The Secret Film of the CIA Supersonic Spy Plane's First Flight

This declassified Lockheed Martin video shows the first flight of the A-12, the super-secret spy plane precursor of the SR-71 Blackbird. Only 15 were made under the CIA's OXCART program. The story of this technological wonder is fascinating.

The OXCART program story began in 1957, when a contractor suggested that high-altitude supersonic flight was the only way to avoid Soviet air defenses. The CIA's Richard M. Bissell—who was directing the 1954 U-2 spy plane program at the time—was concerned about their airplanes' vulnerability to USSR radars and anti-air missiles. He was right. In 1960, the Soviets shot down Francis Gary Powers' U-2 near Sverdlovsk.

By then, the A-12 program was already under way. After Lockheed Aircraft completed "antiradar studies, aerodynamic structural tests, and engineering designs," the CIA gave the green light to produce 12 aircraft on January 30th, 1960. It was called the A-11 at the time. Lockheed engineer Clarence L. Johnson was the main designer, who was responsible for the U-2. Despite Johnson's experience, many were skeptical at first and, after months of drawings and wind-tunnel model testing, they were not convinced this beast could fly.

The Secret Film of the CIA Supersonic Spy Plane's First Flight

Painful evolution

It did, but only after years of tests and adjustments. It was a difficult path. The aircraft skin, for example, had to be made of a titanium alloy. It had to resist 550 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures while flying at top speed. The aircraft manufacturing process—at the time, all advanced jets used aluminum frames—was an absolute nightmare. All machinery broke trying to work with the new material, so new tooling parts had to be designed and created from scratch. As a result, each plane had to be hand-crafted.

The quest to reduce its radar signature was also hard. A full-scale model of the plane was built with new radar-absorbent materials. They tested it for one year and a half, sitting on a pylon in a secret base. After countless adjustments, it was discovered that adding some big metallic parts to each side of the fuselage reduced the radar footprint. At first, Johnson thought this was going to harm the aerodynamics. As it turned out, the metallic parts actually helped the plane's flight. It was then when the plane got its final A-12 designation.

The Secret Film of the CIA Supersonic Spy Plane's First Flight

The interior of the plane was also quite problematic. The plane was built with almost no thermal insulation to save weight. This made the cockpit an oven while flying, and the pilot had to use an astronaut-like suit with its own refrigeration system.

Even the runway had to be specially created for the OXCART program. The initial test ground strip was located at a secret location in the Nevada desert—the CIA document doesn't mention it but it was probably the mythical Area 51. It was only 5,000 feet long and incapable of supporting the weight of the A-12. Great for for UFO landings, but it needed the pouring of 25,000 yards of concrete to achieve the necessary strength and 8,500-feet length necessary for the A-12's take-off and landing.

After all the problems were solved, the pilots—who had to be six feet tall, under 175 pounds and come with The Right Stuff—were selected. The names of these unsung heroes were William L. Skliar, Kenneth S. Collins, Walter Ray, Lon Walter, Mele Vojvodich, Jr., Jack W. Weeks, Ronald "Jack" Layton, Dennis B. Sullivan, David P. Young, Francis J. Murray, and Russell Scott.

The maiden flight

On April 26th, 1962, the A-12 took to the skies. Louis Schack flew the first airplane during its first 40-minute unofficial maiden flight. Four days later, he also took her into its official maiden flight for 59 minutes. It wasn't until May 4th that the A-12 broke the sound barrier for the first time, reaching Mach 1.1. During 1962 the aircraft kept evolving but it wasn't until 1967, after countless delays caused by political discussions and a couple of accidents, that the A-12 was deployed in a real mission over Vietnam.

It was May 31st 1967 and it accomplished all objectives. The A-12 force kept flying successfully, but was retired in 1968, when the SR-71 Blackbird took its place. Of the final 15 A-12s produced by Lockheed, five were lost and two pilots were killed. It may seem like not a lot was achieved, but this aircraft pushed the envelope in every way imaginable, making many of the common concepts of modern supersonic aviation possible, from aerodynamic design to life support systems and the manufacturing processes.

As Ken Collins —one of its pilots— said during the recent unveiling ceremony by the CIA at Langley: "It was a beautiful airplane, it was a beautiful airplane to land, and just technically a fantastic airplane to fly."

The Secret Film of the CIA Supersonic Spy Plane's First Flight

Click to viewAnd indeed, it was.

Feature originally published in Gizmodo, September 21, 2007.

To learn more about the experience of flying the successor of the A-12, read Brian Shul's fascinating description about his flight over Libya.