The results were astounding: in all, Article 131’s camera had successfully photographed ten priority target categories including 70 of the 190 known SAM sites.

Frame 761, analysed at NPIC, was taken during mission BX6706 on 30 June 1967, by Jack Weeks flying Article 129 at 82,000ft. The area surveillance capability of the Type I camera is readily apparent, as is its resolution, enabling two helicopters to be both located and identified as large cargo-hauling Mil Mi-22 Hooks. (CIA via David Robarge)

Jack Layton’s first operational flight had to be aborted. All had gone well until he entered Deep Work, the refueling track just southwest of Okinawa, and plugged into the tanker’s refueling boom. The boom operator’s first remarks as the A-12’s fuel tanks began to fill were, “You don’t want to go supersonic with this aircraft, Sir.” The puzzled A-12 pilot enquired why, there being no cockpit indications that supported such a remark and the aircraft seemed to be handling well. “I don’t think you’ll want to go fast, Sir,” the boom operator insisted, “because the left side of your aircraft is missing.” After further consultation with the boom operator and other tanker crewmembers who went aft to view the unusual sight, Jack decided that prudence should dictate that he abort his first important mission — however reluctantly. As he turned back to Kadena, an F-102 interceptor was scrambled from Naha AB, Okinawa, to serve as escort back to “home-plate” in the event of controllability problems. As the Delta Dagger drew alongside the crippled Oxcart, the F-102 pilot reported that the A-12 had lost practically all of its left chine panels from nose to tail. In addition, large panels on the top of the wing (which also covered the top side of the wheel well) had also disappeared, allowing the chase pilot to see right through part of the aircraft’s left wing. As some of these panels had broken loose, at least one had impacted the top of the left rudder, causing even more damage.

This series of shots were all taken during mission BX6847 over North Korea and aptly demonstrate the amazing capabilities of the Type I camera — the very essence of what the A-12’s mission was designed to generate. From 80,000ft, a film frame measuring 27in×6in captured a ground swath 72 miles wide. At nadir Hwangju Air Base was filmed; Photo Interpreters could then enlarge areas of interest many times to take a detailed look — in this instance, MiG-17s on the apron of the main runway. An SA-2 battery was filmed also close to nadir where together the camera and film produce a resolution of 1ft. Then, nearly 30 miles to one side of the Oxcart’s track with a ground resolution of 2–3ft, is Yongbyon, North Korea’s nuclear plant. (National Archives via Talent-Keyhole.com)

As the two aircraft descended below 20,000ft, they dipped into clouds and the A-12’s cockpit fogged-up so badly that Jack was unable to see his hand in front of his face, let alone read his flight instruments. He quickly called for the F-102 pilot to report the A-12’s attitude, since he was becoming very concerned that it might depart its flight envelope by stalling or diving. Relieved that he had remained within normal flight parameters, Jack managed to climb back out of the clouds. By turning the cockpit temperature control to full-hot, he managed to eliminate the humidity that had caused the fogging, but the hotter-than-normal cockpit soon became extremely uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he was able to safely recover back at Kadena without further incident.

During the first three months of Black Shield operations, nine missions were successfully completed. However, according to Parangosky, mission BX6705 flown by Jack Layton in Article 127 on June 20, 1967 was the first occasion that an Oxcart was successfully tracked on enemy radar. Bearing in mind all the time and vast expense that had been invested in reducing the aircraft’s RCS, this must have caused considerable consternation both back at CIA headquarters and within the Skunk Works.


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