Museum fights for A-12

Coleman-Klobuchar bill would keep spy plane in Minnesota

In the Strib:

Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at helping the Minnesota Air Guard Museum retain a 1960s spy plane that is slated for transfer to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Last week, Air Force workers began disassembling the A-12 Blackbird, which has been at the museum since 1991. A team of Minnesota volunteers had rescued the 99-foot-long plane from the scrap heap in California and restored it, including a rare refurbishment of its cockpit instruments.

First of all, it really doesn’t seem fair that the Air Force and CIA are just taking this plane after volunteers painstakingly restored it, presumably for the purpose of displaying it in their museum.

Second, the A-12 isn’t a “Blackbird”, is it? The program was “Oxcart”, and it’s sometimes referred to as the “Cygnus”, though I don’t know if that was ever official. (Actually, I’m not even sure if “Blackbird” was ever official for the SR-71…) I’ve always thought that references to the “A-12 Balckbird” were mistakes. But here’s a government pic from the DVIC:

An air-to-air right side view of an A-12 Blackbird aircraft carrying a D-21 drone. Date Shot: 6 Jan 1982

Again, a couple of nits to pick. First, I believe the A-12s modified to carry the D-21 were referred to as M-12s. (This is aircraft 06940, one of two A-12s modified into M-12s, and it is currently at the Seattle Museum of Flight.) Second, I don’t think the date of 1982 can possibly be correct, as the program was cancelled in 1966. So I don’t know that this caption has much credibility.

Someone straighten ol’ Murdoc out.

Meanwhile,some remaining D-21s were launched from B-52s in Project “Senior Bowl” to overfly China 1969-1971. For more info on the D-21 program, see this excellent page. (story via Alert 5)


  1. The A-12 is the first of all Blackbird variants, last flight ‘mission’ 1968. The A-12 developed as a U-2 replacement, lead to the YF-12 and SR-71. A little smaller but you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them.

  2. Al Martin: Yes, but does that mean that ALL of these were ‘Blackbirds’? That had never been my impression, but I’ve never been real clear on it. GL: Yes, but in this case the ‘A’ was for what they called the ‘Angel’ program, or ‘Archangel’ in this case as ‘Angel’ was the U-2 and this was the follow-on to that. This aircraft was the 12th design in the series, so they called it the A-12. Doesn’t make sense to me either, but that’s what Wikipedia says. Must be true.

  3. I recently finished Ben Rich’s book about the Skunkworks. It’s really too bad that the Air Force caused all of the specialized tooling used in the construction of the A-12/SR-71 to be destroyed. Mr. Rich’s assertion is that the airplane was so far ahead of anything else the Air Force had at the time, or even were considering, that it was a threat to their other ongoing projects and R&D budget. They wanted it to go away and never come back.

  4. I don’t believe the ‘blackbird’ designation was ever official, so it would be hard to say it should apply to one model or another. We could sure use some of them today. I’m guessing the dim bulbs in military intelligence didn’t see these Chinese ASATs coming. It amazes me how the USAF can spin a bad bird into a good one, like the F-22, and a good airplane into a bad one like the SR-71 and YF-23. Then they classify their capabilities so no one can call them on thier stupidity.

  5. I certainly could never understand why nobody stuck missiles like the AMRAAM inside an RS-71 to make for a pretty awesome interceptor. The Russians did it with their MiG-25/31, although they just hung them off the wings. Also I bet an RS-71 could dive toss a bomb a long way. I doubt its full capabilities were ever really explored.

  6. A general did make a good point though. What the heck does an airlift wing have in common with a ‘high-speed’ plane like the Blackbird? It makes more sense for the CIA to have a spyplane rather then an airlift wing. (not that I don’t love the slow movers too!)

  7. I always heard it was ‘Asset’-12 That pic is not of an A-12 unless they stuck a back seat in one. The A-12s were all single seaters. That was the main difference between the A-12 and the SR-71 if I recall.

  8. Coolhand77: Yeah, ‘Asset’ was in the Wikipedia article, as well. It’s surprising that there’s so much confusion over this. Usually, black military and intel projects are so simple and straighforward.

  9. I remember reading that they didn’t make very good fighters. Apparently the axi-symmetric intake spike doesn’t do too well at high angle of attack. Of course, you’ll notice that most fighters have 2 dimensional diffuser ramps.

  10. For the record, The A-12A parked at the MN Air National Guard Museum on the Northeast side of the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport is ser #60-6931. It’s plainly visible from Google maps. There never were that many A-12s, much less SR-71s, and I wouldn’t be too surprised that some congress critter wants this A-12 for a museum in their district. The A-12, Oxcart, (Who says the military doesn’t have a sense of humor?) was the predecessor to the SR-71. The final A-12 flight was June 21, 1968 and some A-12s were upgraded to SR-71s. I do know that earlier birds had step in the chine close to the cockpit whereas the chine on the SR-71 extended all the way to the nose. We called them ‘Blackbirds’ in my time. Japanese islanders in the Ryuku Islands where the aircraft were forward based called them Habu after a local venomous snake. Yes, they did attempt to paint some aircraft white. The problem was the high speed and temperature was such that you could paint it any color you wanted, it would come back black, so black it was. Lyndon John announced the airplane during the 1964 presidential campaign while attempting to prove to the nation that he wasn’t soft on defense as Barry Goldwater charged. Johnson stated it was capable of flying 1,800 mph at 80,000 feet. There is lots of discussion about just how fast & high the airplane can actually go. What I remember is that about four months after Lyndon Johnson’s announcement, the Russians and the Chinese, in a rare display of agreement at the time, made a joint statement to the effect of ‘Bovine exhaust! We know it will do 3,000 mph at 150,000 feet and, for all we know, it may do more.’ Air Force rumor at the time said the Russians sent up a Mig-25 Foxbat which fired an air to air missile only to have the SR-71 outrun the missile. In truth, the US never quite knew what to do with the A-12. Some thought bomber carrying Short Range Attack Missiles (SRAM). There was a bomber number, B-71, reserved for it but never used. Some thought fighter. There was a fighter number reserved, YF-12. More on that later. Some thought reconnaissance and the R-71 was reserved but it didn’t quite fit the role of operational reconnaissance either. The problem was that it didn’t quite fit any of these missions quite right. The designation ‘SR’, for strategic reconnaissance was invented for the SR-71. There were problems. It wasn’t expensive to make. It was damned expensive. For one thing, titanium isn’t cheap. Plus, there was little experience working with titanium on this scale at the time. Lockheed had to invent many of the production processes. Titanium hardware was unavailable. Lockheed was making their own titanium bolts & rivets. The A-12/SR-71 was a pain in the crew chief’s anatomy on a good day, much less if there were any problems. It was a high performance airplane that pushed all the limits and required specialized maintenance, materials, etc. Flight line safety officers would blanch whenever they saw one. At ambient temperature, the thing poured fuel out of every crevice because the plane operated at temperatures too extreme for fuel bladders and would only seal properly at temperature. This was not the sort of aircraft you just hop in and take off. From the pilot’s perspective, the SR-71 was no joy to fly. The cockpit was cramped. The windows were very small. The airplane weighed 85 TONS at takeoff. With a thrust/weight ratio of 0.382, the word ‘nimble’ was not in the lexicon. At speed, cockpit temperatures were high enough to roast a Thankgiving turkey. Touching a window in flight without gloves would result in third degree burns. The only thing keeping you alive was your pressure suit which was cooled as well as pressurised. Pressure suits were NOT something one would choose to lounge around in, by the way. Still, you were flying the fastest air breathing airplane in the sky. There were experiments with an even faster drone, the D-21. There were a variety of problems with these drones. I’ve seen no records of a successful drone mission and at least one airplane & crew was lost attempting to launch a D-21. A couple decades ago, I interviewed with the Bendix Energy Controls Division. They made fuel control systems for jet engines. A picture of a unique test stand caught my eye; mainly because the test stand and the fuel control valve was glowing a nice, bright orange. They admitted that they built the fuel control system for the J-58 engines on the SR-71 and they had to test them at operating temperature. The exact temperature and composition of the fuel was, of course, classified but from the color, maybe 1,200 degrees F. My escort did mention they had to use a gold-based babbitt in the bushings because the regular babbitt melted.

  11. One of my favorite statistics regarding its design is the fact that at speed the intake produces 80% of the thrust of the engine. Now that’s some aerodynamics at work there. They haven’t even added the fuel yet. Yeah, I know, it’s an engineer thing.

  12. Now they are having to move the space station to avoid the debris field. So let me get this straight, the Commie Chinese do a ‘test’ that blows one of their satellites to bits in an orbit that just happens to coincide with that of many of our spy satellites. Hmm, that test is just the gift that keeps on giving then isn’t it? That means for the next 20 years our satellites with have the potential to be destroyed by their ‘test’. That doesn’t sound like a ‘test’ to me. It sounds like an act of war! But who cares? Let’s keep outsourcing our industrial base to them. The important thing is we be able to continue to buy cheap baubles and trinkets from them.