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Faster Than a Bullet: Why the A-12 Oxcart and SR-71 Blackbird Changed Everything

SR-71
SR-71 spy plane. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The A-12 Oxcart Compared to the SR-71 Blackbird: The USS Intrepid (CV/CVA/CVS-11) is one of just four surviving 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II that has been preserved as a museum ship. Apart from a 2006-2008 restoration, the carrier has been a popular attraction on Manhattan’s West Side – where she is permanently moored on the Hudson River.

However, some visitors may be taken aback by the presence of a futuristic-looking aircraft on her deck – a type of high-speed plane that could have never taken off from the carrier. A common misconception is that it is a Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird,” while others might even think it is a movie prop – the Blackbird flown by the fictional X-Men.

Both are wrong, of course.

The sleek aircraft is actually an A-12 Oxcart – serial number 60-6925 – and one of just nine surviving examples. Development of the A-12 Oxcart began in the early 1960s at the Lockheed Skunk Works, based on designs by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, for use by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In October 1962, the Air Force had also ordered three interceptor variants to replace the canceled F-108A Rapier. The modified A-12, first designated the AF-12 and then the YF-12A, was designed and built under a project codenamed KEDLOCK.

The Lockheed design was selected over Convair’s FISH and Kingfish designs, and it served as the precursor to the United States Air Force YF-12 prototype interceptor and SR-71 Blackbird. The CIA had been involved with the project only in providing three of A‑12 airframes, but also in helping write the “black” contracts. The Air Force bore all the costs of the YF-12A, which was superseded by the F-111.

The A-12 Takes Shape

Following numerous prototypes, several lost models, and crew deaths during testing, the A-12 finally entered service in 1967. In total 18 of the aircraft were built, of which only 13 were mass-produced A-12s, while the others were pre-production units or drone carrier variants. As part of Operation Black Shield, the A-12 flew dozens of reconnaissance sorties in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. It was well suited to the missions, as it was capable of performing sensitive intelligence-gathering flights while traveling at speeds over 2,260 miles per hour, or three times the speed of sound (Mach 3).

While faster than any aircraft that hope to catch it, the A-12 wasn’t actually invisible. Yet, efforts were created to make it much harder to see on radar. It utilized several then-state-of-the-art features to reduce the radar cross-section, and that included its shape and radar-evading structures, as well as the use of composites in its construction. It also incorporated radar-absorbing materials on the outer skin.

The aircraft also didn’t exactly “sneak” onto the deck of the aforementioned carrier. Rather, when the A-12—the first production model—made it to its destination it arrived at the museum in 1991 it arrived by boat. The same method was used to deliver a British Airlines Concorde and the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which are currently both on exhibit. It recently underwent a major renovation, during which time the aircraft was broken up into 17 sections, each costing $10,000 to preserve and repaint.

The other eight surviving A-12 Oxcarts are now on display respectively at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum Annex, Blackbird Airpark, at Plant 42, Palmdale, California; the California Science Center in Los Angeles; the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama; the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia; the San Diego Air & Space Museum; the Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham, Alabama; the Battleship Memorial Park (USS Alabama), Mobile, Alabama; and the Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington.

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).

The SR-71

The success of the A-12 led to the development of the SR-71 – an aircraft that continues to fascinate aviation buffs. Known unofficially as the “Blackbird” for its black paint job, which was developed to dissipate heat, the SR-71 featured sleek lines that may have seemed “futuristic” when it was flying top-secret missions years before American astronauts headed to the moon.

It was so fast that no interceptor ever really had a chance of catching it. During the aircraft’s nearly 25 years in service, the SR-71 set numerous speed records, and on July 28, 1976, the aircraft reached an amazing 2,193.167 miles per hour (3,529.56 km/h). Flying at roughly 36.55 miles per minute or 3,216.4 feet per second, it was faster than a bullet fired from the World War II-era M1 Garand rifle – which had a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second.

The SR-71 earned a reputation that while no aircraft could catch it, it could even outrun missiles. While a dozen were lost due to accidents during its service history, not a single Blackbird was ever shot down by the enemy – and it even reportedly evaded some 4,000 missiles that were fired at it.

SR-71 History

Image: Creative Commons.

The Blackbird, which first took flight in 1964, could enter hostile airspace, take photographs from those extreme heights like a tourist on vacation and still be on its way before an enemy had a chance even to take a shot at it. While it could cross continents in just a few hours, the aircraft also flew so high that pilots navigating by sight couldn’t rely on ground features such as roads and instead needed to look at the mountains, rivers, and major coastlines to get their bearings.

Thanks to its speed and other capabilities, not a single SR-71 was ever shot down – yet a dozen were lost in accidents.

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Paul

    October 1, 2022 at 1:06 am

    Ship not a boat.

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