The CIA’s A-12 was Almost Obsolete Before it Ever Flew

The U-2 was meant to be America’s greatest espionage asset against the Soviet Union, invisible to radar and out of reach of missiles. But its first flights in July of 1956 revealed it was neither invisible nor, likely, invincible. To maintain a technological edge over the Soviets, the CIA and Air Force began defining a new American reconnaissance program to take its place. That program was OXCART, the program that gave us both the A-12 and the SR-71. This is the story of how that U-2 follow-up aircraft was doomed before it even left the ground.

The US Air Force iteration of the A-12 in flight. USAF.

A Little U-2 Background

In the early 1950s, as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, traditional forms of espionage with human operatives became impossible. The Iron Curtain shut off communication with Eastern Europe. What WWII-era photography the Americans had was nearly a decade-old and only covered the area west of the Urals; there was a tremendous amount of space in the Soviet Union that was largely unknown. The United States needed insight into the Soviet’s technological capabilities, namely its bombers and still nascent missile installations, to make decisions on its foreign policy. With no way to get past the Iron Curtain, the best option was to fly over it.

In January of 1953, Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower took office and brought a new perspective to the reconnaissance issue. He wanted more information about goings-on in the Soviet Union. The picture at the time wasn’t great from the US’ standpoint. Available intelligence said the Soviet Union was taking strides rather than steps in developing weapons. In the summer of 1949, they’d detonated an atomic bomb. In August of 1953, they’d detonated a lithium deuterium bomb that was technologically more advanced than anything the US had. In the summer of 1954, reconnaissance photos found a fleet of long-range bombers called the Myasishchev-4 (or Bison by NATO) that posed a threat to US military bases.

Scant intelligence bred the idea of a “gap” during Eisenhower’s first year in office, which made the need for intelligence that much greater; Eisenhower wanted less guesswork in figuring out how he should position the United States’ policies and prepare for possible Soviet action. When it came to those policies, Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence, wanted the President to take an aggressive stance.

The US military offered the President the means to take that aggressive stance. Midway through 1954, the US Air Force presented Eisenhower with three reconnaissance planes that could photograph the hidden areas of the Soviet Union, but the plane ultimately chosen was a fourth option from the Lockheed Aircraft Company. Called CL-282, the Lockheed plane was a high-altitude design that married the F-104’s streamlined fuselage to super light sailplane wings and could carry a sophisticated camera system. When the plane was transferred to Watertown, the site at Area 51 in Nevada, it was given a utility plane destination of U-2 to mask its true purpose. Its cruising altitude of about 70,000 feet was thought to be out of range of Soviet radars and too high for surface-to-air missiles. The parent program was Project AQUATONE.

A U-2 on the tarmac. CIA.

But even before the U-2 started flying, CIA program managers knew it was only a matter of time before its technological edge — its extremely high-flying profile — ceased to be an advantage. Soviet radars were bound to improve over time, so the CIA started thinking about its next-generation reconnaissance plane. Among those forward-thinkers was Special Assistant for Planning and Coordination, Richard M. Bissell, the CIA’s leading advocate for technical intelligence gathering. He gave the U-2 two years of overflights before the Soviets would know enough about it to build defences against it.

Two years turned out to be overly optimistic. The U-2 didn’t even get two flights. It was tracked on its first-ever Soviet mission on July 4, 1956. Just two months later, Bissell and US Air Force Colonel Jack Gibbs started defining the U-2’s successor.

The Successor

Several things from that first U-2 mission directed early thinking about the follow-up program. First, that it was so easily caught on radar and tracked. Anti-radar technology became a primary goal, countering or absorbing the radar from Soviet tracking stations, thus reducing detection.

Reduced radar was such an appealing prospect that work began as an extension of the U-2 program, an offshoot of AQUATONE called RAINBOW. This subprogram fell under the Scientific Engineering Institute or SEI in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led by Dr. Edward M. Purcell of Harvard. SEI engineers experimented with radar-absorbing materials beginning on November 26, 1956. Bamboo and fibreglass poles arranged on the U-2’s wings in a trapeze failed to disrupt radar signals but succeeded in lowering the U-2’s operational ceiling, which was precisely the opposite of what engineers were hoping to achieve. A plastic “wallpaper” containing a printed design to absorbed radar pulses glued to the fuselage, nose, and tail brought a significant weight and drag penalty. In one test, the wallpaper caused the engine to overheat, and the resulting accident killed test pilot Robert Seiker.

Since shielding the U-2 didn’t yield good results, engineers turned to aerodynamics as a way to shrink the plane’s radar cross-section. Small scale models were raised on hydraulic lifts at the Indian Springs AFB in Nevada to see which designs had the smallest radar cross-section. Lockheed got involved in this testing phase, exploring some of its own novel configurations at the airbase.

By August of 1957, and inspired by work coming out of SEI, the CIA’s had its dream plane: one with a substantial increase in altitude and speed, a reduced radar cross-section based on aerodynamics, and as a long-range as the U-2. This new approach spawned a new program, Project GUSTO. Everything was on the table, including unconventional materials and structures. It was, in essence, a blank slate for creative solutions for combatting the Soviet “electronic threat.”

GUSTO

The Department of Defense joined the early planning stages for GUSTO; it was a joint CIA-DOD program off the bat. And across the board, it was marked by excessive secrecy. Bissell urged everyone involved not to talk about it if at all possible. Soviet spies were known to be operating in the country. If some whisper of radar-reducing technology got to the wrong ears, the whole program would be revealed, allowing the Soviets to get a jump on developing better radar technology.

Bissell even went so far as to suggest that as soon as a suitable aircraft design was agreed upon, the government should consider pursuing a crash program to build eight to twelve flight articles as quickly as possible. That way, it could fly multiple missions before the Soviets could react.

Preliminary planning discussions trickled up to the White House, and in early 1958, Eisenhower’s Science Advisor James Killian recommended undertaking feasibility studies on advanced manned reconnaissance vehicle concepts. Eisenhower concurred, requesting Bissell take the lead with appropriate security concerns top of mind. By May, an advisory board was in place under Edwin Land that would pass recommendations directly to Killian. Within weeks, the Panel had two proposals to consider: one from Lockheed and one from Convair.

James Killian being sworn in; Eisenhower is to the left watching. NASA.

The Proposals, Round 1

Lockheed’s proposal was a traditional aircraft in that it took off from a runway. It was designed to fly high at Mach numbers at high altitude with the help of turbojet engines. Convair’s was a much smaller plane designed to air-launch from a B-58. From that launch point, it could reach high Mach numbers and high speeds faster with its ramjet engine. On paper and with only preliminary specifications fleshed out, both planes could meet the same operational specifications within the same development timeframe.

The Land panel met on July 31, 1958, to consider both designs as well as military programs then under development, but it couldn’t settle on an approach. In September, a follow-up meeting yielded the same indecision; it couldn’t pick between the Lockheed and Convair designs. But it did, at this point, cancel Project CHAMPION, a joint CIA-Navy program akin to GUSTO that was pursuing an inflated, ramjet-powered Mach 3 vehicle that could fly as high as 125,000 feet.

A final meeting of this Land committee came on November 12, 1958, and its continued lack of decision was reported to Killian. By and large, the panel preferred the Convair proposal, but there was a big unknown with the aerodynamic heating in the air inlet system; the panel felt the design was too risky for a full commitment. Lockheed’s traditional takeoff profile meant the plane was larger and heavier, which introduced the possibility for altitude and range penalties.

Even without a firm direction, Eisenhower approved pressing forward with GUSTO. Both companies were awarded study contracts in December of 1958, 1.2 million for Convair and 1 million dollars for Lockheed. Another study contract went to the Marquardt Aircraft Company, the designer behind the ramjet engine that would power the Convair design for an additional 2.5 million dollar contract. Pratt & Whitney turbojet engines, the ones Lockheed was using in its design, were already under development with the US military, and arrangement that saved the program some money.

This study phase of GUSTO through June of 1959 had a total price tag of $5,420,000 (a little over $48,720,770 in 2021) and the specifications that emerged were for two incredibly similar designs.

Lockheed’s aircraft, designated the A-3, had a top speed of Mach 3.2, a range of 3200 nm, and a maximum altitude of 90,000 feet. It was pilot-launched — meaning a traditional takeoff profile — and was powered by two turbojet engines. Its total mass was 95,000 pounds, it measured 100 feet long, and had a wingspan of 50 feet. The plane was projected to be in the air by January of 1961.

Convair’s proposal called FISH had a top speed of Mach 4.2, a 3900 nm range, and an altitude of 90,000 feet, and was powered by two ramjet engines. Because it was air-launched from the B-58, it was lighter at just 38,500 pounds and smaller, about 50 feet in length with a wingspan of only 35 feet. It, too, was expected to fly by January of 1961.

Comparing the two proposals from a logistical standpoint was difficult since none of these early studies said anything about the auxiliary elements — ground support, crew needs, any special equipment, fuel costs, retrieval forces for downed planes, and miscellaneous manpower needs. There were still a lot of unknowns. Picking a plane came down to the one element that distinguished the two: was a ground or air-launch profile preferred?

The two programs developed coincident — Convair and Marquardt on FISH and Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney on the A-3 — closely watched by a CIA-Air Force evaluation team. By May of 1959, both were far enough along for a comprehensive summary comparison, and issues were starting to surface with both proposals. On the Convair side, the main problem was with the launch plane for FISH. The B-58A couldn’t get through the transonic region to get the required ramjet operation for the FISH’s engines. FISH depended on the uprated B-58B, but that plane was also so early in its development it could hardly be considered a sure thing. For Lockheed, the challenge was its design — now designated the A-11 — had developed to have a larger radar cross-section than was ideal and it produced a d sonic boom.

The Panel remained undecided, so sought a final decision from Eisenhower. But before the President could weigh-in, Convair experienced a significant setback in June of 1959. The US Air Force cancelled its procurement of the B-58B, and the cost of reconfiguring the B-58A to serve as the mothership for FISH was operationally and financially infeasible. It would have to add two engines for it to fly fast enough for FISH’s ramjets to ignite.

In a meeting in Allen Dulles’ office on July 14, 1959, Bissell, Killian, and Land, among others, decided that neither the Lockheed A-11 nor the Convair FISH was ultimately the right move for the United States. After a year of development and three costly research phases, both programs were cancelled. But it turned out both companies had other designs in the works they wanted to submit, both powered by existing Navy P&W J-58 turbojets and both incorporating reduced radar return characteristics. A series of follow-up meetings with top CIA, DOD, and Air Force officials ended with the decision going to Eisenhower, who, on July 20, 1959, approved research into the new designs providing Bissell was able to secure funding from the Bureau of the Budget.

This financial meeting came two days later. Bissell went in asking for 90 million dollars for fiscal year 1960 (about 795,350,675 in 2021). There was 75 million (about 662,792,229 in 2021) buried in the reserve for GUSTO for that year, earmarked as “final project approval” funding from a 1958 memorandum. The new round of studies had funding, so the challenge of finding the perfect reconnaissance plane started all over again.

Richard Bissell. CIA.

The Proposals, Round 2

By mid-August 1959, the CIA had both new proposals in hand. The Lockheed design, similar to the A-11 but with modifications and new elements, was now called the A-12. The Convair proposal with some marked differences from FISH was treated as a follow-up and called KINGFISH.

The planes were similar. Both used a traditional takeoff profile, were designed to reach an altitude of 90,000 feet, had a top speed of Mach 3.2, and had similar ranges; Convair’s was 4,000 miles, and Lockheed’s was 4,120 miles total. At altitude, the planes could cover 3,400nm and 3,800nm, respectively. By and large, their size, weight, and aerodynamics of both aircraft were very similar, as was the projected development time. The most significant difference was cost: Convair’s projected total was 121.6 million, while Lockheed’s came in at 96.6 million dollars. Lockheed also proposed a novel material for its plane. For the A-12 to withstand the temperatures associated with prolonged supersonic flight, it chose to build the airframe of a titanium alloy — the material retained its strength at high temperatures, and tooling was expected to cost less than working with an equivalently strong steel honeycomb.

On August 20, 1959, a DOD/Air Force/CIA selection group picked Lockheed’s design. Its cost was lower, its performance specifications were slightly better, and Lockheed had the benefit of a sterling reputation. The government had a good working relationship with the contractor, who had demonstrated it could develop and produce cutting-edge planes on time and under budget with the U-2 program. That vote of confidence — and particularly in engineer Kelly Johnson — helped push Lockheed over the edge.

The new program would proceed along the same lines as the U-2, falling under Bissell’s authority on the CIA side and essentially offer an extension of the Agency’s existing relationship with Lockheed from that prior program. To preserve security, GUSTO was officially terminated on August 31, 1959, and replaced with a new program that was, as far as anyone outside could tell, completely disassociated with this original U-2 follow-up program. The new program was Project OXCART.

Bringing OXCART to Life

In September of 1959, letters between the CIA, Air Force, and Lockheed laid the foundation for the new program, but everything was conditional. There would be further anti-radar studies, aerodynamic structural tests, and other design explorations using small-scale models, but it all hinged on Lockheed successfully reducing the A-12’s radar cross-section. The plane would represent a compromise between radar reduction and maintaining good aerodynamics, but it still needed to be better than the proposal as it stood.

Almost immediately in the early test phase, challenges surfaced. The existing facilities at Indian Springs weren’t remote enough for full-scale testing. OXCART needed a dedicated site, and talk soon turned to Watertown. This site of the U-2’s early development and testing had been in caretaker status since May of 1957 when it had been vacated for nearby atomic testing. Now more than two years later, it was the best spot in the country to hide this new reconnaissance plane: out in the Nevada desert shielded by the Atomic Energy Commission’s regulations, planes could take off and land without the risk of civilians catching a glimpse. Plus, there were already roads and runways; it would need to be cleaned up, but a good amount of the infrastructure was already in place. The CIA worked with the AEC to reactivate the desert site in October 1959. A month-long crash program later, 75 were working out at the desert site, ready to run full-scale testing.

Gradually other pieces fell into place by the end of 1959. The camera contract was awarded to Perkin-Elmer in October with Eastman-Kodak on board to build a backup system. To support the pilot, contracts went to Minneapolis Honeywell for the inertial navigation system and the David Clark Company for a flight suit to keep him safe.

The last piece of the puzzle was a firm commitment from the government. Kelly Johnson needed a configuration freeze on the A-12 to move out of development and into production. Without it, Lockheed and all its subcontractors would be spinning their wheels, waiting.

On January 20, 1960, Richard Bissell met with Agency and Air Force representatives as well as members of the Land Committee to go over the A-12’s radar cross-section. Progress on this front was positive, but the plane’s mass was creeping upwards, bringing a possible altitude penalty that would negate all the work on the anti-radar front. Lockheed argued to the contrary, affirming that the latest design would have a speed of Mach 3.5 and an improved range with an extra 3,000 feet altitude — its aerodynamics was that good. Satisfied, Lockheed got the go-ahead to build twelve aircraft on January 30, 1960. The program to build a successor to the U-2 that had started in August of 1957 was officially on the books, 2 years and 4 months later.

Lockheed had a little over a year to finish the first flight article; the delivery date was April of 1961, with the first flight scheduled for May 1. The twelfth and final aircraft was due in August of 1962. To speed up the process, the contractor was cleared to skip the usual competitive bidding process for subsystems so long as it could demonstrate a reasonable explanation for its choice. All that remained was securing funding.

When the funding request for $93,780,000 (about $828,755,405 in 2021) reached the Bureau of the Budget for the program it knew as VULGARIAN — and that was for fiscal year 1960 alone — directors balked. The BOB wanted further Presidential approval for such a significant sum, but the CIA disagreed. During that meeting with Eisenhower on July 20, 1959, the President has said that if the Agency could meet its own very challenging goals with a new plane, the program could proceed. Half a year later, the CIA was taking that sentiment as overall program approval, including financial. Allen Dulles signed a memo saying as much to the Bureau of the Budget on March 8, 1960. OXCART was finally ready to go.

Production Woes

Lockheed had scarcely begun production on the A-12 when a host of new problems surfaced.

One source of issues was rooted in the selection timeframe. Since the Lockheed design had been chosen before the final A-12 configuration was frozen, there was still ongoing anti-radar research and testing on mockups at Watertown, and that wasn’t without cost. And as the design was fine-tuned with that further testing, some previously-accepted subcontractor parts and fittings needed to be changed. This led to more research and development that, though it yielded remarkable returns in terms of technological advances, added to the program’s overall cost.

The choice of materials was another source of problems. The titanium alloy chosen for its high strength-to-weight ratio was not only harder to work with than anticipated, but it was also harder to find sufficiently large quantities of high quality. The cost per pound in January of 1960 was $21, which is a little over 185 dollars in 2021. That was a high price point for Lockheed to reject a lot of its incoming supply due to poor quality control at the supplier. There was also the matter of a high waste factor. In one instance, a 1,000-pound billet was machined down to make a single, odd-shaped 66-pound fitting. The materials cost was rapidly creeping up.

Lockheed ultimately decided to develop its own techniques to handle and machine the metal, which ironed out some of the issues but came with yet another time and cost increase. By September, Lockheed had to revise its delivery schedule; the first aircraft wouldn’t be ready until August of 1961, a delay of four months, and the final airframe’s delivery was pushed back to September of 1962, a one-month delay. The projected first flight was now slated for August 30, 1961.

The financial penalty was obvious. Already in January, right on the heels of formal approval, Lockheed was projecting the program’s price tag at $103,784,000 (about $917,163,050 in 2021), a more than 7 million dollar increase from its mid-1959 projection of $96 million.

It wasn’t just Lockheed having issues with airframe development. Pratt & Whitney was having its own production woes with the J-58 engine, which took a toll on the whole program.

The J-58 is, in essence, a traditional turbojet engine. The compressor’s spinning blades draw in air that is then compressed and injected with fuel, making a high-pressure, high-temperature flaming flow of gas; this happens in the combustion section. That flow moves through the turbine that draws it through the engine and expels it out through the nozzle, extracting energy in the process. The pressure rapidly decreases while the velocity increases. That forceful expulsion is the thrust.

Schematic of a turbojet engine. via ResearchGate.

Though it’s a traditional-type engine, the J-58 designed to power the A-12 for prolonged flight at speed up to Mach 3.2 brought unique temperature problems; nothing had ever been designed to fly so fast for so long. The engine’s turbine was designed to withstand 1,900F (1037C) as the flaming flow of gas moved into it, but testing showed that fiery gas reached temperatures in excess of 2,500F (1371C). The compressor rotor wasn’t structurally able to survive that environment, and the associated fuel controls and hydraulic pumps also broke down from the heat. Engineering manhours went into redesigning these engine elements — including working with new materials that brought fabrication changes — each of which had to go through verification on the test stand before testing in a full engine. And because an engine is such an intricate system that has to work in perfect harmony, a change to one part opened the possibility that another area would need some redesigning, reworking, and retesting to keep the whole system working flawlessly. It became a costly and time-consuming domino effect. Suppliers suddenly found themselves racing against the clock to develop and test new designs and materials. The J-58 became another crash program within OXCART.

Of course, addressing these issues impacted cost. The projected cost in the fall of 1959 had been $80 million through December 31, 1962, for delivery of 36 engines and all associated maintenance, any overhauls, and spare parts support. The cost per individual engine was $750,000. But by August of 1960, the development cost alone had risen by about $12 million. Program managers at CIA Headquarters were disturbed but couldn’t abandon the program. Instead, it lowered the ask from 36 to 30 engines to save some money. By December of 1960, ongoing troubleshooting forced a change to the operational specification. The J-58 top speed lowered from Mach 3.5 to Mach 3.2.

Hiding in Plain Sight

In the background of the A-12 and J-58’s development programs, CIA and Air Force managers dealt with the overall program’s logistics.

In the fall of 1959, the Development Projects Division decided that a domestic base was preferred for the A-12. The OXCART operational concept envisioned missions taking off and landing from a US base with mid-air refuelling extending its range.

Security considerations meant OXCART couldn’t call an active military base home. It needed a remote base to keep it hidden, but that remote base also needed year-round favourable flight weather, space for fuel and aircraft storage, proximity to an airbase for a cover story, proximity to labour forces, and some infrastructure considerations like an 8,000-foot runway. Ten air force bases programmed for closure were studied for their suitability as a home for OXCART, but none were right. Only Edwards Air Force Base and the nearby Watertown site met the program’s strict needs. December 23, 1959, the Development Projects Division approved Watertown’s full reactivation beyond the spartan setup to test the full-scale A-12.

Model A-12 being tested on a hydraulic lift. CIA.

Starting in January of 1960, the CIA worked with the AEC to get the new base up and running without transferring the deed of the land. As it had done during the U-2 program, the AEC would outwardly manage the site. A press release confirmed the arrangement; the official notice said the site was being reactivated because defence contractor Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier (or EG&G) was working with the US Air Force to conduct various radar studies. The remoteness of the site had was to prevent interference affecting instruments and calibration.

There were 75 people living on the base at the start of 1960. That number doubled over the course of the year as the site was improved: the 18-mile road leading into the base was resurfaced, the runway beefed up to support the heavier plane, and trailers erected to serve as housing and recreational facilities. Generators powered the whole site while staff figured out getting it linked to the state’s power grid. In addition to EG&G staff were personnel from the Reynolds Electric and Engineering Company (REECO), all of whom were ferried from their home city of nearby Las Vegas in a chartered D-18. Military personnel and Lockheed staff were shuttled between Watertown and Burbank on a chartered C-47. Eventually, fuel tanks for storage of more than 1,320,000 gallons were moved on to the base. By the end of the year, everything was on track to receive Aircraft №1 on August 1, 1961. The delivery had slipped yet again.

The base was officially home to US Air Force Detachment 1, 1129th Special Activity Squadron in Mercury, Nevada, operating under a fictional parent unit at Fort Myer, Virginia.

The final piece of the OXCART puzzle was pilots. Coordinating medical and psychological screening fell to Don Flickinger, the US Air Force physician who had helped with NASA’s testing program for selecting the Mercury astronauts in 1959. The criteria for A-12 pilots were not too different from the astronaut selection. Like the first spacefarers, A-12 pilots had to demonstrate outstanding proficiency and professional competency and had to be trained jet fighter pilots with certain mandatory experience qualifications in the latest planes. Less tangible but no less important, potential pilots had to be emotionally stable, highly motivated, enthusiastic without being foolhardy, and have “good personal habits.” Physically, they had to be between 25 and 40, stand under six feet tall and weigh less than 175 pounds — the physical constraints were dictated by the size of the cockpit and the mass of the plane, very similar to the physical limitations of the Mercury astronauts. The selection criteria were so close to that of the astronauts that A-12 selection was done under the auspices of “establishing selection criteria for space crews.”

Group shot of the Lockheed A-12 pilots. CIA.

And like the astronauts’ selection, not many men qualified; just 16 were shortlisted to fly the A-12. The final selection came from an overflight panel established under the Director of Security to grant final approval based on each candidate’s “risk-of-capture” and associated considerations. In the end, only five from this initial shortlist group joined the program.

Risk-of-Capture considerations proved to be a reasonable screening criterion. While the A-12 physical infrastructure was taking shape in the desert in the spring of 1960, U-2 program managers prepared Operation GRAND SLAM, a risky flight south to north from Peshawar over key sites in the Soviet Union before landing in Norway. Four and a half hours into the flight on May 1 and 68,000 feet over the Sverdlosk, the Soviets fired three missiles at the plane. One detonated behind and below the U-2, and the resulting shock wave was powerful enough to rip apart the delicate airframe sending pilot Gary Power plummeting to the ground. He was captured by Soviet forces.

The U-2 had never been a secret — Soviet fighters had tracked the plane since its first flight, but protest notes had always been private between national leaders. Now the American reconnaissance plane was on display for the world to see, and with it details of the program like its development at Watertown. It was only a matter of time before people questioned what was really going on at the reactivated desert site.

OXCART staff reacted quickly, removing all references to Watertown, Groom Lake, the dry lakebed that housed Watertown, and its colloquial name of “the Ranch” from any documentation or verbiage regarding OXCART. The site was rechristened Area 51; the bland name was the site’s map designation on all Atomic Energy Commission documentation. The hope was that renaming the site would create a total disassociation from anything relating to the CIA.

The Powers Incident had another effect on OXCART. Overflights of the Soviet Union were officially done; Eisenhower was unlikely to allow any further missions lest a second downing become an even more disastrous international incident. Luckily the Corona spy satellites were nearing operational readiness, and they allowed the Americans to photograph Soviet sites without violating airspace. That meant for OXCART, its future missions and applications were up in the air.

By the end of 1960, significant funding had been sunk into a program that was suddenly facing an uncertain future. At least, from the CIA’s standpoint. The Air Force was still hugely interested in harnessing this beyond the state of the art technology, and in October, purchased three long-range interceptor versions of the A-12 called the AF-12. This new AF-12 program, Project KEDLOC, came with an estimated price tag of $111 million, half of which was earmarked for the development of the weapons systems with Hughes Aircraft.

This classified purchase meant the CIA needed fewer planes; the Air Force could ostensibly take over some of the necessary missions. The Agency’s order dropped from twelve planes to ten, which helped keep the ever ballooning cost in check.

Final Steps Towards Flight Readiness

Problems with the A-12 persisted as 1961 dawned. The quality of titanium was one. Lockheed was getting such poor quality material that it was unable to work at full capacity; in March, there was so little material only about 20 percent of the labour force was actively working on building planes.

Kelly Johnson had no choice but to tell Richard Bissell the bad news: the schedule was — again — in jeopardy, namely the wing assembly and engine development. The whole schedule was three to four months behind.

Bissell’s reply in the spring of 1961 was harsh. “I have learned of your expected additional delay in first light from 30 August to 1 December 1961. This news is extremely shocking… these delays cause me to question the desirability of continuing the reconnaissance version of this aircraft. I trust this is the last of such disappointments short of a severe earthquake in Burbank… This has become an item of major expense and perhaps needs to be replanned on the less costly basis.”

The CIA stepped in with a heavy hand. The Agency installed one of its own top-level aeronautical engineers at Lockheed and sent representatives to impress on the Titanium Metals Corporation the importance of Project OXCART. The situation improved but not before the first flight date slipped once again to December 5, 1961.

The other ongoing issue was with Pratt & Whitney; as the technical issues mounted, so too did the cost. In May of 1961, the total program cost had risen to $45 million for delivery of 30 engines. Four months later, in September, that number has increased again to $51 million. The saving grace was that the Air Force’s and Navy’s continued funding the program and the fact that it was the only power plant that could support the A-12’s high altitude and high-speed flight profile. The CIA stepped in, suggesting the engine manufacturer make some organizational changes to fix its problems. Things had gotten so bad that Pratt & Whitney was on track to deliver the full order of forty engines without seeing so much as a penny in profit.

On September 11, the contractor told Lockheed that the J-58 wouldn’t be ready for the December flight date. Completion for Aircraft 1 slipped again to a December 22 delivery date, with the first flight now scheduled for February 27, 1962. It was clear the plane needed an interim engine, and the best option was the J-75, the same one that powered the U-2. It would be good enough for early training and test flights, getting the A-12 to about 50,000 feet with a top speed of Mach 1.6.

These delays added up, and the total price tag for OXCART increased. On November 13, 1961, the projected cost of the CIA’s ten A-12s was $165 million (about 1,443,512,710 in 2021).

The Final Checks

The detachment at Area 51 came into its own in the second half of 1961 under Colonel Robert J. Holbury. Pilots went through ground school training at Lockheed’s Burbank facility and supplemental flight training in F-101s. Support planes and their respective crews arrived in the desert: a C-130 to transport cargo, T-33s for pilot proficiency flying, a U-3A for administration purposes, a helicopter for any search and rescue needs, and a small Cessna-180 for liaison use. Everything was ready to get to work on March 15, 1962.

In anticipation of the airspace over Area 51 getting busy, the CIA arranged with the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict the airspace so no commercial or private pilots could see the A-12 ascending to altitude. It also made arrangements with NORAD such that the A-12 wouldn’t trigger its air defence system. To prepare for long-range missions, fuel farms were set up at Beale AFB in California, Eielson AFB in Alaska, Thule AFB in Greenland, Kadana AFB in Okinawa, and Adana, Turkey. Each site was ready to assist in mid-air refuelling.

Aircraft 1, serial no 121, went through its final checks at Lockheed’s Burbank factory in January and February of 1962. On February 26, the airframe was partially dissembled and the whole thing was transported to Area 51 on a specially designed trailer truck.

The program designed to extend the U-2’s mission was finally ready to fly five years and one major international incident later.

Sources: “The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance, the U-2 and Oxcart Programs” Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach; Directorate of Science & Technology, History of the Office of Special Activities, 1969; “Waging Peace” by Dwight Eisenhower; “Sputnik, Scientists, and Eisenhower” by James Killian; “Reflections of a Cold Warrior” by Richard Bissell; “Skunk Works” by Ben Rich and Leo Janos.

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]

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