Blackbird Airpark Exhibits

U-2 Spy Plane

Lockheed’s U-2 spy plane was developed for a joint CIA-USAF project in the early 1950’s by Lockheed, to conduct covert overflights of the Soviet Union. Lockheed’s best aircraft designer and chief of the Skunk Works project office, Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, designed a jet-propelled aircraft with features adapted from gliders, that could fly higher than any other aircraft of the time (over 70,000 ft), as well as have the long range (2,000 miles) necessary to penetrate deep into Russia and return. Essentially, Kelly Johnson had designed a jet-propelled glider.

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To address the two major design problems – fuel capacity and weight, Kelly Johnson incorporated three unique design changes that no other conventional aircraft had. The first was the tail assembly, which was attached to the main body with three tension bolts, an adaptation from sailplane design to save weight. The second was two separate wing panels, attached to the fuselage sides with tension bolts, again just as in sailplanes. Not having the wing spar pass through the fuselage allowed Johnson to locate the camera behind the pilot’s seat, thus improving the center of gravity (CG) and reducing aircraft weight. And finally, the third improvement to reduce weight was replacing standard landing gear with a “bicycle” landing gear with “training wheels”, referred to as “pogo sticks” or “pogos”, to keep the long wings level during takeoff. The pilot dropped off the pogos immediately after lift off, so that they could be recovered and reused.

The aircraft was named U-2 (“U” for Utility) in July 1955 to mask its reconnaissance mission purpose, the same month as the first aircraft, Article 341, was delivered to Groom Lake. Public press releases stated that U-2’s were intended to perform high altitude weather research. The first U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union, from a base in West Germany, occurred on 4 July 1956. Photographs from subsequent flights showed tiny images of MiG-15s and MiG-17s attempting and failing to intercept the aircraft, proving that the Soviets could not shoot down an operational U-2, even though they could track it on radar.

On May 1st 1960, Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) when he was well over 1,000 miles into the Soviet territory. This loss of the U-2 aircraft ended the CIA’s program of manned overflights into Russia.

Nevertheless, the U-2 continued to provide invaluable service for the USAF. A U-2 from Edwards AFB provided the first photos of the Russian missiles in Cuba, which triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The U- 2’s excellent high altitude performance and low operating cost have resulted in the aircraft being modified extensively with bigger wings, bigger engines, and a modem “glass” cockpit with computer screens. The U-2 is still in service with the USAF and NASA today, over 50 years after its maiden flight. More than 80 U-2s were built altogether.

The U-2 aircraft s/n 56-6721 (Article 388) on display at the Blackbird Airpark is the only remaining U-2D model, which was converted from a U-2A model when the large camera behind the pilot’s seat was replaced with a second crewmember seat and a suite of sensors for atmospheric research and monitoring missile launches.

Additional history and photos of the U-2D s/n 56-6721 at Blackbird Airpark.

Characteristics and Performance:

Armament: None
Engine: Pratt & Whitney J57-P-13B
Maximum speed: 500 mph (.8 Mach)
Operating ceiling: 70,000+ ft.
Range: 4,000 nautical miles
Span: 80 ft.
Length: 49 ft. 8 in.
Tail Height: 15 ft. 6 in.
Weight: 15,850 lb. (17,270 lbs. with external fuel tanks)

A-12 CIA Reconnaissance Aircraft

Lockheed’s A-12 reconnaissance aircraft was developed for the CIA to replace its predecessor, the U-2 spy plane, for clandestine overflights of the Soviet Union and Cuba. The success of the Russians at tracking the U-2 meant that eventually it would be vulnerable to interception. The CIA specified that U-2’s successor was to fly higher (up to 90,000 ft. versus 70,000), faster (over 2,000 mph versus 500), and also not be visible on Soviet radar. The A-12 was produced from 1962 to 1964, and was in operation from 1963 until 1968.

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Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson began preliminary design work to satisfy these requirements in the mid-1950’s, and in 1959 was given the contract to build the A-12 (“A” stood for “Archangel”, a reference to its predecessor U-2, which was called “Angel” internally). The single-seat A-12 was the initial entry in what is now known as the Blackbird family, an aircraft that even today is the fastest and highest flying aircraft ever put in mass production. Cruising at speeds of over Mach 3 (Mach 1.0 refers to the speed of sound, about 650-700 mph), the aircraft had sustained skin temperatures of over 600° F. Titanium was used for its construction, as aluminum normally used for aircraft would melt.

The spaceship-like curves of the Blackbird fuselage, as well as high temperature radar absorbent materials (RAM), were designed to reduce the radar cross section of the aircraft, and enable it to fly above Mach 3 speeds. The first A-12 flew in April 1962.

By the time A-12s became operational, Soviet Union was considered too dangerous to overfly except in an emergency, and overflights were prohibited by an executive order. And although crews continued to train for the role of overflying Cuba, U-2s continued to be adequate there.

The Director of the CIA decided to deploy some A-12s to Asia. After an extensive flight test program, the A-12 flew over North Korea and North Vietnam, as part of Operation Black Shield. During these overflights, USS Pueblo was found after photographs from the aircraft’s camera were analyzed. USS Pueblo, still held by the North Vietnam as a museum ship, is the only U.S. Navy ship currently being held captive, and officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy.

A-12s were retired in 1968, due to budget concerns and because the USAF took over the manned strategic reconnaissance program with the twin-seat SR-71s in March 1968. Thirteen A-12s were produced, of which five were lost in crashes. One of the 13 aircraft was a dedicated trainer aircraft with a second seat, located behind the pilot and raised to permit the Instructor Pilot to see forward.

The deployed A-12s, as well as the eight non-deployed aircraft, were all placed in storage at Palmdale’s Plant 42. All surviving aircraft remained there for nearly 20 years, before being sent to different museums around the United States.

The A-12 aircraft s/n 60-6924 (Article 121) on display at the Blackbird Airpark is the very first A-12 built, serving as the prototype for the Blackbird family.

Additional history and photos of the A-12 s/n 60-6924 at Blackbird Airpark.

Characteristics and Performance:
Crew: 1 (2 for trainer variant)
Length: 101.6 ft.
Wingspan: 55.62 ft.
Height: 18.45 ft.
Empty weight: 54,600 lb.
Loaded weight: 124,600 lb.
Engines: 2 × Pratt & Whitney J58-1 afterburning turbojets
Maximum speed: Mach 3.35 (2,210 mph, 3,560 km/h) at 75,000 ft.
Range: 2,200 nmi (2,500 mi)
Operating ceiling: 95,000 ft.

SR-71 USAF Reconnaissance Aircraft

The SR-71 strategic reconnaissance Mach 3+ aircraft was USAF’s modified two-seat version of the CIA’s A-12, with the pilot in the forward cockpit and the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) monitoring the surveillance systems and equipment from the rear cockpit.

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Capable of the same high Mach 3+ speeds and altitudes as the A-12, it was slightly heavier due to the increased camera/radar sensor payload, and a longer fuselage to hold more fuel. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson of Skunk Works was responsible for many of the design’s innovative concepts, which were required because the aircraft and its parts were heating up to temperatures above 500° F at top speeds. Some of these innovations included:

  • Welding the titanium (85% of airframe) with distilled water, as the chlorine present in tap water was corrosive
  • Corrugated skin, which could expand vertically and horizontally, so that smooth skin would not split or curl
  • Flattened shape to reflect energy away from the radar beams’ place of origin
  • Chines for a greatly reduced radar reflection, which lead to unexpected aerodynamic performance improvements such as additional lift, reduced landing speeds, and stall at higher angles of attack
  • Pulsating “spikes” at the front of engine air inlets, which slowed the air to form a Mach 1 shock wave in front of the engine compressor at airspeeds above Mach 1.6, since engines could not operate properly if incoming air was above subsonic speeds
  • A unique hybrid engine, technically a turbojet inside a ramjet
  • Astro-Inertial Navigation System – a precision navigation system, which could correct navigation errors with celestial observations, and was previously only used on missiles
  • Specialized protective pressurized suits, which withstood temperatures of 450° F during emergency ejections at speeds of up to Mach 3.2

The first SR-71 flight took place at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, on 22 December 1964. The SR-71 reportedly reached a top speed of Mach 3.4 during flight testing, with its most efficient cruise speed being Mach 3.2.

Hundreds of SAMs were fired at Blackbirds during their operational careers, with no aircraft losses resulting from being hit by the missiles because SR-71 was protected by a suite of electronic countermeasures, and because it was simply able to outfly them.

A total of 32 SR-71s were built, with 29 SR-71As, two SR-71Bs, and the single SR-71C. The SR-71 was in service from 1964 to 1998, when it was finally retired due to budget cuts. Twelve SR-71s were lost and one pilot died in accidents during the aircraft’s service career. No aircraft were ever lost due to enemy action.
The first SR-71 to enter service was in January 1966. Operational SR-71 aircraft were assigned to the 9th SSRW at Beale AFB and various detachments. The SR-71 was retired from active duty in 1989, with the SR-71 flying its last missions in October 1989. Due to worsening political conditions in the Middle East and North Korea, the SR-71 program was reactivated in 1993, with three aircraft returned to service by Lockheed. The Air Force permanently retired SR-71 in 1998, leaving NASA with the two last airworthy Blackbirds until 1999.
The fastest recorded speed for the SR-71 was Mach 3.32 (2,193 mph), an official speed record set on 27 July 1976.

On 6 March 1990, SR-71 flight test aircraft #972 set a transcontinental speed record of 68 minutes coast-to-coast on its last mission, when it flew from Palmdale to Washington DC (on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum).

The SR-71A s/n 61-7973 (Article 2024) on display at the Blackbird Airpark, an operational aircraft, was inadvertently structurally damaged during an airshow in England in 1987. It was flown back at subsonic speeds from England to California for structural repairs, which never occurred.

Additional history and photos of  SR-71A s/n 61-7973 at Blackbird Airpark.

Characteristics and Performance:
Crew: 2 (Pilot and Reconnaissance Systems Officer)
Length: 107 ft. 5 in.
Wingspan: 55 ft. 7 in.
Height: 18 ft. 6 in.
Max. takeoff weight: 172,000 lb.
Engines: Pratt & Whitney J58
Maximum speed: Mach 3.32 at 80,000 ft.
Range: 2,900 nmi
Ferry range: 3,200 nmi
Operating ceiling: 85,000 ft.

D-21 Drone

Lockheed’s D-21 was a Mach 3+ long-range reconnaissance drone that used much of the A-12’s technology. The D-21 was initially designed to be launched from the back of its M-21 carrier aircraft, a variant of Lockheed’s A-12. Although there were plans to modify the drone for launch from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress even before the M-21/D-21 accident, all M-21 missions were halted after a fatal D-21 midair collision with its mother-ship. After the accident, the drones were modified to be launched from a B-52 only.

Read more about the D-21 Drone

The D-21 was designed to overfly enemy territory, such as China and the Soviet Union, by being launched from international airspace. Following launch it flew a pre-programmed course, which concluded by D-21’s return into international airspace, where it would eject its camera payload (camera, film, and inertial navigation system) at the end of the mission for recovery, and then self-destruct. The payload, known as the “hatch” would be ejected at the end of the mission and then snagged out of the air by a JC-130 Hercules, a technique that had been developed by the Air Force to recover film canisters from satellites. If the C-130 missed, the hatch was equipped with flotation devices so it could be recovered by a naval ship.

The D-21 was powered by a ramjet which could only be started at speeds of Mach 2 or above, then cruised at Mach 3.5 at altitudes up to 90,000 feet. Once the decision was made to launch D-21 from a Boeing B-52, it had to be modified so it could be mounted onto a solid rocket booster that could get it up to the speed required for the ramjet to start. The modified drone version was designated D-21B.

A number of drones were lost during the flight test program, which had a very low success rate. Only four operational missions with the D-21B were ever flown, and they took place under the codename of Senior Bowl. These missions were conducted over China from 9 November 1969 to 20 March 1971 to spy on the Lop Nor nuclear test site:

  • The first drone failed to turn around and crashed somewhere in the Soviet Union
  • The second D-21B made it all the way to Lop Nor and back to the recovery point, but the hatch had a partial parachute failure and was lost at sea
  • During the third operational mission, the D-21B flew to Lop Nor and returned, jettisoning the hatch. The parachute deployed, but the midair recovery with a C-130 failed. The Navy ship that tried to retrieve the hatch from the water ran over the hatch and it sank
  • The fourth, and last, flight of the D-21B in 1971 was lost over China on the final segment of the route

The D-21B program was canceled in July 1973, due to the poor success rate, improved relations with China, and availability of new photo reconnaissance satellites.

A total of 38 D-21 and D-21B drones were built, 21 of which were expended in launches. The remaining 17 drones were initially stored at Norton AFB and the Davis-Monthan AFB “boneyard”, where they were quickly spotted and photographed by the public. Since then, the remaining D-21 drones have been disseminated to a number of museums for display.

The D-21B drone s/n 525 on display at the Blackbird Airpark is one of the 17 vehicles left, after the program was canceled in 1971. Only four operational missions were ever flown using D-21 drones, all of them over China.

Additional history and photos of the D-21B drone Article 525 at Blackbird Airpark.

Characteristics and Performance:
Wingspan: 19 ft. 1/4 in.
Length: 42 ft. 10 in.
Height: 7 ft. 1/4 in.
Launch weight: 11,000 lb.
Maximum speed: Mach 3.35 (2,210 mph, 1,920 knots)
Operating ceiling: 95,000 ft (29,000 m)
Range: 3,000 nmi, 3,450 mi, 5,550 km
Engine: 1 x Marquardt RJ43-MA-20S4 ramjet, 1,500 lbf