Industry experts and aviation buffs across the globe recognize the American-made SR-71 “Blackbird” as the fastest airframe to ever fly the skies. Despite being introduced more than five decades ago, the infamous airframe remains unmatched in pace to this day.
However, before the SR-71 hit the production line, the A-12 Oxcart spy plane represented the quickest jet in the skies. Like its successor, the A-12 was developed by Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works.
Made for the use by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the reconnaissance aircraft was designed to successfully spy on the Soviet Union while avoiding the country’s air defenses. Under the CIA’s “Project Oxcart,” highly classified plans to create the A-12 aimed to replace the U-2 spy plane.
Perhaps the most influential military aircraft designer in the 20thcentury, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson’s Skunk Works team was responsible for both the A-12 and its U-2 predecessor. In 1960, Soviet Air Defense Forces managed to shoot down a U-2 spy plane while it conducted aerial reconnaissance deep inside USSR territory.
At this time, American engineers realized the necessity to design an airframe capable of surpassing enemy detection and anti-aircraft fire. Under Project Gusto, the A-12’s designs were nicknamed “Archangel” as a nod to the U-2 program which had been dubbed “Angel.”
A-12: Specs and capabilities
The making of the A-12 was truly Lockheed’s first go at a “stealth” airframe. As such a modern airframe for the time that incorporated brand new technologies, Skunk Works engineers had to think even more outside of the box than they normally did. Since the A-12 could fly at speeds in excess of Mach 3.0 (three times the speed of sound), the exterior needed titanium, a metal that was able to withstand high temperatures while also being lighter than steel.
Why titanium was so important for the A-12
Detailed by the Aviation Geek Club, “Before the discovery of carbon-fiber-based building materials, titanium was the best choice available for the A-12 while it was being developed. Only about 85% of the manufactured A-12 was made from titanium, and the titanium was used mostly on components that were exposed to the highest temperatures. The other 15% of the aircraft was made from polymer composite materials.
The new radar-absorbing composite materials were in fact another improvement in RCS. They replaced the fillets and they were made from iron ferrite and silicon laminate, both combined with asbestos to absorb radar returns and make the aircraft stealthier.” During this time period, however, the Soviet Union was the largest manufacturer of titanium. Unbeknownst to the USSR, it actually sold the metal needed by American engineers to create some of the most impressive airframes to ever exist.
However formidable the A-12 was, the platform was ultimately relegated to retirement within six years of its first flight. The Air Force ordered the larger SR-71 variant of the A-12 by the late 1960’s and could not justify funding both programs. During its short time in service though, the A-12 did provide high-quality images over Cambodia, North Korea and Vietnam in an operation codenamed Black Shield.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.