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Why the CIA piloted A-12 Blackbirds

The plane in front of the Aerospace Museum is marked Air Force

The SR-71 was shelved in 1990 in favor of spy satellites.  - Image by Rick Geary
The SR-71 was shelved in 1990 in favor of spy satellites.

Matthew Alice: Everybody has seen that big, black jet in front of the Aerospace Museum, but most people don’t realize that the spy plane is an A-12 model Blackbird, which was piloted by the CIA, rather than the later SR-71 models piloted by the Air Force. My questions are, why did they have CIA pilots instead of Air Force pilots, and why is the plane clearly marked U.S. Air Force? Why didn't they just leave the plane unmarked since it was a CIA plane? — Danny Quizon, [email protected]

Hope you weren’t expecting a simple answer. When it comes to “black ops” like spy planes, things can get a little hazy around the edges. The A-12 was actually a prototype for the SR-71 Blackbird, proposed and developed by Lockheed’s clandestine brain trust, the Skunk Works (Lockheed Advanced Development Co.). Between April of 1958 and May of 1959, they sold the CIA their outrageous idea for a high-altitude plane that would cruise at Mach 3 for a range of 4000 miles. The CIA dubbed the development program “Oxcart,” a bit of spook humor, since the SR-71 (as far as the government will admit, anyway) is still the fastest manned flying machine ever produced. San Diego to Savannah, Georgia, 59 minutes.

The Blackbird was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson, head of the Skunk Works, who figured there was no reason to make each future project only a few increments better than the last. Why not make an exponential jump and produce a plane the Russians couldn’t detect and couldn’t possibly chase with their current missile technology, even if they could detect it? The U.S. would have such a plane eventually, anyway; why not have it now? Virtually every plane-building rule had to be thrown out the window to come up with this invisible flying fuel tank that could withstand the heat generated at 2000-plus miles per hour. As it turned out, they even had to design new tools to put the plane together. Check out Ben Rich’s book Skunk Works for all the amazing details.

The money-hungry, supersecret project, like all such covert jobs, was funded through the CIA’s and the military’s “black budget,” which is not accountable in detail to Congress. The other half of the equation — the pilots and test facilities — was the military’s responsibility. For a long time the CIA and the Air Force have had a complementary relationship. So A-12 pilots were specially trained Lockheed pilots, private pilots and military reservists who had relevant experience, and the USAF’s Strategic Air Command and other handpicked officers. During the pre-SR-71 days, they flew out of Air Force test sites (including Groom Lake, Nevada, which the government says doesn’t exist). So, though it was a CIA project developed for intelligencegathering, the Air Force was heavily involved in the testing and flying of the A-12. The Blackbird wasn’t officially acknowledged by the government until 1964, and by that time it was “officially” an Air Force plane but still used for CIA purposes. Incidentally, the Blackbird is really the RS-71; but in public statements about the plane, President Johnson took to referring to it as the SR-71. Figuring it was easier to change 30,000 documents than to get Lyndon to say it right, the Air Force ordered Lockheed to change the designation.

The SR-71 was shelved in 1990 in favor of spy satellites. Military experts are suspicious of the Air Force’s casual attitude toward losing the extremely effective (and piloted) Blackbird in favor of an unmanned craft. Many analysts are convinced it’s because Lockheed is already testing something higher, faster, and spookier. There have been rumors of a Mach 6 recon plane zipping through our skies, but of course, the feds deny it. But consider that the so-called stealth projects were so ultrasecret that they didn’t even have a code name. And of course the military denies that those booms and rattles we experience in odd clusters from time to time aren’t coming from their aircraft. At least no aircraft they’ll admit exists. Like it or not, one of the things many military and government bigwigs are paid to do is lie.

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The SR-71 was shelved in 1990 in favor of spy satellites.  - Image by Rick Geary
The SR-71 was shelved in 1990 in favor of spy satellites.

Matthew Alice: Everybody has seen that big, black jet in front of the Aerospace Museum, but most people don’t realize that the spy plane is an A-12 model Blackbird, which was piloted by the CIA, rather than the later SR-71 models piloted by the Air Force. My questions are, why did they have CIA pilots instead of Air Force pilots, and why is the plane clearly marked U.S. Air Force? Why didn't they just leave the plane unmarked since it was a CIA plane? — Danny Quizon, [email protected]

Hope you weren’t expecting a simple answer. When it comes to “black ops” like spy planes, things can get a little hazy around the edges. The A-12 was actually a prototype for the SR-71 Blackbird, proposed and developed by Lockheed’s clandestine brain trust, the Skunk Works (Lockheed Advanced Development Co.). Between April of 1958 and May of 1959, they sold the CIA their outrageous idea for a high-altitude plane that would cruise at Mach 3 for a range of 4000 miles. The CIA dubbed the development program “Oxcart,” a bit of spook humor, since the SR-71 (as far as the government will admit, anyway) is still the fastest manned flying machine ever produced. San Diego to Savannah, Georgia, 59 minutes.

The Blackbird was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson, head of the Skunk Works, who figured there was no reason to make each future project only a few increments better than the last. Why not make an exponential jump and produce a plane the Russians couldn’t detect and couldn’t possibly chase with their current missile technology, even if they could detect it? The U.S. would have such a plane eventually, anyway; why not have it now? Virtually every plane-building rule had to be thrown out the window to come up with this invisible flying fuel tank that could withstand the heat generated at 2000-plus miles per hour. As it turned out, they even had to design new tools to put the plane together. Check out Ben Rich’s book Skunk Works for all the amazing details.

The money-hungry, supersecret project, like all such covert jobs, was funded through the CIA’s and the military’s “black budget,” which is not accountable in detail to Congress. The other half of the equation — the pilots and test facilities — was the military’s responsibility. For a long time the CIA and the Air Force have had a complementary relationship. So A-12 pilots were specially trained Lockheed pilots, private pilots and military reservists who had relevant experience, and the USAF’s Strategic Air Command and other handpicked officers. During the pre-SR-71 days, they flew out of Air Force test sites (including Groom Lake, Nevada, which the government says doesn’t exist). So, though it was a CIA project developed for intelligencegathering, the Air Force was heavily involved in the testing and flying of the A-12. The Blackbird wasn’t officially acknowledged by the government until 1964, and by that time it was “officially” an Air Force plane but still used for CIA purposes. Incidentally, the Blackbird is really the RS-71; but in public statements about the plane, President Johnson took to referring to it as the SR-71. Figuring it was easier to change 30,000 documents than to get Lyndon to say it right, the Air Force ordered Lockheed to change the designation.

The SR-71 was shelved in 1990 in favor of spy satellites. Military experts are suspicious of the Air Force’s casual attitude toward losing the extremely effective (and piloted) Blackbird in favor of an unmanned craft. Many analysts are convinced it’s because Lockheed is already testing something higher, faster, and spookier. There have been rumors of a Mach 6 recon plane zipping through our skies, but of course, the feds deny it. But consider that the so-called stealth projects were so ultrasecret that they didn’t even have a code name. And of course the military denies that those booms and rattles we experience in odd clusters from time to time aren’t coming from their aircraft. At least no aircraft they’ll admit exists. Like it or not, one of the things many military and government bigwigs are paid to do is lie.

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