The A-12’s unique design and characteristics became the foundation for three other versions of supersonic aircraft that Lockheed built for CIA and the Air Force: the YF-12A, the M-21, and the SR-71.
Two major ironies run through the history of the A-12. One is that it was never used for it intended purpose of overflying the Soviet Union to collect strategic intelligence on Moscow’s nuclear weapons capabilities, and instead was deployed as a tactical collection platform in a conventional military conflict. The other is that just as the A‑12 was about to be declared operationally ready, US policymakers had decided to replace it with the Air Force’s OXCART reconnaissance variant, the SR-71.
Facing changed circumstances in relations with the Soviet Union and in US satellite development, US policymakers and intelligence officials had to come to grips with how best to use the A-12 as it neared completion. Its intended purpose, replacing the U-2 in overflights of the Soviet Union, had become less and less likely well before the A-12 was operational. Soviet air defenses had advanced to the point that even an aircraft flying faster than a rifle bullet at the edge of space could be tracked. In any event, President Kennedy had stated publicly that the United States would not resume such missions.
While the A-12 was being tested and refined, US officials mulled over two major issues concerning it. The first was whether to publicly disclose the OXCART program. The Department of Defense had grown concerned that it could not overtly explain all the money the Air Force was spending on its versions of the A-12. At the same time, some CIA and Pentagon officials recognized that crashes or sightings of test flights could compromise the project. With a turning radius of no less than 86 miles at full speed, the A-12 overflew a vast expanse of unrestricted territory. Soon after the first flights in April 1962, CIA and the Air Force changed the program’s cover story from involving an interceptor aircraft to a multipurpose satellite launch system.
Most test flights were short, averaging scarcely an hour. Through 1963, 573 flights had taken only 765 hours. More air time was not necessary for the earlier tests, and brief flights helped maintain security. Project and test pilots and systems engineers closely critiqued each flight, constantly reviewed data and procedures, and regularly made changes to the latter, in flight and during debriefings afterward.
Completion of the first A-12 was delayed several times because the performance specifications it had to meet put Johnson and the Skunk Works in uncharted territory. The aircraft, over 101 feet long and weighing up to 62 tons fully loaded, had to fly at Mach 3.2, or 2,150 miles per hour—as fast as a rifle bullet—at a mid-range altitude of 91,000 feet. The A-12 was expected to be over four times faster than the U-2 and go almost three miles higher.
Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson was a pathbreaking aeronautical engineer who worked for Lockheed Aircraft for over four decades. Born in Ishpeming, Michigan, on 27 February 1910, he graduated from the University of Michigan with an M.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1933 and joined Lockheed that same year.
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