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A-12 Oxcart: The CIA’s Mach 3.3 Spy Plane Was a Speed Demon

A-12 Oxcart
An air-to-air left front view of a A-12 aircraft. Erroneously identified as Y-12 in the source, but Serial Number 06932 is a A-12 (see en:Lockheed A-12). This aircraft was lost over South China Sea on June 6, 1968.

A-12 Oxcart – Yes, the CIA Had Its Very Own SR-71 Spy Plane – When CIA planners decided to update their aerial reconnaissance abilities, and replace the slow, vulnerable U-2 Dragon Lady, an advisory committee was formed to study proposed replacements. The committee, known as Project Gusto, considered two separate proposals: the delta-winged Convair Kingfish; and the spear-shaped Lockheed A-12. Each was designed for high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance over the Soviet Union and Cuba.  

Why the A-12?

While the Kingfish had a smaller radar-cross section, the CIA preferred the A-12’s specifications – plus, the A-12 program cost was expected to be considerably lower. Further, Convair’s delivery of the B-58 Hustler had been slow and over-budget.Lockheed, on the other hand, had created their U-2 in a timely, cost-efficient manner. Not to mention, Lockheed had experience (with the U-2), of running a “black” project. And indeed, Project Gusto would be a “black” project.

A-12 Specs

Lockheed’s proposal was selected, and the A-12 went into production, in 1962, under the designation Project Oxcart. Henceforth, the A-12 was known as the Oxcart – a name chosen from a randomized list of CIA code names. But the A-12’s crews had their own name for the plane: Cygnus – named for the Milky Way’s swan constellation. 

The A-12, the predecessor of the vaunted SR-71 Blackbird, had performance specifications decades more advanced than its contemporaries – and even more impressive than the Blackbird.

The 101-foot craft could hit Mach 3.35 within a service ceiling of 85,000 feet while climbing at 11,800 feet per minute.

The Problems

The plane, and its cutting-edge specs, were a closely guarded secret – which is why the Oxcart was operated out of Area 51. The secrecy of the program is especially emphasized in one notable instance when an Area-51-based A-12 crashed for the first time.

On May 24, 1963, test pilot Kenneth Collins, flying from Area 51, crashed near Wendover, Utah. Collins was fortunate to eject successfully. A truck driver picked Collins up and brought him to a highway patrol office where he placed a call back to his people at Area 51.

Collins avoided arousing too much suspicion – he had been conducting low-altitude tests, and was only wearing a standard flight stuit, rather than the futuristic space suit he would have been wearing had been conducting high-altitude tests. The truck driver and the cops likely would have had a few more questions had Collins appeared from the desert, dressed as a spaceman. Regardless, the CIA were comprehensive in further deterring attention.

Two local farmers were informed that the downed aircraft was carrying atomic weapons. 

Local law enforcement, and a family who happened to be passing by, were each paid $25,000 cash and warned to keep quiet. News articles, and even official records, referred to the downed aircraft as an F-105 Thunderchief. Bulldozers cleared the crash site. And Collins, during his debrief, was both hypnotized and injected with a sodium pentothal “truth serum” to confirm he had disclosed everything about the crash.

The cover-up efforts were successful – the general public was none the wiser to Oxcart’s existence and the program wouldn’t be formally revealed for another three decades. 

Another A-12 Crash

Collin’s 1963 crash would not be the A-12’s only mishap, however.

The envelope-pushing airframe soon developed a spotty safety record. In 1964, an A-12 crashed while making its final approach, when a pitch-control device froze, inducing a roll at just 500 feet altitude. The pilot ejected, while positioned in a 45-degree bank at only 200 feet altitude. Somehow, he survived.

Another crash, in 1965, occurred when an A-12 became completely uncontrollable about 30 seconds after take-off. Again, the pilot survived. In 1967, the Oxcart would claim its first fatality, when an A-12 ran out of fuel unexpectedly.

A-12 Oxcart

An A-12 (60-6924) takes off from Groom Lake during one of the first test flights, piloted by Louis Schalk. Lockheed Martin dates this image (mouse over) as the maiden flight of the A-12, taken April 26, 1962. Roadrunners Internationale, a reunion website for employees of secret US programs, labels the image as the second Schalk flight, dated May 4, 1962. According to habu.org, this photograph was taken during the official maiden flight on April 30, 1962 (and the April 26 flight was an accidental take-off).

In all, six of the 15 A-12s produced were lost in accidents. 

A-12 Heads Into Action

Despite being designed to conduct missions over the Soviet Union and Cuba, the A-12 never saw action over either country. Instead, the A-12 was only deployed to Asia, to conduct missions over North Vietnam, and later, for just three missions, over North Korea.

A-12 Oxcart

A-12 Oxcart. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The A-12 Oxcart program ended in December 1966 – mostly to make way for the SR-71 Blackbird, a two-seated, heavier, slower, lower-flying version of the A-12. The SR-71 served until the late 90s, when it was mothballed during the cost-conscious, post-Cold War period. The U-2 Dragon Lady, which the A-2 was designed to replace, is still in service today.  

A-12

SR-71 and A-12 side by side for comparison.

Harrison Kass is a 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 School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Science. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a 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 School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. CRAIG BOSKO

    May 22, 2022 at 10:19 pm

    Been a Blackbird fan for many years.There’s 4 Blackbird’s that were built:A-12,M-21w/D-21drone,YF-12a and SR-71.Original name of the SR-71 is RS-71.

    • Everett

      May 25, 2022 at 11:07 am

      There is no separate aircraft that carried the drone. It was a modified A 12 not a completely different aircraft. After the D 21 caused a A 12 to crash it was never used again.

      • Jim

        May 28, 2022 at 7:11 pm

        Actually Craig is correct. There were four variations of the Blackbird. The CIA A-12 Oxcart was the first, it’s official first flight was 60 years ago this past April 30, 1962. From the A-12 were derived the USAF YF-12A interceptor, and the M-21 mother ship which carried the D-21 drone piggyback. The YF-12A and the M-21 were both based almost entirely on the A-12 airframe, same overall length, except they were two seat – one for the pilot and the rear seat for weapons control officer (YF-12A) or drone control officer (M-21).
        The SR-71 was a significantly different aircraft, longer and heavier, primarily for extra fuel. The initial SR-71’s used the same P&W J-58 engines as the A-12, YF-12A, and M-21 rated at 32,500 pounds thrust, but we’re eventually re-engined with a more powerful 34,000 pound thrust J58.
        The CIA A-12 was the fastest of the four, 3.29 Mach, 2208 mph.
        All of what I have recounted is readily available on the Internet.

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