Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Celebrating 50 Years of Blackbirds

This week, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the first of the Blackbird family of aircraft, Lockheed A-12 serial 60-6924. Because it was designed as a spy plane for the CIA, the A-12 stayed secret - as did its first flight - for many years. As far as the public knew back then, it was the YF-12A interceptor version that was the new and exciting program, and so the first media photos of a Blackbird were of the fighter. The Archive owns four original AP wire photos, shown here.

SHOW - The Air Force's speedy new interceptor, the YF12A, flashes across
Edwards Air Force base, Calif., today in a low-level pass during the first public
demonstration of the plane. The plane was flown at low speeds, in contrast to its
better than 2000-miles-per-hour capability.
The impetus for the A-12 program, the “parent” project for the later YF-12A and SR-71 programs, came from the inability to make the Lockheed U-2 a more stealthy aircraft. Lockheed instead started a series of design proposals for the CIA that would result in a reconnaissance aircraft that would fly higher, farther, faster and, most importantly, more invisible. As the U-2 had carried the internal code name “Angel”, the successor program was known as “Archangel”, and iterations of the design were then numbered A-1, A-2, through A-11. The design was in competition with one proposed by Convair known as Kingfish (or simply Fish), which showed a smaller radar cross section. In response, Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson tweaked the design one more time, resulting in the A-12, and the designation was carried over to use by the customer, who gave the project the codename Oxcart.

UNVEILED - Air Force technicians prepare the 2000-mile-an-hour YF12A
interceptor for a flight today during the top secret plane's first public
appearance. Officers, without revealing the maximum speed and range, said
the plane is many times superior to current interceptors such as the F106.
The first A-12, 60-6924, was trucked from Burbank to Groom Lake and had three different maiden flights. The first, on April 24, 1962, occurred during a high speed taxi test when pilot Lou Schalk inadvertently became airborne for a few seconds. The "real" first flight took place two days later, April 26th, when the aircraft was flown for about 33 minutes; because of the unproven nature of the design, speeds were kept under 300 knots. This was followed by a 59-minute flight on April 30th which was witnessed by a delegation of CIA and USAF officials, and became known as the plane's first "official" flight.

SECRET INTERCEPTOR - The top secret YF12A interceptor, capable of
flying three times the speed of sound (over 2000 m.p.h.), stands on a ramp
at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., today in its first public appearance. The
plane was called the A-11 when President Johnson first disclosed its
existence last Feb. 29.
With the cancellation of the XF-108 program in 1950, Lockheed convinced the USAF that a fighter variant of the A-12 would be an economical alternative for a high-speed bomber interceptor, since the majority of the design and development work was already paid for by the CIA. The Air Force bit, and the 7th, 8th and 9th A-12 production slots were converted to the new version, then called the AF-12 (and code named Kedlock), and later YF-12A. The first YF-12A flight took place on August 7, 1963. Only three were built.

On February 29, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the existence of the program to the world, but it was done with a certain amount of subterfuge. He said, "The United States has successfully developed an advanced experimental jet aircraft, the A-11, which has been tested in sustained flight at more than 2,000 miles per hour and at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet. The performance of the A-11 far exceeds that of any other aircraft in the world today. The development of this aircraft has been made possible by major advances in aircraft technology of great significance for both military and commercial applications. Several A-11 aircraft are now being flight tested at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The existence of this program is being disclosed today to permit the orderly exploitation of this advanced technology in our military and commercial program." Later in his remarks, Johnson said, "the A-11 aircraft now at Edwards Air Force Base are undergoing extensive tests to determine their capabilities as long- range interceptors."

PUNCH - Newsmen are dwarfed by by [sic] the Air Force's new YF12A
interceptor, a javelin-like bomber killer designed to speed at more than
2,000 miles an hour, as it was unveiled at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.,
yesterday. The plane had been announced by President Johnson last
February - it was then known as the A-11. It carries a 12-foot rocket that
can be armed with conventional or nuclear warhead.
Notice that he called it an "A-11"! There are two schools of thought as to why Johnson said this. The first claims that the use of the earlier Lockheed development model number was deliberate, in order to preserve the secrecy of the A-12 designation. The second says that the written text of the speech used the acronym AMI (for Advanced Manned Interceptor), and that Johnson mis-read it as A11, just as he later accidentally said SR-71 when the text said RS-71.

While Oxcart would continue in secrecy, the YF-12A test program would be done with a certain amount of media openness, which brought the benefit that if someone happen to spot an A-12, it could just be attributed to the YF-12A program. Also, at the time of Johnson's announcement, there actually were no YF-12As at Edwards, and the timing of the announcement actually caught the program folks a bit off guard. Two aircraft were then hastily flown to EDW, and according to local lore, the aircraft were shoved into the hangar so quickly after landing that the residual radiant heat set off the hangar's fire protection sprinklers.

Then five months later, on September 30, 1964, the media was invited out to Edwards to watch a YF-12A fly as well as to see one up close, and the four AP shots were taken on this visit. While the wirephoto of the low pass isn't clear enough to distinguish the tail number, the display aircraft was the last YF-12A built, 60-6936; this plane was lost on June 24, 1971 due to an inflight fire. Both crewmen ejected safely near Edwards.

If you want further information on the history of the Blackbird program, check out this amazingly detailed timeline PDF.

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