While the Cold War contributed to the misery of many people globally, it most certainly encouraged innovation in the military industry including aviation and spying equipment. Lockheed’s A-12 was one of the spying aircraft built for the CIA beat the new Soviet air defense systems.
The Skunk Works division of Lockheed designed and manufactured this aircraft that could exceed the speed of Mach 3 and fly higher than 85,000 feet. Its radar cross-section was so small that its picture could hardly be captured by Soviet radars.
The aircraft possessed the most cutting-edge spying technology, with cameras that could capture clear images of the enemy’s equipment. The A-12 played a critical role in helping the CIA and American troops during the war in Vietnam and other countries in that region.
The development of the A-12 began within Lockheed preceding any request from the US government or its agencies. Lockheed attempted to develop an aircraft superior to its previously produced spying aircraft.
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At the same time, the CIA wanted to improve the Lockheed U2 spying aircraft through a blacklisted project codenamed Project Rainbow. The main target was to reduce the radar cross-section of the U2, however, their efforts fell short of achieving the target.
Following their unsuccessful attempt, the CIA initiated Project Oxcart which intended to develop the aircraft that would succeed and substitute the U2. Lockheed was already in the process of developing U2’s successor and had named its designs the “Archangels”.
As the number of the design versions increased they were shortened to the letter “A” followed by the number of the design. Eventually, the A-11 design proposal would make it to the review board challenged by Convair’s “Kingfish” proposal. CIA favored Convair’s “Kingfish” design due to its smaller radar cross-section, which was one of the reasons they sought to replace the U2 aircraft.
This triggered Lockheed to submit the final design proposal, which replaced a single fin, with two canned fins and used non-metallic elements in some parts of the plan.
This largely reduced the radar cross-section. These major changes in their design along with the previous experience the CIA had working with Lockheed, convinced the CIA to award the contract to Lockheed over Convair.
In addition, in the past, Lockheed had delivered the U2 to the CIA without delay and under the projected price, while Convair’s B-58 was characterized by delays and increased costs in production.
The process of designing and manufacturing an aircraft with unique capabilities required an innovative approach from Lockheed. They assigned this task to their Skunk Works, which specialized in innovation.
Skunk Works began working on the speed requirements of the project, favoring the use of titanium for most parts of the aircraft, due to its lightweight and resistance to the heat generated by friction with the air.
However, using titanium posed several challenges for Lockheed and the CIA. Titanium was rare in the US and the US reserves would not suffice for the development and later manufacturing of A-12s, so the CIA had to fool its way into Soviet Union’s titanium reserves through Third World countries.
On the other hand, Skunk Works had to redesign the whole manufacturing process and use tools to deal with the delicate nature of shaping the titanium into the required frame.
In addition to using titanium, the Skunk Works engineers would develop a composite material of silicon laminate, iron ferrite, and asbestos that absorbed radar and significantly reduced the aircraft’s radar cross-section.
Initially, the aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J75 engines which, provided a thrust of 17,000 lbf (76 kN) each and enabled the A-12 to reach a speed of Mach 2. However, as the development of the new engine was in process, only 5 units of the aircraft received the J75.
After the development of the Pratt & Whitney J58, Skunk Works would experiment with the new engine by equipping the A-12 with at least one J58 engine, which eventually replaced the previous power plant. The new engine provided the aircraft with 20,500 lbf (91 kN) thrust dry, and 32,500 lbf (145 kN) with afterburner, enabling it to reach Mach 3.2.
Following the production of the first unit (prototype), in April 1962, the A-12 was sent to Nevada’s Groom Lake test facility, famously known as Area 51, for flight testing.
There this spying plane completed its first flight on 30 April 1962 flown by Louis Schalk. This flight was succeeded by many other flights, including the 24 May 1963 flight, when one of the A-12s (codenamed Article 123) crashed in Utah.
Due to the covert nature of the whole project, the pilot was wearing a standard flying suit and the whole incident was reported as an F-105 Thunderchief crash. The CIA took measures to mitigate the risk of uncovering the truth about the incident.
Three more aircraft would be lost during the testing phase. The last crash occurred in 1967 and resulted in the death of the pilot Walter Ray.
In all four crashes, the pilots managed to eject from their aircraft, however, CIA pilot Ray, was unable to detach from his seat when he landed, resulting in his death. The crashes did not point to a single problem with the aircraft but were attributed to different causes including maintenance errors.
All the A-12s were delivered to the Groom Lake and completed 2,850 test flights. The program was concluded with the production of thirteen spying planes, one of which was the “Titanium Goose”, designated as a trainer aircraft and had a unique 2-seat design (the additional seat was elevated for the instructor).
An addition of three YF-12As prototypes were built for the US Air Force as interceptor aircraft and two M-21s recce drone carriers.
A-12 Operational History
The A-12 was produced to succeed the U2 in high-altitude reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union, however, its operational history consists mainly of Vietnam War missions. CIA did not want to risk this new spying aircraft in missions over the Soviet Union after Gary Powers was captured when his U2 aircraft crashed over the Soviet Union.
On another part of the globe, this aircraft was not considered essential in Cuba since U2s continued their reconnaissance missions there. That is why the A-12’s first engagement was in the Vietnam War.
Three A-12s arrived in Okinawa, Japan in late May 1967 and were immediately ordered to prepare for Operation Black Shield. In 1967, they would conduct 22 sorties, capturing images of the surface-to-air missile locations of the North Vietnamese Forces.
However, the advances in Soviet radars and air defense assets became a concern for the CIA. In numerous photos captured by the A-12, clouds of vapor could be seen from the SAM launching locations, indicating that surface-to-air missiles were launched against this aircraft.
The CIA pilot Dennis Sullivan in a mission over North Vietnam, in October 1967, detected that he was being tracked by radar, fortunately, no missiles were fired. On his second pass over the same area, 6 missiles were fired, which fell short of reaching its spying aircraft, however, one missile detonated as close as 100 to 200 meters from the aircraft.
A piece of the detonated missile was later found in the wing of the plane. The A-12 electronic countermeasure systems were praised for their effectiveness in such situations.
This incident was taken very seriously by the CIA, which was also aware that in the same year, the Soviet Union had developed an improved surface-to-air missile “SA-5 – Gammon” for faster aircraft such as B-70.
This missile presented a higher threat for the A-12 in comparison to SA-2 missiles. These new threats and the development of SR-71 led to the plane getting withdrawn from Operation Black Shield. Its final flight occurred on March 1968, with a flight over North Vietnam and the Demilitarized Zone.
A-12 would also fly over North Korea in three missions in 1968. These missions came as a necessity to gather image intelligence after the capture of a U.S Navy spy ship from North Korea.
The discovery of the location of the U.S. Navy’s “Pueblo”, which hosted 83 crewmen, was a priority for the U.S government. On its first mission over North Korea it was discovered and security measures were taken by the Koreans to secure the ship.
The aircraft was constantly under the surveillance of the North Korean radar, but no missiles were fired. In the second mission, they identified (photographed) over 150 targets in North Korea.
To put the seal on the retirement of the A-12, on June 1968, a CIA pilot Jack Weeks, crashed the plane over the Pacific Ocean during a functional check flight.
The CIA did not want to risk losing its pilots or place them in a similar situation to Francis Gary Powers. That is why two and a half weeks after the Week’s A-12 crash, the aircraft made its final flight to Palmdale, California.
The aircraft’s initial mission of providing image intelligence over the Soviet Union’s territory was being completed by photoreconnaissance satellites.
The A-12s would be stored in Palmdale, California for 20 years, before being distributed to US museums. One of the aircraft which was preserved in Minnesota was sent to CIA headquarters in 2007. This triggered protests from the locals, however, the decision to move the aircraft was not dismissed.
Currently, out of 15 aircraft produced for the CIA (the three YF-21 were produced for USAF), only 9 have survived and are displayed in California (Palmdale, San Diego, and Los Angeles), New York (Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum), Alabama (Huntsville, Birmingham, and Mobile), Virginia (Langley) and Washington (Seattle).
- Crew: 1
- Capacity: 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) payload
- Length: 101 ft 7 in (30.96 m)
- Wingspan: 55 ft 7 in (16.94 m)
- Height: 18 ft 6 in (5.64 m)
- Max takeoff weight: 117,000 lb (53,070 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney JT11D-20B (J58-1) Afterburning turbojet, 20,500 lbf (91 kN) thrust each dry, 32,500 lbf (145 kN) with afterburner
- Maximum speed: Mach 3.35
- Range: 2,500 nmi (2,900 mi, 4,600 km)
- Service ceiling: 85,000 ft (26,000 m) or higher
- Rate of climb: 11,800 ft/min (60 m/s)