The SR-71 Blackbird

The M-21 Blackbirds

This M-21 is a unique variant of the A-12, the earliest Blackbird type. Built for a CIA program code-named "Tagboard," the M-21 carried unpiloted vehicles for intelligence gathering. These drones were intended for launch from the M-21 "mother ship" for flights over hostile territories. Design features of the M-21 include the second seat for the Launch Control Officer and the launch pylon on which the drone is mounted.

M-21 Blackbird #06941 / #135M

M-21 Blackbird #06941 / #135M

Location: Lost on July 30, 1966 near Midway Island
Author: Blackbird Historian  /  Categories: M-21, Lost  / 

On July 30, 1966, on the fourth and final launch from a Mother bird, D-21 #504 suffered an asymmetrical un-start and crashed back into the M-21.

The regrettable collision resulted in the death of one of the crewmembers. Ray Torick, the LCO, successfully ejected from the stricken aircraft and survived the mid-air collision, but as a result of injuries sustained during bailout, Torick was unable to get into his one-man life raft and drowned in the Pacific Ocean.

Park, the Lockheed Test Pilot at the controls of the M-21, survived and went on to become the Senior Test Pilot for Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works.

Rupard later recalled: “It was on the 30th of July that Torick was launching, and this was the first time that we’d ever had the other Mother bird, #134, up and flying chase. They had been trying to do this ever since the first launch. Art (Pete) Peterson and Beswick were in the chase M-21 airplane, Park and Torick were in the launch airplane, and they were flying in formation at Mach 3.3. They had just launched the D-21 when it rolled sharply to the left and fell down on the wing. Beswick was getting all of this on film. When the drone hit the Mother bird, it pitched the nose up and caused the nose to break off at the 715 splice. Torick and Park were in that part of it. The launch airplane went out of view in a hurry because the speed went from ultrasonic to zip in nothing flat. This was on a Saturday and Reed and I were at the command post. The next thing we knew, Peterson came up on frequency. They had a code word for launching the rescue forces and he initiated that code word.”

There was an investigation, of course; a very lengthy investigation. The Air Force was not sure if the program should be cancelled, but Johnson convinced them that that was the only way to go. As a result, the Blackbird program’s first fatality proved to be the death of Tagboard. If Tagboard had gone operational, the launch location would have been staged at the test site, Area 51. There had been some discussion to keep Peterson and Park as the pilots, and Reed and Rupard as the LCOs. That way, if anything happened, they could legitimately be described as an Air Force crew.

This crash prompted the end of the M-21/ D-21 program.

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