Pieces of History: Missile Debris from A-12 OXCART
The CIA takes pride in collecting artifacts pertaining to the Agency’s A-12 aircraft program, a very fast, high-flying reconnaissance aircraft designed to avoid enemy air defenses. The technology and aviation innovations created for the A-12—codenamed Project OXCART—laid the foundation for future stealth research.
The Agency’s newest A-12 artifact is truly unique: debris from the only incident of damage inflicted by enemy fire on an A-12.
Enemy Fire on the A-12
Flying as high as 90,000 feet and at speeds up to Mach 3.29, the 15-plane A-12 fleet flew undetected by enemy radar for three months. However, on its 18th mission on Oct. 30, 1967, one A-12 aircraft was targeted by anti-aircraft surface to air missiles in North Vietnam.
Pilot Dennis Sullivan–an Air Force pilot detailed to the CIA for Project OXCART—was flying an A-12 aerial reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam when his radar tracker detected two surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites preparing to launch antiaircraft missiles at him. But neither did. So he conducted his first pass over Hanoi and returned to make a second. This time as he approached the capital city, the North Vietnamese fired at least six missiles at him. Looking through his rear-view periscope, Sullivan saw six missile vapor trails climb to about 90,000 feet before converging on his aircraft. He noted the approach of four missiles, and although they all detonated behind him, one came within 100-200 yards of his plane.
He continued the mission and landed safely, but the post-flight inspection crew made a surprising discovery: two small pieces of metal had penetrated the plane’s lower right wing and lodged against the support structure by the wing’s fuel tank. The fragments were not warhead pellets, but may have been part of the debris from one of the missile detonations near the plane.
The irregular shaped pieces were the only sources of damage from this close call, but all further flights over North Vietnam were suspended for two months. Despite all this, the A-12’s camera returned from this mission with imagery of excellent quality identifying North Vietnam’s air defense network, including shots of the six missile contrails.
Pictured with the two small fragments is the damaged section of the A-12 with a hole ripped in its center. The debris will soon be joining numerous other OXCART-related artifacts on display in the CIA Museum, which you can tour virtually on CIA.gov.
More information on the A-12 program is available in Archangel: CIA’s Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft by CIA Historian David Robarge. Also, view the CIA’s A-12 video below: