Sure, the A-12 Oxcart might not get the press the SR-71 does or even the mythical SR-72 or SR-91. And yet, its place in aviation history is quite secure: You’ve heard of the SR-71 Blackbird, but did you know there was another spy plane that was faster than the Blackbird named the A-12 Oxcart?
Yes, it was an unusual name. The Central Intelligence Agency gave it the code name Oxcart and it stuck. This might have been the CIA’s attempt at irony because the A-12 was no obstinate beast of burden like an ox. This thing was an incredible feat of engineering.
What Was the A-12 Oxcart?
Piloting the MACH 3 Oxcart that could fly 3,000 miles on its original supply of fuel and rise up to 90,000 feet, was no simple job. Pilots had to first work for the CIA and wear spacesuits with a cooling system due to the outrageous temperatures the Oxcart produced – 500 degrees Fahrenheit in the cockpit.
The airplane was long and skinny – resembling the SR-71, but smaller. Two huge engines provided the high speeds. The wings were swept back but not wide and the nose pointed outward prominently.
The CIA wanted detailed recon photos and lots of them. To accomplish this mission, the Oxcart needed to be able to evade air defense systems and spoof enemy radar with the best electronic countermeasures of the era. Lockheed Martin-built 15 A-12s and they did yeoman’s work during the Vietnam War.
A-12 Oxcart, the Early Days
Production of the Oxcart began in 1959 after the CIA determined it wanted a better spy plane than the U-2. The U-2 began flight in 1956 and the CIA was worried early on. Initial missions of the U-2 were being tracked by the Soviets. The CIA needed an improved airplane. Their fears were justified when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers got shot down over Sverdlovsk, Russia on May 1, 1960.
The CIA, at the direction of spy chief Richard Bissell, began developing an airplane that could fly faster and higher than anything in the American fleet. Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics set out to build what the CIA wanted. The decision for the new program went to the top of the food chain. President Eisenhower was informed after the CIA held a blue-ribbon panel on the Oxcart and the commander-in-chief decided to fund the new spy plane program.
Lockheed Martin Would Get the Contract
Lockheed Martin won the bid over General Dynamics in 1959. According to Air Force Magazine that re-published an original de-classified CIA report from 1971, “the CIA authorized Lockheed to proceed with antiradar studies, aerodynamic structural tests, and engineering designs.”
Almost Everything Was New
The main hurdle was the engine that could pump out MACH 3 speeds. Pratt & Whitney gave it a go and delivered the J58 engine. Next was producing a camera, flight controls, and navigation systems. The camera alone required three years to perfect. Next was the cockpit, perfecting the lubricating oil, and designing special fuel tanks. The bird was going to need titanium that could stand ultra-high heat of 550 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the titanium was so hard to work with, regular factory machinery was not going to cut it. Each Oxcart was built by hand from the ground up.
First Flight and Ensuing Accidents
Finally, in April 1962, the first Oxcart was delivered and the initial test flight lasted 59 minutes. But Lockheed had trouble with the engines which did not have the correct air inlets, and this caused unacceptable turbulence. There was also a crash in 1963 that had designers scratching their heads. A total of three airplanes would be lost to various problems during testing and two other accidents that killed two test pilots before the program was terminated in 1968.
The A-12 Oxcart Plowed Fertile Ground
But after much tinkering, with engineers working three shifts a day, the Oxcart was finally ready for the flights that would go MACH 3 and have the ceiling and range that the designers wanted. This was a tremendous achievement and would prove important in future spy plane development due to advances in everything from pilot survivability, secrecy, cameras, engines, aerodynamics, radar evasion, and working with titanium.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.
April 24, 2022 at 1:22 pm
The A-12 (Project Archangel,Oxcart) was only marginally faster than the SR-71, and had a bit greater ceiling, and primarily an over flight aircraft, unlike the SR-71.
One of the differences was the prior had higher resolution photographic capabilities, and the latter had horizontal view radar and photographics.
Which of the two variants was better?… still a highly debatable topic.
April 24, 2022 at 3:35 pm
With a cockpit temperature of 550 degrees the seat would have caught on fire and the dials would have melted along with other controls. Think that’s an error
April 24, 2022 at 8:32 pm
Great timing by 19Fortyfive. Tomorrow, Monday, April 25, is the 60 year anniversary of the A-12’s ‘unofficial first flight’. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson always had an unofficial first flight without all the dignitaries present and the A-12’s was on April 25th 1962 with Lockheed test pilot Louis Schalk at the controls.
It did not go well. From what I have read it was really only supposed to be a high speed taxi and the bird was not supposed to get airborne. But it did get airborne and when it did all hell broke loose. Schalk managed to keep it low, about 20 feet off the ground, and it gyrated wildly until he was able to get it back on the ground. Kelly Johnson said “It was horrible to watch.” Once back on the ground it disappeared in a cloud of dust on the dry lake bed at Area 51. Schalk slowed it down and turned it around and came back and Kelly Johnson is reported to have said, “What the hell Lou”. Except for Schalk’s excellent test pilot skills that might well have been the end of A-12 article 1.
Lockheed technicians discovered the cause and corrected it. The next day, April 26th, Schalk tried again and this time there were no control issues, but instead hundreds of the titanium plates covering the wings came off. Everyone of them had to be retrieved and glued back on the wings. This took several days but on April 30th 1962 the A-12 made its official first flight in front of CIA and Air Force dignitaries. On its second flight in early May it went supersonic.
For almost all of 1962 the A-12’s at Groom Lake flew with P&W J75 jet engines (the same engines used on the Air Force F-105 and F-106) instead of J58’s because P&W couldn’t get the new J58’s to perform to spec. Even with J58’s installed it still took over a year to work out all of bugs in the engine inlets so they would reliably cruise at 3 Mach.
April 25, 2022 at 1:28 pm
I’m tired of journalists bringing up the A-12 being faster than the SR-71 every other day. Wait till the learn about the experimental YF-12
April 26, 2022 at 12:05 am
Actually the CIA A-12, and the USAF YF-12A, and the SR-71 had the potential to all go equally fast under the same conditions. The reason why is because none of them was thrust limited as to how fast they could be pushed. I say pushed because the actual only red line for all three was something called CIT. CIT stands for Compressor Inlet Temperature, the temperature in the inlet in front of the J58. The CIT limit was set by the engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitey, and P&W set the CIT at 427 degrees C. Since temperatures are additive the CIT was determined by the temperature of the air through which the aircraft was flying, plus the temperature rise in the inlet due to friction and compressive effects. The sum of these could not exceed 427 C and the pilot was the ‘governor’ or regulator who adjusted the throttles to make sure the CIT did not exceed 427 C.
Since all three Blackbirds used the same engine inlet, if flying through air that was the same temperature all three should theoretically be able to fly at the same speed before the CIT of 427 C was reached. Drag wouldn’t factor in.
Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson, the designer of all the Blackbirds, said that if a pilot found himself in air that was colder than normal he could fly the bird faster before he hit the CIT limit of 427 C and had to back off the throttles.