A former Air Force Pilot Trainee explains the story of the A-12: During the most intense years of the Cold War, the CIA relied on the U-2 Dragon Lady to provide aerial reconnaissance. But the U-2, despite being able to fly at altitudes of 70,000 feet, was slow, and as Soviet air defense systems improved, became increasingly vulnerable (as Gary Powers demonstrated). The CIA wanted a replacement and formed a committee, Project Gusto, to consider alternative spy planes.
Two proposals were submitted. The first was the Convair Kingfish. The second was the Lockheed A-12. While the Kingfish featured a delta-wing and the A-12 was somewhat spear-shaped, both airframes were built for high-speed, high-flying recon over the USSR and Cuba.
The A-12 and the Kingfish
The Kingfish had a smaller radar-cross section (RCS) than the A-12. Yet, the CIA favored the A-12’s specifications – and Lockheed’s reputation for efficiency and secrecy. Convair, on the other hand, had botched the delivery of their B-58 Hustler, which had been slow and over-budget. The CIA selected the A-12 and the program proceeded under total secrecy, a “black” project.
The A-12 “Oxcart” is best remembered as the predecessor of the SR-71 Blackbird. The Oxcart, which went into production while Kennedy was still in office, had specifications that were decades ahead of its contemporary airframes – and specifications even more advanced than the A-12’s successor, the celebrated Blackbird.
The A-12 Was Kept a Secret
Just over one hundred feet long, the A-12 could reach blistering speeds in excess of Mach 3, while climbing to a service ceiling of 85,000 feet. The A-12 could climb at 11,800 feet per minute. The futuristic jet, operated surreptitiously out of Area 51, was one of the military-industrial complex’s most closely guarded secrets. The efforts the U.S. government was willing to apply to keep the A-12 program a secret were demonstrated in 1963 when an A-12 crashed.
In May of 1963, in an incident reminiscent of a scene from the new Top Gun film, test pilot Kenneth Collins, flying from Area 51, crashed his A-12 near Wendover, Utah. After ejecting, Collins emerged from the desert (ala Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff). A truck driver picked Collins up, driving him to a nearby highway patrol office. Collins was able to avoid too much suspicion, in part because he had been conducting low-altitude flight tests, and was just wearing a standard flight suit. Had Collins been conducting the high-altitude tests that the A-12 was capable of, he would have been decked out in a legitimate space suit – which would have been harder to dismiss in rural Utah.
Collins called Area 51 from the police station and the CIA moved in to “damage control.” Local farmers, discouraged from visiting the crash site, were told that the downed aircraft had been carrying atomic weapons. A cop and a family, who were passing by and saw too much were given $25,000 each. Hush money.
In news articles and official records, the downed aircraft was referred to as a more generic F-105 Thunderchief, rather than the ultra-secret A-12. Bulldozers made an effort to scrape all evidence of the crash site from the desert. And underscoring the paranoia surrounding the program, Collins himself was hypnotized and injected with “truth serum” before being interrogated to confirm he had been fully honest about the crash. The comprehensive cover-up scheme was effective; the U.S. public wouldn’t learn of the A-12 Oxcart program for another three decades.
Collin’s mishap wouldn’t be the last A-12 crash. Of the fifteen A-12s built, six were lost to accidents. Granted, the A-12 was pushing the envelope of aircraft performance, traveling three times the speed of sound, changing human understanding of what an aircraft could do – but still, that’s a terrible safety record.
Although the A-12 was designed to surveil the USSR and Cuba, the supersonic spy plane never saw action against either communist nation. Rather, the A-12 saw limited action against North Vietnam and North Korea. The program was terminated in 1966, to make way for the more well-known SR-71 Blackbird. The SR-71 was in many respects a watered-down version of the A-12; the SR-71 was heavier, slower, and lower-flying than its predecessor. Still, the SR-71 was a remarkable machine that remained in service until the late 90s.
Today, the U.S. operates just one high-flying surveillance aircraft – the U-2 Dragon Lady, the plane the A-12 was meant to replace sixty years ago, remains in service.
SR-71 Spy Plane Photo Essay
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.