Lockheed A-12

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An A-12 aircraft (serial number 06932)
Role High-altitude reconnaissance aircraft
Manufacturer Lockheed Corporation
First flight 26 April 1962
Introduction 1967
Retired 1968
Status Retired
Primary user Central Intelligence Agency
Number built A-12: 13; M-21: 2
Variants Lockheed YF-12
Developed into Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

The Lockheed A-12 was a reconnaissance aircraft built for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by Lockheed's famed Skunk Works, based on the designs of Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. The A-12 was produced from 1962 to 1964, and was in operation from 1963 until 1968. The single-seat design, which first flew in April 1962, was the precursor to both the twin-seat U.S. Air Force YF-12 prototype interceptor and the famous SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft's final mission was flown in May 1968, and the program and aircraft retired in June of that year. The A-12 program was officially revealed in the mid-1990s.[1]

Design and development[edit]

With the failure of the CIA's Project Rainbow to reduce the radar cross section of the U-2, preliminary work began inside Lockheed in late 1957 to develop a follow-on aircraft to overfly the Soviet Union. Under Project Gusto the designs were nicknamed "Archangel", after the U-2 program, which had been known as "Angel". As the aircraft designs evolved and configuration changes occurred, the internal Lockheed designation changed from Archangel-1 to Archangel-2, and so on. These nicknames for the evolving designs soon simply became known as "A-1", "A-2", etc.[2]

A-11 design (March 1959)

These designs had reached the A-11 stage when the program was reviewed. The A-11 was competing against a Convair proposal called Kingfish, of roughly similar performance. However, the Kingfish included a number of features that greatly reduced its radar cross section, which was seen as favorable to the board. Lockheed responded with a simple update of the A-11, adding twin canted fins instead of a single right-angle one, and adding a number of areas of non-metallic materials. This became the A-12 design. On 26 January 1960, the CIA ordered 12 A-12 aircraft.[3] After selection by the CIA, further design and production of the A-12 took place under the code-name Oxcart.

A-12 during radar testing at Area 51 – mounted inverted.

After development and production at the Skunk Works, in Burbank, California, the first A-12 was transferred to Groom Lake test facility.[4] On 25 April 1962 it was taken on its first (unofficial and unannounced) flight with Lockheed test pilot Louis Schalk at the controls.[5] The first official flight later took place on 30 April and subsequent supersonic flight on 4 May 1962, reaching speeds of Mach 1.1 at 40,000 feet.[6]

The first five A-12s, in 1962, were initially flown with Pratt & Whitney J75 engines capable of 17,000 lbf (76 kN) thrust each, enabling the J75-equipped A-12s to obtain speeds of approximately Mach 2.0. On 5 October 1962, with the newly developed J58 engines, an A-12 flew with one J75 engine, and one J58 engine. By early 1963, the A-12 was flying with J58 engines, and during 1963 these J58-equipped A-12s obtained speeds of Mach 3.2.[7] Also, in 1963, the program experienced its first loss when, on 24 May, "Article 123"[8] piloted by Kenneth S. Collins crashed near Wendover, Utah.[9]

The reaction to the crash illustrated the secrecy and importance of the project. The CIA called the aircraft a Republic F-105 Thunderchief as a cover story;[10] local law enforcement and a passing family were warned with "dire consequences" to keep quiet about the crash.[8] Each was also paid $25,000 in cash to do so; the project often used such cash payments to avoid outside inquiries into its operations.[8] The project received ample funding; contracted security guards were paid $1,000 monthly with free housing on base, and chefs from Las Vegas were available 24 hours a day for steak, Maine lobster, or other requests.[8]

In June 1964, the last A-12 was delivered to Groom Lake,[11] from where the fleet made a total of 2,850 test flights.[10] A total of 18 aircraft were built through the program's production run. Of these, 13 were A-12s, three were prototype YF-12A interceptors for the U.S. Air Force (not funded under the OXCART program), and two were M-21 reconnaissance drone carriers. One of the 13 A-12s was a dedicated trainer aircraft with a second seat, located behind the pilot and raised to permit the Instructor Pilot to see forward. The A-12 trainer "Titanium Goose", retained the J75 powerplants for its entire service life.[12]

Operational history[edit]

A-12 pilots and managers: (L to R) Ronald J. “Jack” Layton, Dennis B. Sullivan, Mele Vojvodich Jr, Barrett, Jack W. Weeks, Kenneth B. Collins, Ray, Brig Gen Ledford, Skliar, Perkins, Holbury, Kelly, and squadron commander Col Slater

Although originally designed to succeed the U-2 in overflights over the Soviet Union and Cuba, the A-12 was never used for either role. After a U-2 was shot down in May 1960, the Soviet Union was considered too dangerous to overfly except in an emergency (and overflights were no longer necessary[13] due to reconnaissance satellites) and, although crews trained for the role of flying over Cuba, U-2s continued to be adequate there.[14]

The Director of the CIA decided to deploy some A-12s to Asia. The first A-12 arrived at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa on 22 May 1967. With the arrival of two more aircraft on 24 May, and 27 May this unit was declared to be operational on 30 May, and it began Operation Black Shield on 31 May.[15] Mel Vojvodich flew the first Black Shield operation, over North Vietnam, photographing surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, flying at 80,000 ft (24,000 m), and at about Mach 3.1. During 1967 from the Kadena Air Base, the A-12s carried out 22 sorties in support of the War in Vietnam. Then during 1968, Black Shield conducted operations in Vietnam and it also carried out sorties during the Pueblo Crisis with North Korea.[citation needed]


A-12s in storage
Head-on view of an A-12 on the deck of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, illustrating the chines

The A-12 program was ended on 28 December 1966[16] — even before Black Shield began in 1967 — due to budget concerns[17] and because of the forthcoming twin-seat SR-71 that began to arrive at Kadena during March 1968.

Ronald L. Layton flew the 29th and final A-12 mission on 8 May 1968, over North Korea. On 4 June 1968, just 2½ weeks before the retirement of the entire A-12 fleet, an A-12 out of Kadena, piloted by Jack Weeks, was lost over the Pacific Ocean near the Philippines while conducting a functional check flight after the replacement of one of its engines.[17][18] Frank Murray made the final A-12 flight on 21 June 1968, to Palmdale, California storage facility.[19]

On 26 June 1968, Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor, the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, presented the CIA Intelligence Star for valor to Weeks' widow and pilots Collins, Layton, Murray, Vojvodich, and Dennis B. Sullivan for participation in Black Shield.[17][20][21]

The deployed A-12s and the eight non-deployed aircraft were placed in storage at Palmdale. All surviving aircraft remained there for nearly 20 years before being sent to museums around the United States. On 20 January 2007, despite protests by Minnesota's legislature and volunteers who had maintained it in display condition, the A-12 preserved in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was dismantled to ship to CIA Headquarters to be displayed there.[22]


Louis Schalk takes off from Groom Lake, 1962.

The following timeline describes the overlap of the development and operation of the A-12, and the evolution of its successor, the SR-71.

  • 16 August 1956: Following Soviet protest of U-2 overflights, Richard M. Bissell, Jr. conducts the first meeting on reducing the radar cross section of the U-2. This evolves into Project Rainbow.
  • December 1957: Lockheed begins designing subsonic stealthy aircraft under what will become Project Gusto.
  • 24 December 1957: First J-58 engine run.
  • 21 April 1958: Kelly Johnson makes first notes on a Mach 3 aircraft, initially called the U-3, but eventually evolving into Archangel I.
  • November 1958: The Land panel provisionally selects Convair Fish (B-58-launched parasite) over Lockheed's A-3.
  • June 1959: The Land panel provisionally selects Lockheed A-11 over Convair Fish. Both companies instructed to re-design their aircraft.
  • 14 September 1959: CIA awards antiradar study, aerodynamic structural tests, and engineering designs, selecting Lockheed's A-12 over rival Convair's Kingfish. Project Oxcart established.
  • 26 January 1960: CIA orders 12 A-12 aircraft.
  • 1 May 1960: Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 over the Soviet Union.
  • 26 April 1962: First flight of A-12 with Lockheed test pilot Louis Schalk at Groom Lake.
  • 13 June 1962: SR-71 mock-up reviewed by USAF.
  • 30 July 1962: J58 engine completes pre-flight testing.
  • October 1962: A-12s first flown with J58 engines
  • 28 December 1962: Lockheed signs contract to build six SR-71 aircraft.
  • January 1963: A-12 fleet operating with J58 engines
  • 24 May 1963: Loss of first A-12 (#60–6926)
  • 20 July 1963: First mach 3 flight
  • 7 August 1963: First flight of the YF-12A with Lockheed test pilot James Eastham at Groom Lake.
  • June 1964: Last production A-12 delivered to Groom Lake.
  • 25 July 1964: President Johnson makes public announcement of SR-71.
  • 29 October 1964: SR-71 prototype (#61-7950) delivered to Palmdale.
  • 22 December 1964: First flight of the SR-71 with Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland at AF Plant #42. First mated flight of the MD-21 with Lockheed test pilot Bill Park at Groom Lake.
  • 28 December 1966: Decision to terminate A-12 program by June 1968.
  • 31 May 1967: A-12s conduct Black Shield operations out of Kadena
  • 3 November 1967: A-12 and SR-71 conduct a reconnaissance fly-off. Results were questionable.
  • 26 January 1968: North Korea A-12 overflight by Jack Weeks photo-locates the captured USS Pueblo in Changjahwan Bay harbor.[23]
  • 5 February 1968: Lockheed ordered to destroy A-12, YF-12 and SR-71 tooling.
  • 8 March 1968: First SR-71A (#61-7978) arrives at Kadena AB to replace A-12s.
  • 21 March 1968: First SR-71 (#61-7976) operational mission flown from Kadena AB over Vietnam.
  • 8 May 1968: Jack Layton flies last operational A-12 sortie, over North Korea.
  • 5 June 1968: Loss of last A-12 (#60–6932)
  • 21 June 1968: Final A-12 flight to Palmdale, California.

For the continuation of the Oxcart timeline, covering the duration of operational life for the SR-71, see SR-71 timeline.


Training variant[edit]

The only two-seat trainer A-12 built was nicknamed "Titanium Goose". It is on display at the California Science Center.

The A-12 training variant (60-692 "Titanium Goose") was a two-seat model with two cockpits in tandem with the rear cockpit raised and slightly offset. In case of emergency, the trainer was designed to allow the flight instructor to take control.[citation needed]


The YF-12 program was a limited production variant of the A-12. Lockheed convinced the U.S. Air Force that an aircraft based on the A-12 would provide a less costly alternative to the recently canceled North American Aviation XF-108, since much of the design and development work on the YF-12 had already been done and paid for. Thus, in 1960 the Air Force agreed to take the seventh through ninth slots on the A-12 production line and have them completed in the YF-12A interceptor configuration.[24]


M-21 carrying D-21 in flight

The M-21 variant carried and launched the Lockheed D-21, an unmanned, faster and higher-flying reconnaissance drone. The M-21 had a pylon on its back for mounting the drone and a second cockpit for a Launch Control Operator/Officer (LCO) in the place of the A-12's Q bay.[25] The D-21 was autonomous; after launch, it would fly over the target, travel to a predetermined rendezvous point, eject its data package, and self-destruct. A C-130 Hercules would catch the package in midair.[26]

The M-21 program was canceled in 1966 after a drone collided with the mother ship at launch. The crew ejected safely, but the LCO drowned when he landed in the ocean and his flight suit filled with water.[27] The D-21 lived on in the form of a B-model launched from a pylon under the wing of the B-52 bomber. The D-21B performed operational missions over China from 1969 to 1971.[28]

A-12 aircraft production and disposition[edit]

List of A-12s
Serial number Model Location or fate
60-6924 A-12 Air Force Flight Test Center Museum Annex, Blackbird Airpark, at Plant 42, Palmdale, California. 606924 was the first A-12 to fly.
60-6925 A-12 Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, parked on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, New York City
60-6926 A-12 Lost, 24 May 1963
60-6927 A-12 California Science Center in Los Angeles, California (Two-canopied trainer model, "Titanium Goose")
60-6928 A-12 Lost, 5 January 1967
60-6929 A-12 Lost, 28 December 1967
60-6930 A-12 U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama
60-6931 A-12 CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia[N 1]
60-6932 A-12 Lost, 4 June 1968
60-6933 A-12 San Diego Aerospace Museum, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
60-6937 A-12 Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham, Alabama
60-6938 A-12 Battleship Memorial Park (USS Alabama), Mobile, Alabama
60-6939 A-12 Lost, 9 July 1964
60-6940 M-21 Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington
60-6941 M-21 Lost, 30 July 1966

Specifications (A-12)[edit]

Data from A-12 Utility Flight Manual,[29] Pace[30]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 1 (2 for trainer variant)
  • Length: 101.6 ft (30.97 m)
  • Wingspan: 55.62 ft (16.95 m)
  • Height: 18.45 ft (5.62 m)
  • Wing area: 1,795 ft² (170 m²)
  • Empty weight: 54,600 lb (24,800 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 124,600 lb (56,500 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney J58-1 afterburning turbojets, 32,500 lbf (144 kN) each
  • Payload: 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) of reconnaissance sensors


See also[edit]

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists



  1. ^ "Article 128", unveiled on Wednesday, 19 September 2007, at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. On hand was Ken Collins, a retired Air Force Colonel, one of only six pilots to fly the A-12s.


  1. ^ Mclninch 1996, title page.
  2. ^ "The U-2's Intended Successor: Project Oxcart 1956–1968". Central Intelligence Agency, approved for release by the CIA in October 1994. Retrieved: 26 January 2007.
  3. ^ Robarge 2008, p. 6.
  4. ^ Jacobsen 2011, p. 51.
  5. ^ Robarge 2008, p. 16.
  6. ^ Robarge 2008, p. 17.
  7. ^ Landis and Jenkins 2005, pp. 16–17.
  8. ^ a b c d Lacitis, Erik. "Area 51 vets break silence: Sorry, but no space aliens or UFOs." The Seattle Times, 27 March 2010.
  9. ^ Robarge 2008, p. 22, 23.
  10. ^ a b Jacobsen, Annie. "The Road to Area 51." Los Angeles Times, 5 April 2009.
  11. ^ "SR-71 Blackbird." Lockheed Martin. Retrieved: 13 October 2010.
  12. ^ Landis and Jenkins 2005, p. 16.
  13. ^ McIninch 1996, p. 19.
  14. ^ McIninch 1996, p. 20.
  15. ^ McIninch 1996, pp. 25–27.
  16. ^ McIninch 1996, p. 31.
  17. ^ a b c Robarge, David. "A Futile Fight for Survival. Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft." U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Center for the Study of Intelligence, CSI Publications, 27 June 2007. Retrieved: 13 April 2009.
  18. ^ McIninch 1996, p. 33.
  19. ^ Robarge 2008, p. 42.
  20. ^ McIninch 1996, p. 34.
  21. ^ Hayden, General Michael V. "General Hayden's Remarks at A-12 Presentation Ceremony." Central Intelligence Agency, Remarks of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the A-12 Presentation Ceremony, 19 September 2007. Retrieved: 10 April 2009.
  22. ^ Karp, Jonathan. "Stealthy Maneuver: The CIA Captures An A-12 Blackbird". The Wall Street Journal, A1, 26 January 2007. Retrieved: 10 April 2009.
  23. ^ Jacobsen 2011, p. 273.
  24. ^ Landis and Jenkins 2005, pp. 40–41.
  25. ^ Landis and Jenkins 2005, pp. 22–24.
  26. ^ Donald 2003, pp. 154–155.
  27. ^ "MD-21 crash footage." YouTube. Retrieved: 13 October 2010.
  28. ^ Donald 2003, pp. 155–156.
  29. ^ "A-12 Utility Flight Manual (Copy 15, Version 15 September 1968)." CIA, 15 June 1968. Retrieved: 5 April 2010.
  30. ^ Pace 2004, pp. 105, 110.


  • Donald, David, ed. "Lockheed's Blackbirds: A-12, YF-12 and SR-71". Black Jets. Norwalk, Connecticut: AIRtime, 2003. ISBN 1-880588-67-6.
  • Jacobsen, Annie. Area 51. London: Orion Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4091-4113-6.
  • Jenkins, Dennis R. Lockheed Secret Projects: Inside the Skunk Works. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI Publishing Company, 2001. ISBN 978-0-7603-0914-8.
  • Landis, Tony R. and Dennis R. Jenkins. Lockheed Blackbirds. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Specialty Press, revised edition, 2005. ISBN 1-58007-086-8.
  • McIninch, Thomas. "The Oxcart Story." Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 2 July 1996. Retrieved: 10 April 2009.
  • Pace, Steve. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Swindon, UK: The Crowood Press, 2004. ISBN 1-86126-697-9.
  • Robarge, David. Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2008. ISBN 1-92966-716-7.

Additional sources[edit]

  • Graham, Richard H. SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI Publishing Company, 1996. ISBN 978-0-7603-0122-7.
  • Johnson, C.L. Kelly: More Than My Share of it All. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1985. ISBN 0-87474-491-1.
  • Lovick, Edward, Jr. Radar Man: A Personal History of Stealth. Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4502-4802-0.
  • Merlin, Peter W. From Archangel to Senior Crown: Design and Development of the Blackbird (Library of Flight Series). Reston, Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), 2008. ISBN 978-1-56347-933-5.
  • Pedlow, Gregory W. and Donald E. Welzenbach. The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954–1974. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1992. ISBN 0-7881-8326-5.
  • Rich, Ben R. and Leo Janos. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My years at Lockheed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994. ISBN 0-316-7433.
  • Shul, Brian and Sheila Kathleen O'Grady. Sled Driver: Flying the World's Fastest Jet. Marysville, California: Gallery One, 1994. ISBN 0-929823-08-7.
  • Suhler, Paul A. From RAINBOW to GUSTO: Stealth and the Design of the Lockheed Blackbird (Library of Flight Series). Reston, Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), 2009. ISBN 978-1-60086-712-5.

External links[edit]