Military and Strategic Journal
Issued by the Directorate of Morale Guidance at the General Command of the Armed Forces
United Arab Emirates
Founded in August 1971

2019-06-01

OXCART vs Blackbird:Do You Know the Difference?

Can you tell the difference between the OXCART and a Blackbird? Most people can’t and often confuse one with another. Yet the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) A-12 OXCART and the U.S. Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird are two very different aircraft.
 
Becoming operational on 12th November 1965, the CIA developed the highly secret A-12 OXCART as the U-2 spy plane’s successor to meet the need for a very fast, high-flying reconnaissance aircraft to avoid Soviet air defences. Not only did the A-12 prove its worth, but the overall OXCART project produced the second longest-lasting aerial reconnaissance platform in U.S. intelligence history: the SR-71.
 
Although the SR-71 Blackbird was the Air Force’s two-seat follow-on version of the OXCART, the A-12’s unique design features became the foundation for three other versions: the YF-12A, the M-21 and, of course, the SR-71. The OXCART hence produced the two fastest, highest-flying, piloted jet aircraft (the A-12 and SR-71) ever seen, while pioneering stealth technology for future use.
 
How It Began  
Lockheed’s aviation genius, Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson, is credited with the OXCART and Blackbird. Born in Ishpeming, Michigan, he joined Lockheed in 1933 to design and contribute significantly to the development of at least 40 well-known, highly valued military and civilian aircraft, including the U-2, the A-12 and SR-71.
 
One of the preeminent aircraft designers of the twentieth century, Johnson and his Skunk Works team had a track record of delivering ‘impossible’ technologies on incredibly short, strategically critical deadlines. For instance, in 1959, CIA awarded the OXCART contract to Lockheed, with Johnson’s team having overcome several daunting technical challenges to create a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft capable of avoiding interceptors and missiles.
 
Engineers used cutting-edge innovations in titanium fabrication, lubricants, jet engines, fuel, navigation, flight control, electronic countermeasures, radar stealthiness and pilot life-support systems to deliver the A-12 as America’s first stealth plane. However, this aircraft was never completely ‘stealthy’, for the fuel it had to carry for exceptional flight speed required airframe design changes making radar tracking easier. 
 
After hundreds of hours flown at high personal risk by an elite team of CIA and Lockheed test pilots, the A12 was declared fully operational in 1965. It attained a sustained speed of Mach 3.2 (just over 2,200 miles per hour) at 90,000 feet altitude, which was an unbroken record for piloted jet aircraft.
 
OXCART’s First Mission
The only A-12 reconnaissance operation, codenamed BLACK SHIELD, took place from May 1967-May 1968, initially over south-east Asia and North Korea. A detachment of six pilots and three A-12s flew 29 missions over East Asia, based at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan.
Piloted by Mele Vojvodich, the first BLACK SHIELD flight took off in torrential rain just before 11:00 local time on 31st May 1967. The A-12 had never operated in such conditions, but the flight went ahead and Vojvodich flew the planned route at 80,000 feet and Mach 3.1, refuelling immediately after taking off and during each of two loops over Thailand, before safely touching down at Kadena with a total flight time of 3 hours 39 minutes.
 
The intelligence mission was a resounding success, with photo interpreters finding no surface-to-surface missiles threatening the U.S. and allied military forces when assessing the status of 70 of 190 known surface-to-air missile sites and 9 other priority targets. In fact, Chinese or North Vietnamese radar did not track the aircraft during the Vojvodich flight, nor did North Vietnam fire any missiles at it, although during other missions in October 1967 and January 1968, North Vietnam fired three SAMs at BLACK SHIELD A-12s but only once caused damage.
 
OXCART Transforms into Blackbird
In December 1962, the Air Force ordered six “reconnaissance/strike” over hostile territory by the SR-71 Blackbird, a new SR aircraft for high-speed, high-altitude flights. Although anticipated speed exceeded 2,000 mph, the plane needed to maintain a record-setting speed for hours at a time where, at such velocity, friction with the atmosphere generated temperatures melting a conventional airframe.
 
With anticipated temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, a titanium alloy was the only option for the airframe to deal with the heat, providing the strength of stainless steel alongside relatively light weight and durability. Yet titanium also proved to be a particularly sensitive material, with the brittle alloy shattered if mishandled, entailing great frustration on the Skunk Works assembly line and new training classes for Lockheed’s machinists. 
 
Conventional cadmium-plated steel tools also embrittled the titanium on contact, requiring new tools to be designed and fabricated from titanium. While friction would generate incredible heat at the leading edges of the aircraft, the ambient temperature outside the cockpit window could reach -60 degrees Fahrenheit. 
 
Skunk Works’ Ben Rich thus spent untold hours tackling the problem of how heat could be dissipated across the entire airframe. Here he recalled a simple lesson from one of his university courses: black paint both emits and absorbs heat. The A-12 was painted black to earn its name, “Blackbird”, and made its first flight on April 30, 1962. 
 
The otherwise single-seat A-12 soon evolved into the larger SR-71, with a second seat added for a Reconnaissance Systems Officer, carrying more fuel than the A-12 for its debut flight on 22nd December 1964. Although the Blackbird's stealthiness resulted from radar absorbent structures along the chines, wing edges, vertical tails and inlet spikes, the paint helped to release some of the heat generated by air friction and camouflage the aircraft against the dark sky at high altitudes.
 
As a modified version of the A-12 OXCART, the SR-71 Blackbird was about six feet longer, weighing an additional 15,000 pounds fully loaded, with a more prominent nose and body chines. It had a two-seat cockpit and carried additional optical and radar imagery systems.
After an initial contract for six Blackbirds, the Air Force ordered 25 more aircraft in August 1963, with the first SR-71 flying out on 22nd December 1964. Throughout its operational career, the SR-71’s primary operation base was the Kadena Air Base in Japan, while Beale AFB in California and RAF Mildenhall, England, also hosted Blackbird operations.
 
A Stealthy Pioneer
Reducing the size of the Blackbird’s radar image meant an even further reduction in the likelihood that the plane would be perceived and shot down. Although the initial test results were good, rumours of Soviet radar advances led the U.S. government to ask for an even smaller radar profile.
 
With the Blackbird model being more than 100 feet in length, surfaces had to be redesigned to avoid reflecting radar signals, while the engines moved to a subtler mid-wing position and a radar-absorbing element was added to the paint. When a full-scale model of the Blackbird was hoisted on to a pylon for radar-testing at Skunk Works’ secret location in the Nevada desert, the results were impressive.
 
Following tests carefully scheduled to avoid Soviet satellite observations, the Blackbird model was shown to appear on a Soviet radar as bigger than a bird but smaller than a man. The A-12 team had succeeded in reducing radar cross section by 90 per cent.
 
Piloting the Blackbird
Flying the Blackbird was an unforgiving endeavour, demanding total concentration. Yet, “At 85,000 feet and Mach 3, it was almost a religious experience,” said Air Force Colonel Jim Wadkins. “Nothing had prepared me to fly that fast… My God, even now, I get goose bumps remembering.”
 
The best air defence systems had no hope of catching the Blackbird and when anti-aircraft weapons were fired, a warning light glowing red on the control panel would typically be the last the pilot would see of the attempted attack, as surface-to-air missiles consistently missed wildly, exploding many miles from the intended target.
 
The Blackbird remains the world’s fastest and highest-flying manned aircraft and on its retirement flight from Los Angeles to Washington in 1990, the plane flew coast to coast in 67 minutes to its final resting place in the Smithsonian Air and Space collection. Most importantly, the aircraft has provided the United States with detailed, mission-critical reconnaissance for more than two decades, while its Cold War legacy as a game-changer will be admired for generations.
 
OXCART Retirement, CORONA Replacement
With the overt SR-71 and covert A-12 fleets having similar capabilities, President Johnson ordered retirement of the A12 OXCART by 1968. By then, CORONA satellites were collecting thousands of images worldwide each year and although its imagery was less timely and of poorer resolution than the A-12 and SR-71, it was safe from anti-aircraft missiles and much less provocative than aircraft overflights. 
 
The A-12’s original mission to monitor the Soviet Bloc had been halted after the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960. However, the SR-71 continued to fly for intelligence gathering, providing vital information in formulating successful U.S. foreign policy.
 
By the late 1980s, enthusiasm for the expensive SR-71 programme had waned in preference for space-based systems and the Air Force deactivated the Blackbird in November 1989. On 21st January, the last SR-71 Blackbird left Kadena Air Base, while the SR-71 was decommissioned at Beale Air Force Base in California on 26th January 1990.
 
NASA crews flew four Lockheed SR-71 airplanes during the 1990s, with two used for research and two to support Air Force reactivation of the SR-71 for reconnaissance missions. Although the Air Force retired the Blackbirds in 1990, Congress reinstated funding for additional flights several years later and the SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) arrived at Dryden in February 1990. 
 
Placed in storage in 1992, Blackbird served as a research platform until its final flight on in October 1999, SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) arrived at Dryden in March 1990, but was returned to Air Force inventory as the first aircraft was reactivated in 1995. Along with SR-71A (61-7967), it was flown by NASA crews in support of the Air Force programme. 
 
In July 1991, the SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) arrived at Dryden to serve as a research platform and for crew training until October 1997. In October 1997, President Bill Clinton vetoed further funding and in June 1999, the SR71 programme was officially terminated.
 
Which One is Faster?
The OXCART has a documented maximum speed and altitude of 2,208 mph at 90,000 feet from 1965, while the SR-71 holds the official speed record for a piloted operational jet aircraft of 2,193 mph, set on 28th July 1976. On the same date, the Blackbird set an official world altitude record of 85,069 feet.
 
Unofficially and not without controversy, the pilots of both aircraft have anecdotal stories indicating the numbers for both aircraft may be higher. Some SR-71 test reports attest that the aircraft surpassed the official records for speed and altitude.
 
Nevertheless, both the A-12 OXCART and the SR-71 Blackbird are regarded as pioneering achievements in aeronautical engineering, representing the pinnacle of Cold War aviation technology.
 
Reference Text/Photos:
 

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