Was the A-12 Oxcart Faster Than the SR-71 Blackbird Spy Plane?

Cold War History
March 31, 2021 Topic: SR-71 Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Cold War HistoryU.S. Air ForceA-12SR-71Spy PlaneMilitary

Was the A-12 Oxcart Faster Than the SR-71 Blackbird Spy Plane?

Both spy planes were very impressive, but which one crushed the other when it came to raw speed?

Along with the famous SR-71 Blackbird, there was the A-12 Oxcart, a spy plane that may have been even faster than the Blackbird, which officially holds the speed record. The two planes are similarly designed, and even came from the same place.

Aviation Geek Club, last year, looked at the history of the A-12, and the question of whether it really flew faster than the better-known SR-71.

The A-12 was built in the same skunkworks at Lockheed that developed the SR-71. It was developed in secret, for use by the CIA, and was meant to eventually replace the U-2 spy plane, which had suffered several shootdowns in the years before that, most notably the famed Francis Gary Powers incident in 1960.

Per the Aviation Geek Club story, Lockheed has claimed that the A-12 can fly at 95,000 feet and at 2,221 mph, which is both higher and faster than the 85,000 feet and 2,112 mph claimed by the SR-71, although there have been reports about the latter plane going faster. The two planes even held a “fly-off” in 1967, although the results were “inconclusive,” according to CIA documents released years later. But the SR-71 went on to enjoy a much longer life than the A-12 would, lasting all the way into the 1990s.

The A-12 program began in the early 1960s and concluded in 1966, after Congress was unwilling to authorize flights over Soviet airspace. The program remained a secret, until it was declassified in the 1990s. However, even after the CIA stopped building new ones, the A-12 conducted twenty-nine spy missions in Asia, including over Cambodia, North Korea and Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. One of those yielded crucial intelligence about the lack of Surface-to-Surface missiles in North Vietnam.

Last year, The National Interest looked at a specific flight of the A-12 Oxcart, when the plane flew over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, “traveling faster than a rifle bullet at over three times the speed of sound.” The pilot of that flight, Dennis Sullivan, was an Air Force pilot, but for that flight, he had been brought into the service of the CIA.

During that tense mission, Sullivan survived a near-miss from a missile fired by the North Vietnamese.

“Here comes a big’ol telephone sailing right by the cockpit—going straight up,” the pilot said years later. “That’s interesting . . . So I continued down the route, and didn’t see anything—until I got down the road, and then I could see behind me in the rear-view periscope at least four missile contrails, all spread out. Those four contrails went up about 90-95,000 feet and all turned over, bunched up in a line, headed for my tail end.”

The existence and details of the A-12 program were closely-guarded secrets for decades. But later, as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the CIA released 1,500 pages of documents related to the A-12 Oxcart program.

“The newly declassified material will provide researchers on aviation and intelligence with significant additional detail about the design and development of the A-12—still the fastest and highest flying piloted operational jet aircraft ever built—and its use as an intelligence collection platform in East Asia,” the CIA said.

One of those documents laid out the CIA’s “cover story” for the Oxcart program. According to a memo from 1962, authored by the deputy director of the CIA, about how to explain the funding of the program, it had originally been the strategy to state that multiple organizations had each committed sums of money to the Oxcart initiative.

However, because “too many people would have to be telling the same story at the same time, and that once this explaining scenario got out of phase that embarrassment would undoubtedly come to all members concerned,” it was determined that such questions would be simply answered with a “no comment.” The “fall-back position,” from then forward, would be to cite “the classified research work on an Air Force interceptor-type aircraft.”

It was then determined that the latter cover story had “apparent loopholes.” This meant that they would have to explain why the work was being done at a certain location, what the source of the funding was, the reasons for such tight security, and why Lockheed had been selected for the work.

The new cover story, therefore, was to state that the Oxcart vehicle was “part of a satellite launch system that is being tested for future satellite programs.” This would explain away the location, the use of Lockheed, and why the program was placed under the auspices of the Under Secretary of the Air Force.

Just fifteen of the A-12s were produced. Of the fifteen, six were lost in accidents, while the other nine are on display at museums, including the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the Intrepid Sea-Air Space Museum in New York, the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum Annex in California and Battleship Memorial Park in Alabama. At Palmdale Regional Airport in California, both a A-12 and an SR-71 are displayed side by side. Another is on display at CIA headquarters in Langley.

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Image: Wikimedia.