CIA developed the highly secret A‑12 OXCART as the U-2 spy plane’s successor, intended to meet the nation’s need for a very fast, very high-flying reconnaissance aircraft that could avoid Soviet air defenses. CIA awarded the OXCART contract to Lockheed (builder of the U-2) in 1959. In meeting the A‑12’s extreme speed and altitude requirements, Lockheed—led by legendary engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson—overcame numerous technical challenges with cutting-edge innovations in titanium fabrication, lubricants, jet engines, fuel, navigation, flight control, electronic countermeasures, radar stealthiness, and pilot life-support systems. In 1965, after hundreds of hours flown at high personal risk by the elite team of CIA and Lockheed test pilots, the A‑12 was declared fully operational, attaining the design specifications of a sustained speed of Mach 3.2 at 90,000 feet altitude.
CIA’s operational use of the A-12 was beset by not only many technical problems but also political sensitivity to aircraft flights over denied areas and competition from imaging satellites. After the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960, all USSR overflights were halted, thus blocking the A‑12’s original mission to monitor the Soviet Bloc. By the time of CIA’s first A-12 deployment in 1967, CORONA satellites were being launched regularly to collect thousands of images worldwide each year. Although its imagery was less timely and of poorer resolution than the A-12’s, CORONA was invulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles and much less provocative than A-12 overflights. At the same time, the US Air Force was developing the SR‑71, a modified version of the A-12. Seeing little value in maintaining both overt SR-71 and covert A-12 fleets with similar capabilities, President Johnson ordered retirement of the A‑12 in 1968.
The only A-12 reconnaissance operation, codenamed BLACK SHIELD, took place from May 1967 to May 1968. A detachment of six pilots and three A-12s based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa flew 29 missions over East Asia. The panoramic stereo camera aboard each aircraft yielded considerable high-quality imagery that within hours of landing was processed and under the eyes of photointerpreters, who extracted key intelligence information in support of US military operations during the Vietnam War.
CIA’s A-12 represents a pioneering achievement in aeronautical engineering and, to this day, holds records for speed and altitude (Mach 3.29 at 90,000 feet) for an air-breathing piloted jet aircraft.
In 2007 the US Air Force transferred an A-12 to CIA for display. CIA Museum’s A-12 is the eighth of 15 built under the OXCART Program and one of nine remaining. It is known as Article 128, with a serial number of 60-6931. Its first flight was on October 3, 1963, and it was the first of the operational fleet to be certified to fly at Mach 3. During its lifetime, it logged 453 hours on 232 test and training flights. The airframe was retired on May 28, 1968.
Article 128 arrived at CIA Headquarters on August 9, 2007 aboard five wide-load trucks. A crew of five assembled the airframe in 10 days, and its official presentation took place on September 19, 2007, as part of CIA’s 60th anniversary celebration.
On December 8, 2007, Article 128 “flew” for the last time when two enormous cranes lifted the 39,000-pound airframe onto its three-pylon mount. The pylons hold the airframe in an operational flight attitude at 85,000-90,000 feet—its nose up 8 degrees and airframe rolled 9 degrees to the left. Engineering specifications insure that the airframe as mounted could withstand winds of up to 130 mph. As a result, the pylons extend almost 40 feet below the surface where they are anchored into concrete footings.
CIA’s Facilities Support completed the display in early May 2008, 40 years after the OXCART Program ended. The site also commemorates two CIA A-12 pilots, Walt Ray and Jack Weeks, killed in 1967 and 1968, respectively. For the CIA workforce, the A-12 is a symbol of the successful collaboration of the Intelligence Community, the Defense Department, and private industry to create a national strategic asset that our adversaries never dreamed possible.
“The A-12 is the pride of the CIA and everyone associated with it, as it should be. You should be proud that the A-12 can be installed in Langley. We risked our lives and careers daily for the success of the A-12. It was an amazing success due greatly to the CIA management.”
—Colonel Ken Collins, USAF, Ret.
(A-12 Test Pilot, “Dutch 21”;
SR-71 Test Pilot and Instructor Pilot)