On April 26,1962, Lockheed Test Pilot Lou Schalk eased Article 121 into the
cool crisp air of Groom Lake, Nevada. The flight duration was only forty
minutes, over forty-one years ago, but aviation history made a great leap that
day. Under the direction of Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works first
A-12 flight set the stage for the revolutionary high speed, high altitude
records that followed. The OXCART Program was a joint operation of the CIA,
USAF and Lockheed Corporation along with a host of corporations that developed
special equipment and programs for the A-12 and YF-12. It took three more
years to overcome the problems encountered in developing an aircraft that
could consistently fly above 80,000 feet at 3.2 Mach.
From its inception in the spring of 1957 to June 26, 1968, OXCART lasted just
over 10 years. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson were well aware of
the intelligence gathering capability of this unique aircraft and its
importance to our nation and the world political scene. It was preceded by the
U-2 program IDEALIST at the same location and succeeded by the USAF SR-71
By the time the first A-12 Blackbird prototype flew at Groom in 1962, the main
runway had been lengthened to 8,500 ft (2,600 m), and the base boasted a
complement of over 1,000 personnel. It had fueling tanks, a control tower, and
a baseball diamond. Security was greatly enhanced, the small civilian mine in
the Groom basin was closed, and the area surrounding the valley was made an
exclusive military preserve.
Thomas P. McIninch, available from Skunk Works Digest. Joe Baugher Lockheed
Aircraft Since 1913, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press,1987. The
American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers,Orion Books,1987. The
Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aircraft Armament,Bill Gunston,Orion Books, 1988.
Lockheed Blackbirds, Anthony M. Thorborough and Peter E. Davies, Motorbooks
Unclassified security ratings that are
for historical interest only. This page and the document it comes from,
entitled OXCART History (DON: SC-86-010115), has been UNCLASSIFIED according
to Senior Crown Security Class Guide dated 11/01/89, approved and dated 25
(S) One spring day in 1962 a test pilot named Louis Schalk, employed by the
Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, took off from the Nevada desert in an aircraft
the like of which had never been seen before. A casual observer would have
been startled by the appearance of this vehicle; he would perhaps have noticed
especially its extremely long, slim, shape, its two enormous jet engines, its
long sharp, projecting nose, and its swept-back wings which appeared far too
short to support the fuselage in flight. He might well have realized that this
was a revolutionary airplane; he could not have known that it would be able to
fly at three times the speed of sound for more than 3,000 miles without
refueling, or that toward the end of its flight, when fuel began to run low,
it could cruise at over 90,000 feet. Still less would he have known of the
equipment it was to carry, or of the formidable problems attending its design
(U) There was, of course, no casual observer present. The aircraft had been
designed and built for reconnaissance; it was projected as a successor to the
U-2. Its development had been carried out in profound secrecy. Despite the
numerous designers, engineers, skilled and unskilled workers, administrators
and others who had been involved in the affair, no authentic accounts, and
indeed scarcely any accounts at all, had leaked. Many aspects have not been
revealed to this day, and many are likely to remain classified for some time
(S) The official designation of the aircraft was A-12. By a sort of inspired
perversity, however, it came to be called OXCART, a code word also applied to
the program under which it was developed. The secrecy in which it was so long
shrouded has lifted a bit, and the purpose of this article is to give some
account of the inception, development, operation, and untimely demise of this
Remarkable airplane. The OXCART no longer flies, but it left a legacy of
technological achievement which points the way to new projects. And it became
the progenitor of a similar but somewhat less sophisticated reconnaissance
vehicle called the SR-71, whose existence is well known to press and public.
The U-2 dated from 1954, when its development began under the direction of a
group headed by Richard M. Bissell of CIA. In June 1956, the aircraft became
operational, but officials predicted that its useful lifetime over the USSR
could hardly be much more than 18 months or two years. Its first flight over
Soviet territory revealed that the defense warning system not only detected
but tracked it quite accurately. Yet, it remained a unique and (S) invaluable
source of intelligence information for almost four years, until on 1 May 1960,
Francis Gary Powers was shot down near Sverdlovsk.
(U) Meanwhile, even as the U-2 commenced its active career, efforts were under
way to make it less vulnerable. The hope was to reduce the vehicle’s radar
cross-section, so that it would become less susceptible to detection. New
developments in radar-absorbing materials were tried out and achieved
considerable success, though not enough to solve the problem. Various far-out
designs were explored, most of them seeking to create an aircraft capable of
flying at extremely high altitudes, though still at relatively slow speed.
None of them proved practicable.
(S) Eventually, in the fall of 1957, Bissell arranged with a contractor for a
job of operations analysis to determine how far the probability of shooting
down an airplane varied respectively with the plane’s speed, altitude, and
radar cross-section. This analysis demonstrated that supersonic speed greatly
reduced the chances of detection by radar. The probability of being shot down
was not of course reduced to zero, but it was evident that the supersonic line
of approach was worth serious consideration. Therefore, from this time on,
attention focused increasingly on the possibility of building a vehicle which
could fly at extremely high speeds as well as great altitudes, and which would
also incorporate the best that could be attained in radar-absorbing
capabilities. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and Convair Division of General
Dynamics were informed of the general requirements, and their designers set to
work on the problem without as yet receiving any contract or funds from the
government. From the fall of 1957 to late 1958 these designers constantly
refined and adapted their respective schemes.
(S) Bissell realized that development and production of such an aircraft would
be exceedingly expensive, and that in the early stages at least it would be
doubtful whether the project could succeed. To secure the necessary funds for
such a program, high officials would have to receive the best and most
authoritative presentation of whatever prospects might unfold. Accordingly, he
got together a panel consisting of two distinguished authorities on aero-
dynamics and one physicist, with E. M. Land of the Polaroid Corporation as
chairman. Between 1957 and 1959 this panel met about six times, usually in
Land’s office in Cambridge. Lockheed and Convair designers attended during
parts of the sessions. So also did the Assistant Secretaries of the Air Force
and Navy concerned with research and development, together with one or two of
their technical advisors. One useful consequence of the participation of
service representatives was that bureaucratic and jurisdictional feuds were
reduced virtually to nil. Throughout the program both Air Force and Navy gave
valuable assistance and cooperation.
(S) As the months went by, the general outlines of what might be done took
shape in the minds of those concerned. Late in November 1958, the members of
the panel held a crucial meeting. They agreed that it now appeared feasible to
build an aircraft of such speed and altitude as to be very difficult to track
by radar. They recommended that the president be asked to approve in principle
a further prosecution of the project, and to make funds available for further
studies and tests. The president and his Scientific Advisor, Dr. James Killian
were already aware of what was going on, and when CIA officials went to them
with the recommendations of the panel they received a favorable hearing. The
President gave his approval. Lockheed and Convair were then asked to submit
definite proposals, funds were made available to them, and the project took on
the code name GUSTO.
Less than a year later the two proposals were essentially complete, and on 20
July 1959, the President was again briefed. This time he gave final approval,
which signified that the program could get fully under way.
The next major step was to choose between the Lockheed and Convair designs. On
20 August 1959 specifications of the two proposals were submitted to a joint
DOD/USAF/CIA selection panel:
(S) The Lockheed design was selected, Project GUSTO terminated, and the
program to develop a new U-2 follow-on aircraft was names OXCART. On 3
September 1959, CIA authorized Lockheed to proceed with antiradar studies,
aerodynamic structural tests, and engineering designs, and on 30 January 1960
gave the green light to produce 12 aircraft.
(S) Pratt and Whitney Division of United Aircraft Corporation had been
involved in discussions of the project, and undertook to develop the
propulsion system. Their J-58 engine, which was to be used in the A-12, had
been sponsored originally by the US Navy for its own purposes, and was to be
capable of a speed of Mach 3.0. Navy interest in the development was
diminishing, however, and the Secretary of Defense had decided to withdraw
from the program at the end of 1959. CIA’s requirement was that the engine and
aircraft be further developed and optimized for a speed of Mach 3.2. The new
contract called for initial assembly of three advanced experimental engines
for durability and reliability testing, and provision of three engines for
experimental flight testing in early 1961.
(S) The Primary camera manufacturer was Perkin-Elmer. Because of the extreme
complexity of the design, however, a decision was soon made that a back-up
system might be necessary in the event the Perkin-Elmer design ran into
production problems, and Eastman Kodak was also asked to build a camera.
Minneapolis-Honeywell Corporation was selected to provide both the inertial
navigation and automatic flight control system. The Firewell Corporation and
the David Clark Corporation became the prime sources of pilot equipment and
associated life support hardware.
(U) Lockheed’s designer was Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, creator of the U-2,
and he called his new vehicle not A-12 but A-11. Its design exhibited many
innovations. Supersonic airplanes, however, involve a multitude of extremely
difficult design problems. Their payload-range performance is highly sensitive
to engine weight, structural weight, fuel consumption, and aerodynamic
efficiency. Small mistakes in predicting these values can lead to large errors
in performance. Models of the A-11 were tested and retested, adjusted and
readjusted, during thousands of hours in the wind tunnel. Johnson was
confident of his design, but no one could say positively whether the bird
would fly, still less whether it would fulfill the extremely demanding
requirements laid down for it.
(U) To make the drawings and test the model was one thing; to build the air-
craft was another. The most numerous problems arose from the simple fact that
in flying through the atmosphere at its designed speed the skin of the air-
craft would be subjected to a temperature of more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit.
For one thing, no metal hitherto commonly used in aircraft production would
stand this temperature, and those which would do so were for the most part too
heavy to be suitable for the purpose in hand.
(S) During the design phase Lockheed evaluated many materials and finally
chose an alloy of titanium, characterized by great strength, relatively light
weight, and good resistance to high temperatures. Titanium was also scarce and
very costly. Methods for milling it and controlling the quality of the product
were not fully developed. Of the early deliveries from Titanium Metals
Corporation some 80 percent had to be rejected, and it was not until 1961,
when a delegation from headquarters visited the officials of that company,
informed them of the objectives and high priority of the OXCART program, and
gained their full cooperation, that the supply became consistently
(S) But this only solved an initial problem. One of the virtues of titanium
was its exceeding hardness, but this very virtue gave rise to immense
difficulties in machining and shaping the material. Drills which worked well
on aluminum soon broke to pieces; new ones had to be devised. Assembly-line
production was impossible; each of the small OXCART fleet was, so to speak,
turned out by hand. The cost of the program mounted well above original
estimates, and it soon began to run behind schedule. One after another,
however, the problems were solved, and their solution constituted the greatest
single technological achievement of the entire enterprise. Henceforth it
became practicable, if expensive, to build aircraft out of titanium. (S) Since
every additional pound of weight was critical, adequate insulation was out of
the question. The inside of the aircraft would be like a moderately hot oven.
The pilot would have to wear a kind of space suit, with its own cooling
apparatus, pressure control, oxygen supply, and other necessities for
survival. The fuel tanks, which constituted by far the greater part of the
aircraft, would heat up to about 350 degrees, so that special fuel had to be
supplied and the tanks themselves rendered inert with nitrogen. Lubricating
oil was formulated for operation at 600 degrees F., and contained a diluent in
order to remain fluid at operation below 40 degrees. Insulation on the plane’s
intricate wiring soon became brittle and useless. During the lifetime of the
OXCART no better insulation was found; the wiring and related connectors had
to be given special attention and handling at great cost in labor and time.
(S) Then there was the unique problem of the camera window. The OXCART was to
carry a delicate and highly sophisticated camera, which would look out through
a quartz glass window. The effectiveness of the whole system depended upon
achieving complete freedom from optical distortion despite the great heat to
which the window would be subjected. Thus the question was not simply one of
providing equipment with resistance to high temperature, but of assuring that
there should be no unevenness of temperature throughout the area of the
window. It took three years of time and two million dollars of money to arrive
at a satisfactory solution. The program scored one of its most Remarkable
successes when the quartz glass was successfully fused to its metal frame by
an unprecedented process involving the use of high frequency sound waves.
(S) Another major problem of different nature was to achieve the low radar
cross-section desired. The airframe areas giving the greatest radar return
were the vertical stabilizers, the engine inlet, and the forward side of the
engine nacelles. Research in ferrites, high temperature absorbing materials
and high- temperature plastic structures was undertaken to find methods to
reduce the return. Eventually the vertical tail section fins were constructed
from a kind of laminated "plastic" material-the first time that such
a material had been used for an important part of an aircraft’s structure.
With such changes in structural materials, the A-11 was redesignated A-12, and
as such has never been publicly disclosed.
To test the effectiveness of antiradar devices a small-scale model is
inadequate; only a full-size mock-up will do. Lockheed accordingly built one
of these, and as early as November 1959, transported it in a specially
designed trailer truck over hundreds of miles of highway from the Burbank
plant to the test area. Here it was hoisted to the top of a pylon and looked
at from various angles by radar. Tests and adjustments went on for a year and
a half before the results were deemed satisfactory. In the course of the
process it was found desirable to attach some sizable metallic constructions
on each side of the fuselage, and Kelly Johnson worried a good deal about the
effect of these protuberances on his design. In flight tests, however, it
later developed that they imparted a useful aerodynamic lift to the vehicle,
and years afterward Lockheed’s design for a supersonic transport embodied
(S) Pilots for the OXCART would obviously have to be of quite extraordinary
competence, not only because of the unprecedented performance of the aircraft
itself, but also because of the particular qualities needed in men who were to
fly intelligence missions. Brigadier General Don Flickinger, of the Air Force,
was designated to draw up the criteria for selection, with advice from Kelly
Johnson and from CIA Headquarters. Pilots had to be qualified in the latest
high performance fighters, emotionally stable, and well motivated. They were
to be between 25 and 40 years of age, and the size of the A-12 cockpit
prescribed that they be under six feet tall and under 175 pounds in weight.
(S) Air Force files were screened for possible candidates and a list of pilots
obtained. Psychological assessments, physical examinations and refinement of
criteria eliminated a good many. Pre-evaluation processing resulted in sixteen
potential nominees. This group underwent a further intensive security and
medical scrutiny by the Agency. Those who remained were then approached to
take employment with the Agency on a highly classified project involving a
very advanced aircraft. In November 1961, commitments were obtained from five
of the group. The small number recruited at this stage required that a second
search be undertaken.
(S) When the final screening was complete the pilots selected from the program
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. After the
selection, arrangements were made with the Air Force to effect appropriate
transfers and assignments to cover their training and to lay the basis for
their transition from military to civilian status. Compensation and insurance
arrangements were similar to those for the U-2 pilots.
(U) One thing to be decided in the earliest stages of the program was where to
base and test the aircraft. Lockheed clearly could not do the business at
Burbank, where the aircraft were being built, if for no other reason that its
runway was too short. The ideal location ought to be remote from metropolitan
areas; well away from civil and military airways to preclude observation;
easily accessible by air; blessed with good weather the year round; capable of
accommodating large numbers of personnel; equipped with fuel storage
facilities; fairly close to an Air Force installation; and possessing at least
an 8,000 foot runway. There was no such place to be found.
(S) Ten Air Force bases programmed for closure were considered, but none
provided the necessary security, and annual operating costs at most of them
would be unacceptable. Edwards Air Force Base in California seemed a more
likely candidate, but in the end it also was passed over. Instead a secluded
site in Nevada was finally picked. It was deficient in personnel
accommodations and POL storage, and its long-unused runway was inadequate, but
security was good, or could be made so, and a moderate construction program
could provide sufficient facilities. Lockheed estimated what would be needed
in such respects as monthly fuel consumption, hangars and shop space, housing
for personnel, and runway specifications. Armed with the list of major
requirements, Headquarters came up with a construction and engineering plan.
And in case anyone became curious about what was going on at this re- mote
spot, a cover story stated that the facilities were being prepared for certain
radar studies, to be conducted by an engineering firm with support from the
Air Force. The remote location was explained as necessary to reduce the effect
of electronic interference from outside sources.
(S) Excellent as it may have been from the point of view of security, the site
at first afforded few of the necessities and none of the amenities of life. It
was far from any metropolitan center. Lockheed provided a C-47 shuttle service
to its plant at Burbank, and a chartered D-18 (Lodestar) furnished
transportation to Las Vegas.
Daily commuting was out of the question, however, and the construction workers
arriving during 1960 were billeted in surplus trailers. A new water well was
dug, and a few recreational facilities provided, but it was some time before
accommodations became agreeable.
(** This footnote did NOT appear in the original document. It is the method I
will use to indicate Marginal notes that were hand written, at the location of
** in the original document. The Marginal note states: (1955))
(S) Among the lesser snags, one existed because the laws of Nevada required
the names of all contractor personnel staying in the state for more than 48
hours to be reported to state authorities. It was generally felt that to list
all these names and identify the companies involved would be likely to give
the whole show away. The Agency’s General Counsel, however, discovered that
Government employees were exempted from these requirements. Thenceforth all
contractor personnel going to the site received appointments as Government
consultants, and if questions were asked the reply could be that no one but
government employees were at this site.
Construction began in earnest in September 1960, and continued on a
double-shift schedule until mid-1964. One of the most urgent tasks was to
build the runway, which according to initial estimates of A-12 requirements
must be 8,500 feet long. The existing asphalt runway was 5,000 feet long and
incapable of supporting the weight of the A-12. The new one was built between
7 September and 15 November and involved pouring over 25,000 yards of
concrete. Another major problem was to provide some 500,000 gallons of PF-1
aircraft fuel per month. Neither storage facilities nor means of transporting
fuel existed. After considering airlift, pipeline, and truck transport, it was
decided that the last-named was the most economical, and could be made
feasible by resurfacing no more than eighteen miles of highway leading into
Three surplus Navy hangars were obtained, dismantled, and erected on the north
side of the base. Over 100 surplus Navy housing buildings were transported to
the base and made ready for occupancy. By early 1962 a fuel tank farm was
ready, with a capacity of 1,320,000 gallons. Warehousing and shop space was
begun and repairs made to older buildings. All this, together with the many
other facilities that had to be provided, took a long time to complete.
Meanwhile, however, the really essential facilities were ready in time for the
forecast delivery date of Aircraft No. 1 in August 1961.
(S) The facilities were ready, but the aircraft were not. Originally promised
for delivery at the end of May 1961, the date first slipped to August, largely
because of Lockheed’s difficulties in procuring and fabricating titanium.
Moreover, Pratt & Whitney found unexpectedly great trouble in bringing the
J-58 engine up to OXCART requirements. In March 1961, Kelly Johnson notified
(U) "Schedules are in jeopardy on two fronts. One is the assembly of the
wing and the other is in satisfactory development of the engine. Our
evaluation shows that each of these programs is from three to four months
behind the current schedule.
" (S)To this Bissell replied: (U) "I have learned of your expected
additional delay in first flight from 30 August to 1 December 1961. This news
is extremely shocking on top of our previous slippage from May to August and
my understanding as of our meeting 19 December that the titanium extrusion
problems were essentially overcome. I trust this is the last of such
disappointments short of a severe earthquake in Burbank.
" (U) Realizing that delays were causing the cost of the program to soar,
Headquarters decided to place a top-level aeronautical engineer in residence
at Lockheed to monitor the program and submit progress reports.
Delays nevertheless persisted. On 11 September, Pratt and Whitney informed
Lockheed of their continuing difficulties with the J-58 engine in terms of
weight, delivery, and performance. Completion date for Aircraft No. 1 by now
had slipped to 22 December 1961, and the first flight to 27 February 1962.
Even on this last date the J-58 would not be ready, and it was therefore
decided that a Pratt and Whitney J-75 engine, designed for the F-105 and flown
in the U-2, should be used for early flights. The engine, along with other
components, could be fitted to the A-12 airframe, and it could power the
aircraft safely to altitudes up to 50,000 feet and at speeds up to Mach 1.6.
(S) When this decision had been made, final preparations were begun for the
testing phase. In late 1961 Colonel Robert J. Holbury, USAF, was named
Commander of the base, with the Agency employee as his Deputy. Support
aircraft began arriving in the spring of 1962. These included eight F-101′s
for training, two T-33′s for proficiency flying, a C-130 for cargo transport,
a U-3A for administration purposes, a helicopter for search and rescue, and a
Cessna- 180 for liaison use. In addition, Lockheed provided an F-104 to act as
chase aircraft during the A-12 flight test period.
(S) Meanwhile in January 1962, an agreement was reached with the Federal
Aviation Agency that expanded the restricted airspace in the vicinity of the
test area. Certain FAA air traffic controllers were cleared for the OXCART
Project; their function was to insure that aircraft did not violate the order.
The North American Air Defense Command established procedures to prevent their
radar stations from reporting the appearance of high performance aircraft on
their radar scopes.
(S) Refueling concepts required prepositioning of vast quantities of fuel at
certain points outside the United States. Special tank farms were programmed
in California, Eielson AFB Alaska, Thule AB Greenland, Kadena AB Okinawa, and
Adana, Turkey. Since the A-12 use specially refined fuel, these tank farms
were reserved exclusively for use by the OXCART Program. Very small
detachments of technicians at these locations maintained the fuel storage
facility and arranged for periodic quality control fuel tests.
(S) At the Lockheed Burbank plant, Aircraft No. 1 (serially numbered 121)
received its final tests and checkout during January and February 1962, and
was partially disassembled for shipment to the site. It became clear very
early in OXCART planning that because of security problems and the inadequate
runway, the A-12 could not fly from Burbank. Movement of the full-scale (S)radar
test model had been successfully accomplished in November 1959, as described
above. A thorough survey of the route in June 1961, ascertained the hazards
and problems of moving the actual aircraft, and showed that a package
measuring 35 feet wide and 105 feet long could be transported without major
difficulty. Obstructing road signs had to be removed, trees trimmed, and some
roadsides leveled. Appropriate arrangements were made with police authorities
and local officials to accomplish the safe transport of the aircraft. The
entire fuselage, minus wings, was crated, covered, and loaded on the
special-design trailer, which cost about $100,000. On 26 February 1962, it
departed Burbank, and arrived at the base according to plan.
(S) First Flights (U) Upon arrival reassembly of the aircraft and installation
of the J-75 engines began. Soon it was found that aircraft tank sealing
compounds had failed to adhere to the metals, and when fuel was put into the
tanks numerous leaks occurred. It was necessary to strip the tanks of the
faulty sealing compounds and reline them with new materials. Thus occurred one
more unexpected and exasperating delay in the program.
(U) Finally, on 26 April 1962, Aircraft 121 was ready. On that day in
accordance with Kelly Johnson’s custom, Louis Schalk took it for an
unofficial, unannounced, maiden flight lasting some 40 minutes. As in all
maiden flights minor problems were detected, but it took only four more days
to ready the aircraft for its first official flight.
(U) On 30 April 1962, just under one year later than originally planned, the
A-12 officially lifted her wheels from the runway. Piloted again by Louis
Schalk, it took off at 170 knots, with a gross weight of 72,000 pounds, and
climbed to 30,000 feet. Top speed was 340 knots and the flight lasted 59
minutes. The pilot reported that the aircraft responded well and was extremely
stable. Kelly Johnson declared it to be the smoothest official first flight of
any aircraft he had designed or tested. The aircraft broke the sound barrier
on its second official flight, 4 May 1962, reaching Mach 1.1. Again only minor
problems were reported.
(S) With these flights accomplished, jubilation was the order of the day. The
new Director of Central Intelligence, Mr. John McCone, sent a telegram of
congratulation to Kelly Johnson. A critical phase had been triumphantly
passed, but there remained the long, difficult, and sometimes discouraging
process of working the aircraft up to full operational performance.
Aircraft No. 122 arrived at base on 26 June, and spent three months in radar
testing before engine installations and final assembly. Aircraft No. 123
arrived in August and flew in October. Aircraft No. 124, a two-seated version
intended for use in training project pilots, was delivered in November. It was
to be powered by the J-58 engines, but delivery delays and a desire to begin
pilot training prompted a decision to install the smaller J-75′s. The trainer
flew initially in January 1963. The fifth aircraft, No. 125, arrived at the on
(S) Meanwhile the OXCART program received a shot in the arm from the Cuban
missile crisis. U-2′s had been maintaining a regular reconnaissance vigil over
the island, and it was on one of these missions in October that the presence
of offensive missiles was discovered. Overflights thereafter became more
frequent, but on 27 October an Agency U-2, flown by a Strategic Air Force
pilot on a SAC-directed mission, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
This raised the dismaying possibility that continued manned, high- altitude
surveillance of Cuba might become out of the question. The OXCART program
suddenly assumed greater significance than ever, and its achievement of
operational status became one of the highest national priorities.
(S) At the end of 1962 there were two A-12 aircraft engaged in flight tests. A
speed of Mach 2.16 and altitude of 60,000 feet had been achieved. Progress was
still slow, however, because of delays in the delivery of engines and
shortcomings in the performance of those delivered. One of the two test
aircraft was still flying with two J-75 engines, and the other with one J-75
and one J-58. It had long since become clear that Pratt & Whitney had been
too optimistic in their forecast; the problem of developing the J-58 up to
OXCART specifications had proved a good deal more recalcitrant than expected.
Mr. McCone judged the situation to be truly serious, and on 3 December he
wrote to the President of United Aircraft Corporation.
(U) "I have been advised that J-58 engine deliveries have been delayed
again due to engine control production problems….By the end of the year it
appears we will have barely enough J-58 engines to support the flight test
program adequately….Furthermore, due to various engine difficulties we have
not yet reached design speed and altitude. Engine thrust and fuel consumption
deficiencies at present prevent sustained flight at design conditions which is
so necessary to complete developments.
" (U) By the end of January 1963, ten engines were available, and the
first flight with two of them installed occurred on 15 January. Thenceforth
all A-12 aircraft were fitted with their intended propulsion system. Flight
testing accelerated and contractor personnel went to a three-shift work day.
(U) With each succeeding step into a high Mach regime new problems presented
themselves. The worst of all these difficulties-indeed one of the most
formidable in the entire history of the program-was revealed when flight
testing moved into speeds between Mach 2.4 and 2.8, and the aircraft
experienced such severe roughness as to make its operation virtually out of
the question. The trouble was diagnosed as being in the air inlet system,
which with its controls admitted air to the engine. At the higher speeds the
flow of air was uneven, and the engine therefore could not function properly.
Only after a long period of experimentation, often highly frustrating and
irritating, was a solution reached. This further postponed the day when the
A-12 could be declared operationally ready.
(U) Among more mundane troubles was the discovery that various nuts, bolts,
clamps, and other debris of the manufacturing process had not been cleared **
away, and upon engine run-up or take-off were sucked into the engine. The
engine parts were machined to such close tolerances that they could be ruined
in this fashion. Obviously the fault was due to sheer carelessness. Inspection
procedures were revised, and it was also found prudent at Burbank to hoist the
engine nacelles into the air, rock them back and forth, listen for loose
objects, and then remove them by hand.
(** This footnote did NOT appear in the original document. It is the method I
will use to indicate Marginal notes that were hand written, at the location of
** in the original document. The Marginal note states: hasn’t changed)
(S) While on a routine flight, 24 May 1963, one of the detachment pilots
recognized an erroneous and confusing air speed indication and decided to
eject from the aircraft, which crashed 14 miles south of Wendover, Utah. The
pilot Kenneth Collins, was unhurt. The wreckage was recovered in two days, and
persons at the scene were identified and requested to sign secrecy agreements.
A cover story for the press described the accident as occurring to a F-105,
and is still listed in this way on official records.
(U) All A-12 aircraft were grounded for a week during investigation of the
accident. A plugged pitot static tube in icing conditions turned out to be
responsible for the faulty cockpit instrument indications-it was not some-
thing which would hold things up for long. (S) Loss of this aircraft
nevertheless precipitated a policy problem which had been troubling the Agency
for some time. With the growing number of A-12′s, how much longer could the
project remain secret? The program had gone through development, construction,
and a year of flight testing without attracting public attention. But the
Department of Defense was having difficulty in concealing its participation
because of the increasing rate of expenditures, otherwise unexplained. There
was also a realization that the technological data would be extremely valuable
in connection with feasibility studies for the SST. Finally, there was a
growing awareness in the higher reaches of the aircraft industry that
something new and Remarkable was going on. Rumors spread, and gossip flew
about. Commercial airline crews sighted the OXCART in flight. The editor of
Aviation Week (as might be expected) indicated his knowledge of developments
at Burbank. The secrecy was thinning out.
(S) The President’s Announcement
(U) In spite of all this, 1963 went by without any public revelation.
President Johnson was brought up to date on the project a week after taking
office, and directed that a paper be prepared for an announcement in the
spring of 1964. Then at his press conference on 24 February, he read a
statement of which the first paragraph was as follows:
(U) "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.
" (U) The president went on to mention the "mastery of the
metallurgy and fabrication of titanium metal" which has been achieved,
gave credit to Lockheed and to Pratt & Whitney, Remarked that appropriate
members of the Senate and House had been kept fully informed, and prescribed
that the detailed performance of the A-11 would be kept strictly classified.
(S) The President’s reference to the "A-11" was of course
deliberate. "A-11" had been the original design designation for the
all-metal aircraft first proposed by Lockheed; subsequently it became the
design designation for the Air Force YF-12A interceptor which differed from
its parent mainly in that it carried a second man for launching air-to-air
missiles. To preserve the distinction between the A-11 and the A-12 Security
had briefed practically all participating personnel in government and industry
on the impending announcement. OXCART secrecy continued in effect. There was
considerable speculation about an Agency role in the A-11 development, but it
was never acknowledged by the government. News headlines ranged from "US
has dozen A-11 jets already flying" to "Secret of sizzling new plane
probably history’s best kept.
" (U) The President also said that "the A-11 aircraft now at Edwards
Air Force Base are undergoing extensive tests to determine their capabilities
as long- range interceptors." It was true that the Air Force in October
1960, had contracted for three interceptor versions of the A-12, and they were
by this time available. But at the moment when the President spoke, there were
no A-11′s at Edwards and there never had been. Project officials had known
that the public announcement was about to be made, but they had not been told
exactly when. Caught by surprise, they hastily flew two Air Force YF-12A’s to
Edwards to support the President’s statement. So rushed was this operation, so
speedily were the aircraft put into hangars upon arrival, that heat from them
activated the hangar sprinkler system, dousing the reception team which
(S) Thenceforth, while the OXCART continued its secret career at its own site,
the A-11 performed at Edwards Air Force Base in a considerable glare of
publicity. Pictures of the aircraft appeared in the press, correspondents
could look at it and Marvel, stories could be written. Virtually no details
were made available, but the technical journals nevertheless had a field day.
The unclassified Air Force and Space Digest, for example, published a long
article in its issue of April 1964, commencing: "The official pictures
and statements tell very little about the A-11. But the technical literature
from open sources, when carefully interpreted, tells a good deal about what it
could and, more importantly, what it could not be. Here’s the story …
" (S) Going Operational
(U) Three years and seven months after first flight in April 1962 the OXCART
was declared ready for operational use at design specifications. The period
thus devoted to flight tests was remarkable short, considering the new fields
of aircraft performance which were being explored. As each higher Mach number
was reached exhaustive tests were carried out in accordance with standard
procedures to ensure that the aircraft functioned properly and safely. Defects
were corrected and improvements made. All concerned gained experience with the
particular characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the vehicle.
(S) The air inlet and related control continued for a long time to present the
most troublesome and refractory problem. Numerous attempts failed to find a
remedy, even though a special task force concentrated on the task. For a time
there was something approaching despair, and the solution when finally
achieved was greeted with enormous relief. After all, not every experimental
aircraft of advanced performance has survived its flight testing period. The
possibility existed that OXCART also would fail, despite the great cost and
effort expended upon it.
(S) A few dates and figures will serve to Mark the progress of events. By the
end of 1963 there had been 573 flights totaling 765 hours. Nine aircraft were
in the inventory. On 20 July 1963 test aircraft flew for the first time at
Mach 3; in November Mach 3.2 (the design speed) was reached at 78,000 feet
altitude. The longest sustained flight at design conditions occurred on 3
February 1964; it lasted to ten minutes at Mach 3.2 and 83,000 feet. By the
end of 1964 there had been 1,160 flights, totaling 1,616 hours. Eleven
aircraft were then available, four of them reserved for testing and seven
assigned to the detachment.
The record may be put in another way. Mach 2 was reached after six months of
flying; Mach 3 after 15 months. Two years after the first flight the aircraft
had flown a total of 38 hours at Mach 2, three hours at Mach 2.6, and less
than one hour at Mach 3. After three years, Mach 2 time had increased to 60
hours, Mach 2.6 time to 33 hours, and Mach 3 time to nine hours; all Mach 3
time, however, was by test aircraft, and detachment aircraft were still
restricted to mach 2.9.
(S) As may be seen from the figures, most flights were of short duration,
averaging little more than an hour each. Primarily this was because longer
flights were unnecessary at this stage of testing. It was also true, however,
that the less seen of OXCART the better, and short flights helped to preserve
the secrecy of the proceedings. Yet it was virtually impossible for an
aircraft of such dimensions and capabilities to remain inconspicuous. At its
full speed OXCART had a turning radius of no less than 86 miles. There was no
question of staying close to the airfield; its shortest possible flights took
it over a very large expanse of territory.
(S) The first long-range, high-speed flight occurred on 27 January 1965, when
one of the test aircraft flew for an hour and forty minutes, with an hour and
fifteen minutes above Mach 3.1. Its total range was 2,580 nautical miles, with
altitudes between 75,600 and 80,000 feet.
(U) Two more aircraft were lost during this phase of the program. On 9 July
1964 Aircraft No. 133 was making its final approach to the runway when at
altitude of 500 feet and airspeed of 200 knots it began a smooth steady roll
to the left. Lockheed test pilot Bill Park could not overcome the roll. At
about a 45 degree bank angle and 200 foot altitude he ejected. As he swung
down to the vertical in the parachute his feet touched the ground, for what
must have been one of the narrower escapes in the perilous history of test
piloting. The Primary cause of the accident was that the servo for the right
outboard roll and pitch control froze. No news of the accident filtered out.
(S) On 28 December 1965 Aircraft No. 126 crashed immediately after take- off
and was totally destroyed. Detachment pilot Mele Vojvodich ejected safely at
an altitude of 150 feet. The accident investigation board determined that a
flight line electrician had improperly connected the yaw and pitch gyros-had
in effect reversed the controls. This time Mr. McCone directed the Office of
Security to conduct an investigation into the possibility of sabotage. While
nothing of the sort was discovered, there were indications of negligence, as
the manufacturer of the gyro had earlier warned of the possibility that the
mechanism could be connected in reverse. No action had been taken, however,
even by such an elementary precaution as painting the contacts different
colors. Again there was no publicity connected with the accident.
(S) The year 1965 saw the test site reach the high point of activity.
Completion of construction brought it to full physical size. All detachment
pilots were Mach 3.0 qualified. Site population reached 1,835. Contractors
were working three shifts a day. Lockheed Constellations made daily flights
between the factory at Burbank and the site. Two C-47 flights a day were made
between the site and Las Vegas. And officials were considering how and when
and where to use OXCART in its appointed role.
(S) Targeting the OX
(S) After the unhappy end of U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, US political
authorities were understandably cautious about committing themselves to
further manned reconnaissance over unfriendly territory. There was no serious
intention to use the OXCART over Russia; save in some unforeseeable emergency
it was indeed no longer necessary to do so. What then, should be done with
(S) The first interest was in Cuba. By early 1964 Project Headquarters began
planning for the contingency of flights over that island under a program
designated SKYLARK. Bill Park’s accident in early July held this program up
for a time, but on 5 August Acting DCI Marshall S. Carter directed that
SKYLARK achieve emergency operational readiness by 5 November. This involved
preparing a small detachment which should be able to do the job over Cuba,
though at something less than the full design capability of the OXCART. The
goal was to operate at Mach 2.8 and 80,000 feet altitude.
In order to meet the deadline set by General Carter, camera performance would
have to be validated, pilots qualified for Mach 2.8 flight, and coordination
with supporting elements arranged. Only one of several installations for
electronic countermeasures (ECM) would be ready by November, and a senior
intra-governmental group, including representation from the President’s
Scientific Advisory Committee, examined the problem of operating over Cuba
without the full complement of defensive systems. This panel decided that the
first few overflights could safely be conducted without them, but the ECM
would be necessary thereafter. The delivery schedule of ECM equipment was
compatible with this course of action.
(S) After considerable modifications to aircraft, the detachment simulated
Cuban missions on training flights, and a limited emergency SKYLARK capability
was announced on the date General Carter had set. With two weeks notice the
OXCART detachment could accomplish a Cuban overflight, though with fewer ready
aircraft and pilots than had been planned.
(S) During the following weeks the detachment concentrated on developing
SKYLARK into a sustained capability, with five ready pilots and five
operational aircraft. The main tasks were to determine aircraft range and fuel
consumption, attain repeatable reliable operation, finish pilot training,
prepare a family of SKYLARK missions, and coordinate routes with North
American Air Defense, Continental Air Defense, and the Federal Aviation
Authority. All this was accomplished without substantially hindering the main
task of working up OXCART to full design capability. We may anticipate the
story, however, by remarking that despite all this preparation the OXCART was
never used over Cuba. U-2′s proved adequate, and the A-12 was reserved for
more critical situations.
(S) In 1965 a more critical situation did indeed emerge in Asia, and interest
in using the aircraft there began to be manifest. On 18 March 1965 Mr. McCone
discussed with Secretaries McNamara and Vance the increasing hazards to U-2
and drone reconnaissance of Communist China. A memorandum of this conversation
(S) "It was further agreed that we should proceed immediately with all
preparatory steps necessary to operate the OXCART over Communist China, flying
out of Okinawa. It was agreed that we should proceed with all construction and
related arrangements. However, this decision did not authorize the deployment
of the OXCART to Okinawa nor the decision to fly the OXCART over Communist
China. The decision would authorize all preparatory steps and the expenditure
of such funds as might be involved. No decision has been taken to fly the
OXCART operationally over Communist China. This decision can only be made by
(S) Four days later Brigadier General Jack C. Ledford, Director of the Office
of Special Activities, DD/S&T, briefed Mr. Vance on the scheme which had
been drawn up for operations in the Far East. The project was called BLACK
SHIELD, and it called for the OXCART to operate out of the Kadena Air Force
Base in Okinawa. In the first phase, three aircraft would stage to Okinawa for
60-day periods, twice a year, with about 225 personnel involved.
(S) After this was in good order, BLACK SHIELD would advance to the point of
maintaining a permanent detachment at Kadena. Secretary Vance made $3.7
million available to be spent in providing support facilities on the island,
which were to be available by early fall of 1965.
(S) Meanwhile the Communists began to deploy surface-to-air missiles around
Hanoi, thereby threatening our current military reconnaissance capabilities.
Secretary McNamara called this to the attention of the Under Secretary of the
Air Force on 3 June 1965, and inquired about the practicability of
substituting OXCART aircraft for U-2′s. He was told that BLACK SHIELD could
operate over Vietnam as soon as adequate aircraft performance was achieved.
(S) With deployment overseas thus apparently impending in the fall, the
detachment went into the final stages of its program for validating the
reliability of aircraft and aircraft systems. It set out to demonstrate
complete systems reliability at Mach 3.05 and at 2,300 nautical miles range,
with penetration altitude of 76,000 feet. A demonstrated capability for three
aerial refuelings was also part of the validation process.
(S) By this time the OXCART was well along in performance. The inlet, camera,
hydraulic, navigation, and flight control systems all demonstrated acceptable
reliability. Nevertheless, as longer flights were conducted at high speeds and
high temperatures, new problems came to the surface, the most serious being
with the electrical wiring system. Wiring connectors and components had to
withstand temperatures of more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit, together with
structural flexing, vibration, and shock. Continuing malfunctions in the inlet
controls, communications equipment, ECM systems, and cockpit instruments were
in many cases attributable to wiring failures. There was also disturbing
evidence that careless handling was contributing to electrical connector
failures. Difficulties persisted in the sealing of fuel tanks. What with one
thing and another, officials soon began to fear that the scheduled date for
BLACK SHIELD readiness would not be met. Prompt corrective action on the part
of Lockheed was in order. The quality of maintenance needed drastic
improvement. The responsibility for delivering an aircraft system with
acceptable reliability to meet an operational commitment lay in Lockheed’s
(S) In this uncomfortable situation, John Paragosky, Deputy for Technology,
OSA, went to the Lockheed plant to see Kelly Johnson on 3 August 1965. A frank
discussion ensued on the measures necessary to insure that BLACK SHIELD
commitments would be met, and Johnson concluded that he should himself spend
full time at the site in order to get the job done expeditiously. Lockheed
President Daniel Haughton offered the full support of the corporation, and
Johnson began duty at the site next day. His firm and effective management got
Project BLACK SHIELD back on schedule.
(S) Four primary BLACK SHIELD aircraft were selected and final validation
flights conducted. During these tests the OXCART achieved a maximum speed of
Mach 3.29, altitude of 90,000 feet, and sustained flight time above Mach 3.2
of one hour and fourteen minutes. The maximum endurance flight lasted six
hours and twenty minutes. The last stage was reached on 20 November 1965, and
two days later Kelly Johnson wrote General Ledford:
(S) " … Over-all, my considered opinion is that the aircraft can be
successfully deployed for the BLACK SHIELD mission with what I would consider
to be at least as low a degree of risk as in the early U-2 deployment days.
Actually, considering our performance level of more than four times the U-2
speed and three miles more operating altitude, it is probably much less risky
than our first U-2 deployment. I think the time has come when the bird should
leave its nest."
(S) Ten days later the 303 Committee received a formal proposal that OXCART be
deployed to the Far East. The Committee, after examining the matter, did not
approve. It did agree, however, that short of actually moving aircraft to
Kadena all steps should be taken to develop and maintain a quick reaction
capability, ready to deploy within a 21-day period at any time after 1 January
(S) There the matter remained, for more than a year. During 1966 there were
frequent renewals of the request to the 303 Committee for authorization to
deploy OXCART to Okinawa and conduct reconnaissance missions over North
Vietnam, Communist China, or both. All were turned down. Among high officials
there was difference of opinion; CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the
Presidents Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board favored the move, while Alexis
Johnson representing State, and Defense in the persons of Messrs. McNamara and
Vance, opposed it. The proponents urged the necessity of better intelligence,
especially on a possible Chinese Communist build-up preparatory to
intervention in Vietnam. The opponents felt that better intelligence was not
so urgently needed as to justify the political risks of basing the aircraft in
Okinawa and thus almost certainly disclosing to Japanese and other
propagandists. They also believed it undesirable to use OXCART and reveal
something of its capability until a more pressing requirement appeared. At
least once, on 12 August 1966, the divergent views were brought up to the
President, who confirmed the 303 Committee’s majority opinion against
(S) Meanwhile, of course, flight testing and crew proficiency training
continued. There was plenty of time to improve mission plans and flight
tactics, as well as to prepare the forward area at Kadena. New plans shortened
deployment time from the 21 days first specified. Personnel and cargo were to
be airlifted to Kadena the day deployment was approved. On the fifth day the
first OXCART would depart and travel the 6,673 miles in five hours and 34
minutes. The second would go on the seventh and the third on the ninth day.
The first two would be ready for an emergency mission on the eleventh day, and
for a normal mission on the fifteenth day.
(S) An impressive demonstration of the OXCART capability occurred on 21
December 1966 when Lockheed test pilot Bill Park flew 10,198 statute miles in
six hours. The aircraft left the test area in Nevada and flew northward over
Yellowstone National Park, thence eastward to Bismarck, North Dakota, and on
to Duluth, Minnesota. It then turned south and passed Atlanta en route to
Tampa, Florida, then northwest to Portland, Oregon, then southwest to Nevada.
Again the flight turned eastward, passing Denver and St. Louis. Turning around
at Knoxville, Tennessee, it passed Memphis in the home stretch back to Nevada.
This flight established a record unapproachable by any other aircraft; it
began at about the same time a typical government employee starts his work day
and ended two hours before his quitting time. *
(S) Shortly after this exploit, tragedy befell the program. During a routine
training flight on 5 January 1967, the fourth aircraft was lost, together with
its pilot. The accident occurred during descent about 70 miles from the base.
A fuel gauge failed to function properly, and the aircraft ran out of fuel
only minutes before landing. The pilot, Walter Ray, ejected but was killed
when he failed to separate from the ejection seat before impact. The aircraft
was totally destroyed. Its wreckage was found on 6 January and Ray’s body
recovered a day later. Through Air Force channels a story was released to the
effect that an Air Force SR-71, on a routine test flight out of Edwards Air
Force Base, was missing and presumed down in Nevada. The pilot was identified
as a civilian test pilot, and the newspapers connected him with Lockheed.
Flight activity at the base was again suspended during investigation of the
causes both for the crash and for the failure of the seat separation device.
(S) It is worth observing that none of the four accidents occurred in the
high-Mach-number, high-temperature regime of flight. All involved traditional
problems inherent in any aircraft. In fact, the OXCART was by this time
performing at high speeds, with excellent reliability.
deployment took a new turn. A good deal of apprehension was evident in
Washington about the possibility that the Communists might introduce
surface-to-surface missiles into North Vietnam, and concern was aggravated
by doubts as to whether we could detect such a development if it occurred.
The President asked for a proposal on the matter; CIA briefed the 303
Committee and once again suggested that the OXCART be used. Its camera was
far superior to those on drones or on the U-2, its vulnerability was far
less. The State and Defense members of the Committee decided to re-examine
the requirements and the political risks involved. While they were engaged
in their deliberations, Director of Central Intelligence, Richard Helms,
submitted to the 303 Committee another formal proposal to deploy the
OXCART. In addition, he raised the matter at President Johnson’s
"Tuesday lunch" on 16 May, and received the Presidents approval
to "go." Walt Rostow later in the day formally conveyed the
President’s decision, and the BLACK SHIELD deployment plan was forthwith
put into effect.
(S) On 17 May airlift to Kadena began. On 22 May the first A-12 (Serial
No. 131) flew nonstop to Kadena in six hours and six minutes. Aircraft No.
(S) * Neither on this nor on other flights was there much trouble from
sonic boom. To be sure, the inhabitants of a small village some 30 miles
from the site were troubled as the aircraft broke through the sound
barrier while gaining altitude. A change of course remedied this. At
altitude OXCART produced no more than an ominous rumble on the ground and
since the plane was in- visible to the naked eye no one associated this
sound with its actual source.
departed on 24 May and arrived at Kadena five hours and 55 minutes later.
The third, No. 129, left according to plan on 26 May 1967 and proceeded
normally until in the vicinity of Wake Island where the pilot experienced
difficulties with the inertial navigation and communications systems. In
the circumstances, he decided to make a precautionary landing at Wake
Island. The prepositioned emergency recovery team secured the aircraft
without incident and the flight to Kadena resumed next day.
Arrangements were made to brief the Ambassadors and Chiefs of Station in
the Philippines, Formosa, Thailand, South Vietnam, and Japan, and the High
Commissioner and Chief of Station, Okinawa. The Prime Ministers of Japan
and Thailand were advised, as were the President and Defense Minister of
the Republic of China. The Chiefs of the Air Force of Thailand and the
Republic of China were also briefed. Reactions were favorable.
(S) On 29 May 1967, the unit at Kadena was ready to fly an operational
mission. Under the command of Colonel Hugh C. Slater two hundred and sixty
personnel had deployed to the BLACK SHIELD facility. Except for hangars,
which were a month short of completion, everything was in shape for
sustained operations. Next day the detachment was alerted for a mission on
31 May, and the moment arrived which would see the culmination of ten
years of effort, worry, and cost. As fate would have it, on the morning of
the 31st heavy rain fell at Kadena. Since weather over the target area was
clear, preparations continued in hopes that the local weather would clear.
When the time for take-off approached, the OXCART, which had never
operated in heavy rain, taxied to the runway, and took off while the rain
(S) The first BLACK SHIELD mission followed one flight line over North
Vietnam and one over the Demilitarized Zone. It lasted three hours and 39
minutes, and the cruise legs were flown at Mach 3.1 and 80,000 feet.
Results were satisfactory. Seventy of the 190 known SAM sites in North
Vietnam were photographed, as were nine other priority targets. There were
no radar signals detected, indicating that the first mission had gone
completely unnoticed by both Chinese and North Vietnamese.
(S) Fifteen BLACK SHIELD missions were alerted during the period from 31
May to 15 August 1967. Seven of the fifteen were flown and of these four
detected radar tracking signals, but no hostile action was taken against
any of them. By mid-July they had deterred with a high degree of
confidence that there were no surface-to-surface missiles in North
All operational missions were planned, directed, and controlled by Project
Headquarters in Washington. A constant watch was maintained on the weather
in the target areas. Each day at a specified hour (1600 hours local) a
mission alert briefing occurred. If the forecast weather appeared
favorable, the Kadena base was alerted and provided a route to be flown.
The alert pre- ceded actual take-off by 28 to 30 hours. Twelve hours prior
to take-off (H minus 12) a second review of target weather was made. If it
continued favorable, the mission generation sequence continued. At H minus
2 hours, a "go-no-go" decision was made and communicated to the
field. The final decision, it should be noted, depended not solely on
weather in the target area; conditions had to be propitious also in the
refueling areas and at the launch and recovery base.
(S) Operations and maintenance at Kadena began with the receipt of alert
notification. Both a Primary aircraft and pilot and a back-up aircraft and
pilot were selected. The aircraft were given thorough inspection and
servicing, all systems were checked, and the cameras loaded into the
aircraft. Pilots received a detailed route briefing in the early evening
prior to the day of flight. On the morning of the flight a final briefing
occurred, at which time the condition of the aircraft and its systems was
reported, last-minute weather forecasts reviewed, and other relevant
intelligence communicated together with any amendments or changes in the
flight plan. Two hours prior to take- off the Primary pilot had a medical
examination, got into his suit, and was taken to the aircraft. If any
malfunctions developed on the Primary aircraft, the back-up could execute
the mission one hour later.
(S) A typical route profile for a BLACK SHIELD mission over North Vietnam
included a refueling shortly after take-off, south of Okinawa, the planned
photographic pass or passes, withdrawal to a second aerial refueling in
the Thailand area, and return to Kadena. So great was the OXCART speed
that it spent only 12 1/2 minutes over North Vietnam in a typical
"single pass" mission, or a total of 21 1/2 minutes on two
passes. Its turning radius of 86 miles was such, however, that on some
mission profiles it might be forced during its turn to intrude into
(S) Once landed back at Kadena, the camera film was removed from the
aircraft, boxed, and sent by special plane to the processing facilities.
Film from earlier missions was developed at the Eastman Kodak plant in
Rochester, New York. By late summer an Air Force Center in Japan carried
out the processing in order to place the photointelligence in the hands of
American commanders in Vietnam within 24 hours of completion of a BLACK
(S) Between 16 August and 31 December 1967, twenty-six missions were
alerted. Fifteen were flown. On 17 December one SAM site tracked the
vehicle with its acquisition radar but was unsuccessful with its Fan Song
guidance radar. On 28 October a North Vietnamese SAM site for the first
time launched a single, albiet unsuccessful, missile at the OXCART.
Photography from this mission documented the event with photographs of
missile smoke above the SAM firing site, and with pictures of the missile
and of its contrail. Electronic countermeasures equipment appeared to
perform well against the missile firing.
(S) During the flight of 30 October 1967, pilot Dennis Sullivan detected
radar tracking on his first pass over North Vietnam. Two sites prepared to
launch missiles but neither did. During the second pass at least six
missiles were fired at the OXCART, each confirmed by missile vapor trails
on mission photography. Sullivan saw these vapor trails and witnessed
three missile detonations. Post-flight inspection of the aircraft revealed
that a piece of metal had penetrated the lower right wing fillet area and
lodged against the support structure of the wing tank. The fragment was
not a warhead pellet but may have been a part of the debris from one of
the missile detonations observed by the pilot.
(S) Between 1 January and 31 March 1968 six missions were flown out of
fifteen alerted. Four of these were over North Vietnam and two over North
Korea. The first mission over North Korea on 26 January occurred during a
very tense period following seizure of the Pueblo on the 23rd. The aim was
to discover whether the North Koreans were preparing any large scale
hostile move on the heels of this incident. Chinese tracking of the flight
was apparent, but no missiles were fired at the plane.
The Department of State was reluctant to endorse a second mission over
North Korea for fear of the diplomatic repercussions which could be
expected if the aircraft came down in hostile territory. Brigadier General
Paul Bacalis then briefed Secretary Rusk on the details and objectives of
the mission, and assured him that the aircraft would transit North Korea
in no more than seven minutes. He explained that even if some failure
occurred during flight the aircraft would be highly unlikely to land
either in North Korea or in China. Secretary Rusk made suggestions to
alter the flight plan, thus becoming the projects highest ranking flight
(S) Between 1 April and 9 June 1968 two missions were alerted for North
Korea. Only the mission which flew on 8 May was granted approval.
program the Air Force had been exceedingly helpful. it gave financial
support, conducted the refueling program, provided operational
facilities at Kadena, and air-lifted OXCART personnel and supplies to
Okinawa for the operations over Vietnam and North Korea. It also
ordered from Lockheed a small fleet of A-11′s, which upon being
finished as two seated reconnaissance aircraft would be named SR-71.
These would become operational about 1967.
(S) The stated mission of the SR-71 was to conduct "post-strike
reconnaissance," that is, to look the enemy situation over after
a nuclear exchange. The likelihood of using the aircraft in the
capacity hardly appeared great, but SR-71 was of course also capable
of ordinary intelligence missions. For these purposes, however, the
OXCART possessed certain clear advantages. It carried only one man,
and largely for this reason it had room for a much bigger and better
camera, as well as for various other collection devices which at the
time could not be carried by the SR-71. It was certainly the most
effective reconnaissance aircraft in existence, or likely to be in
existence for years to come. Also it was operated by civilians, and
could be employed covertly, or at least without the number of
personnel and amount of fanfare normally attending an Air Force
(S) The fact the SR-71′s were ordered eased the path of OXCART
development, since it meant that the financial burden was shared with
the Air Force, and the cost per aircraft was somewhat reduced by
producing greater numbers. In the longer run, however, the existence
of SR-71 spelled the doom of OXCART, for reasons which appear to have
been chiefly financial and in a manner now to be related.
(S) During November 1965, the very month when OXCART was finally
declared operational, the moves toward its demise commenced. Within
the Bureau of the Budget a memorandum was circulated expressing
concern at the costs of the A-12 and SR-71 programs, both past and
projected. It questioned the requirement for the total number of
aircraft represented in the combined fleets, and doubted the necessity
for a separate CIA (OXCART) fleet. Several alternatives were proposed
to achieve a substantial reduction in the forecasted spending, but the
recommended course was to phase out the A-12 program by September 1966
and stop any further procurement of SR-71 aircraft. Copies of this
memorandum were sent to the Department of Defense and the CIA with the
suggestion that those agencies explore the alternatives set out in the
paper. But the Secretary of Defense declined to consider the proposal,
presumably because the SR-71 would not be operational by September
(S) Things remained in this state until in July 1966 the Bureau of the
Budget proposed that a study group be established to look into the
possibility of reducing expenses on the OXCART and SR-71 programs. The
group was requested to consider the following alternatives:
1. Retention of separate A-12 and SR-71 fleets, i.e., status quo.
2. Collocation of the two fleets.
3. Transfer of the OXCART mission and aircraft to SAC.
4. Transfer of the OXCART mission to SAC and storage of A-12 aircraft.
5. Transfer of the OXCART mission to SAC and disposal of A-12
(S)The study group included C. W. Fischer, Bureau of the Budget;
Herbert Bennington, Department of Defense; and John Paragosky, Central
(S) This group conducted its study through the fall of 1966, and
identified three principal alternatives of its own. They were:
1. To maintain the status quo and continue both fleets at current
2. To mothball all A-12 aircraft, but maintain the OXCART capability
by sharing SR-71 aircraft between SAC and CIA.
3. To terminate the OXCART fleet in January 1968 (assuming an
operational readiness date of September 1967 for the SR-71) and assign
all missions to the SR-71 fleet.
was a meeting at the Bureau of the Budget attended by Mr. Helms, Mr.
Shultze, Mr. Vance, and Dr. Hornig, Scientific Advisor to the
President. Those present voted on the alternatives proposed in the
Fischer-Bennington-Paragosky report. Messrs. Vance, Schultze, and
Hornig chose to terminate the OXCART fleet, and Mr. Helms stood out
for eventual sharing of the SR-71 fleet between CIA and SAC. The
Bureau of the Budget immediately prepared a letter to the President
setting forth the course of action recommended by the majority. Mr.
Helms, having dissented from the majority, requested his Deputy
Director for Science and Technology to prepare a letter to the
President stating CIA’s reasons for remaining in the reconnaissance
(S) On 16 December Mr. Schultze handed Mr. Helms a draft memorandum
to the President which requested a decision either to share the
SR-71 fleet between CIA and SAC, or to terminate the CIA capability
entirely. This time Mr. Helms replied that new information of
considerable significance had been brought to his attention
concerning SR-71 performance. He requested another meeting after 1
January to review pertinent facts, and also asked that the
memorandum to the President be withheld pending that meeting’s
outcome. Specifically, he cited indications that the SR-71 program
was having serious technical problems and that there was real doubt
that it would achieve an operational capability by the time
suggested for termination of the A-12 program. Mr. Helms therefore
changed his position from sharing the SR-71 aircraft with SAC to a
firm recommendation to retain the OXCART A-12 fleet under civilian
sponsorship. The Budget Bureau’s memorandum was nevertheless
transmitted to the President, who on 28 December 1966 accepted the
recommendations of Messrs. Vance, Hornig, and Schultze, and directed
the termination of the OXCART Program by 1 January 1968.
(S) This decision meant that a schedule had to be developed for
orderly phase-out. After consultation with project Headquarters, the
Deputy Secretary of Defense was advised on 10 January 1967 that four
A-12′s would be placed in storage in July 1967, two more by
December, and the last four by the end of January 1968. In May Mr.
Vance directed that the SR-71 assume contingency responsibility to
conduct Cuban overflights as of 1 July 1967 and take over the dual
capability over Southeast Asia and Cuba by 1 December 1967. This
provided for some overlap between OXCART withdrawal and SR-71
assumption of responsibility.
(S) Meanwhile until 1 July 1967 the OXCART Detachment was to
maintain its capability to conduct operational missions both from a
prepared location overseas and from the US. This included a 15 day
quick reaction capability for deployment to the Far East and a
seven-day quick reaction for deployment over Cuba. Between 1 July
and 31 December 1967 the fleet would remain able to conduct
operational missions either from a prepared overseas base or from
home base, but not from both simultaneously. A quick reaction
capability for either Cuban overflights or deployment to the Far
East would also be maintained.
(S) All these transactions and arrangements occurred before the
OXCART had conducted a single operational mission or even deployed
to Kadena for such a mission. As recounted above, the aircraft first
performed its appointed role over North Vietnam on the last day of
May 1967. In succeeding months it demonstrated both its exceptional
technical capabilities and the competence with which its operations
were managed. As word began to get around that OXCART was to be
phased out, high officials commenced to feel some disquiet. Concern
was shown by Walt Rostow, the President’s Special Assistant; by key
Congressional figures, members of the President’s Foreign
Intelligence Advisory Board, and the President’s Scientific Advisory
Commit- tee. The phase-out lagged, and the question was reopened.
(S) A new study of the feasibility and cost of continuing the OXCART
program was completed in the spring of 1968 and four new
alternatives were proposed.
1. Transfer all OXCART aircraft to SAC by 31 October 1968;
substitute Air Force for contractor support where possible; turn the
test A-12 aircraft over to the SR-71 test facility.
2. Transfer OXCART as in alternative 1, above, and store eight
3. Close the OXCART home base and collocate the fleet with SR-71′s
at Beale Air Force Base in California, but with CIA retaining
control and management.
4. Continue OXCART operations at its own base under CIA control and
(S) Mr. Helms expressed his reactions to these alternatives in a
memorandum to Messrs. Nitze, Hornig, and Flax, dated 18 April 1968.
In it he questioned why, if eight SR-71′s could be stored in one
option, they could not be stored in all the options, with the
resultant savings applied in each case. He questioned the lower cost
figures of combining the OXCART with the SR-71′s and disagreed, for
security reasons, with collocating the two fleets. Above all,
however, he felt that the key point was the desirability of
retaining a covert reconnaissance capability under civilian
management. It was his judgment that such a requirement existed, and
he recommended that OXCART continue at its own base under CIA
(S) In spite of all these belated efforts, the Secretary of Defense
on 16 May 1968 reaffirmed the original decision to terminate the
OXCART Program and store the aircraft. At his weekly luncheon with
his principal advisors on 21 May 1968, the President confirmed
Secretary Clifford’s decision.
(S) Early in March 1968, USAF SR-71 aircraft began to arrive at
Kadena to take over the BLACK SHIELD commitment, and by gradual
stages the A-12 was placed on standby to back up the SR-71. The last
operational mission flown by OXCART was on 8 May 1968 over North
Korea, following which the Kadena Detachment was advised to prepare
to go home. Project Headquarters selected 8 June 1968 as the
earliest possible date to begin redeployment, and in the meantime
flights of A-12 aircraft were to be limited to those essential for
maintaining flying safety and pilot proficiency. After BLACK SHIELD
aircraft arrived in the US they would proceed to storage. Those
already at base were placed in storage by 7 June.
(S) During its final days overseas the OXCART enterprise suffered
yet another blow, as inexplicable as it was tragic. On 4 June
Aircraft No. 129, piloted by Jack Weeks, set out from Kadena on a
check flight necessitated by a change of engine. Weeks was heard
from when 520 miles east of Manila. Then he disappeared. Search and
rescue operations found nothing. No cause for the accident was ever
ascertained, and it remains a mystery to this day. Once again the
official news release identified the lost aircraft as an SR-71 and
security was maintained.
(S) A few days afterwards the two remaining planes on Okinawa flew
to the US and were stored with the remainder of the OXCART family.
(S) In Summary; the OXCART Program lasted just over ten years, from
its inception in 1957 through first flights in 1962 to termination
in 1968. Lockheed produced 15 OXCARTS, three YF-12A’s and 31
SR-71′s. The 49 supersonic aircraft had completed more than 7,300
flights, with 17,000 hours in the air. Over 2,400 hours had been
above Mach 3. Five OXCART were lost in accidents; two pilots were
killed, and two had narrow escapes. In addition, two F-101 chase
planes were lost with their Air Force pilots during OXCART testing
(U) The main objective of the program-to create a reconnaissance
aircraft of unprecedented speed, range, and altitude capability-was
triumphantly achieved. It may well be, however, that the most
important aspects of the effort lay in its by-products, the notable
advances in aerodynamic design, engine performance, cameras,
electronic countermeasures, pilot life support systems, antiair
devices, and above all in milling, machining, and shaping titanium.
Altogether it was a pioneering accomplishment.
(S) In a ceremony at the Nevada base on 26 June 1968, Vice Admiral
Rufus L. Taylor, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, presented
the CIA Intelligence Star for valor to pilots Kenneth S. Collins,
Ronald L. Layton, Francis J. Murray, Dennis B. Sullivan, and Mele
Vojvodich for participation in the BLACK SHIELD operation. The
posthumous award to pilot Jack W. Weeks was accepted by his widow.
The United States Air Force Legion of Merit was presented to Colonel
Slater and his Deputy, Colonel Maynard N. Amundson. The Air Force
Outstanding Unit Award was presented to the members of the OXCART
Detachment (1129th Special Activities Squadron, Detachment 1) and
the USAF supporting units.
(U) Wives of the pilots were present and learned for the first time
of the activities in which their husbands had been involved. Kelly
Johnson was a guest speaker at the ceremony, and lamented in moving
words the end of an enterprise which had Marked his most outstanding
achievement in aircraft design. His own awards had already been
received: The Presidents Medal of Freedom in 1964, and on 10
February 1966, the National Medal of Science, from President
Johnson, for his contributions to aerospace science and to the