A look into the design, development and operational history of the Central Intelligence Agency’s A-12, Lockheed’s high-speed reconnaissance plane better known in its USAF SR-71 Blackbird variant. The designation A-12 refers to Archangel 12, the twelfth and final major iteration of the original Archangel design which sought to fulfill ambitious performance and stealth requirements – a cruise speed of over Mach 3 (thrice the speed of sound), an operational range of 3,200 miles (>5000 km) and a maximum operating altitude of 90,000 feet (~27,500 metres).
The first test flight took place in 26 April 1962, two years before President Lyndon B. Johnson officially announced the existence of the OXCART program which funded the development of the A-12 as photographic reconnaissance platform through overflights of hostile territory (specifically the Soviet Union). In May 1967, the A-12 flew its first operational mission from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to collect reconnaissance over North Vietnam. While successful, the A-12s would be taken out of service one year later after completing a total of 29 missions.
A marvel of engineering that was technologically way ahead of its time, the development of the A-12 led to the research and manufacture of special materials and fuels for the construction and operation of the plane that could withstand the intense heat generated from Mach 3+ flights. The pilots even wore fully-pressurized astronaut-style flight suits that came with their own oxygen supplies. (below)
An interesting offshoot of the A-12 program was the development of a YF-12A variant under project KEDLOCK to intercept Soviet supersonic bombers before they could approach the continental United States close enough to deploy their payload. On a similiar note, the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau of the then Soviet Union did design and develop the MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ to counter the same threat in the form of the experimental American supersonic XB-70 Valkyrie bomber. The Foxbat was successfully deployed for service while the XB-70 and YF-12A were not, both projects being scrapped in 1961 and 1968 respectively.
The other more well-known variant was of course, the above-mentioned SR-71 which served the USAF until 1999. The A-12 was decommissioned from service mainly due to the cost of operating both the A-12s and SR-71s concurrently with the SR-71 eventually being chosen over the A-12 for carrying a wider variety of sensors and intelligence gethering devices.
Read more about the fascinating story of the A-12 at the CIA site.
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