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At CIA, we have lots of secrets – it’s kind of what we do. Read about spy planes, robot battles, learning resources and more.

Codenamed OXCART

At a ceiling of 90,000 feet, the A-12 passed its older brother, the U-2, by 20,000 feet!

Spy Planes of the CIA, Part Two: The A-12

Did you miss Part One? Scroll down to check it out.

Research for a supersonic successor to the U-2 began while the U-2 was still in development. CIA again partnered with Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson to develop a sleek reconnaissance aircraft that would surpass the U-2 in both altitude and speed.

Codenamed OXCART, the resulting A-12 product was a true feat of aviation engineering. At a ceiling of 90,000 feet, the A-12 passed its older brother, the U-2, by 20,000 feet. And at speeds reaching Mach 3.29, the A-12 was guaranteed to be the fastest plane in the sky.

Just how fast was the A-12? Well, at Mach 3.29, it’s pretty darn fast. Let’s put it this way…

  • The world’s fastest man, as of this writing, is hitting a top speed of 28 miles per hour.
  • The mighty cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, tops out at about 58 miles per hour.
  • The average speed of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 race is about 200 miles per hour.
  • The fastest recorded speed of a car is 270 miles per hour.
  • A-12’s predecessor, the U2 had a top speed of 500 miles per hour.
  • Mach 3.29, the A-12’s top speed, is roughly 2,500 miles per hour.

How high is 90,000 feet? Think about this…

  • The average man stands at about 5 ft. 9 inches tall.
  • The average giraffe stands at 20 feet tall.
  • An average two-story house is about 25 feet tall.
  • The Empire State building in New York City is 1,454 feet tall.
  • A hot air balloon cruises at 3,000 feet tall.
  • A commercial airliner travels at 35,000 feet in the air.
  • Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is 2,722 feet tall.
  • Combine all of the above and you’re still nearly 3,000 ft. short of HALF the altitude of the A-12.

Spy Planes of the CIA, Part One: The U-2

Did you know that, once upon a time, CIA was in the plane-making business? It wasn’t a long career, but it certainly was an exciting one.

This story begins just a few years after the creation of CIA (1947), in the early 1950s. The United States had just entered into the Cold War against former World War II ally, the Soviet Union, and realized that it knew dangerously little about its new adversary.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked CIA to create an overhead collection program that would give the United States more insight into the military capabilities of the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower believed that overhead imagery of the Soviet Union would give U.S. policymakers and military leaders the information they needed to make well-informed decisions about how to engage with the famously secretive Soviet Union. And he thought CIA was just the group to get the job done.

Always the over-achiever, CIA – in partnership with legendary Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson – created, tested, and delivered a final product in just 18 months (and a few million dollars under-budget). That plane, a sleek power glider, would be called the U-2.

Eyes Way Up In the Sky

The U-2 boasted some pretty impressive stats. At a top speed of 500 miles per hour, it wasn’t the fastest bird in the sky, but what made this plane truly exceptional was its flight altitude. U-2 could fly at a whopping 70,000 ft., twice as high as the average modern day airliner. At this altitude, the plane was impervious to anti-aircraft weaponry, allowing it to safely travel over its targets without fear of being shot-down.

Images captured during the U-2 overflight program were essential to U.S. decision-making early in the Cold War. They provided U.S. military leaders and policymakers with timely intelligence on Soviet military capabilities.

Unfortunately, technology was moving fast at that time, and in the spring of 1960, a U-2 plane flying over the Soviet Union was shot down by new-and-improved anti-aircraft weaponry. The U-2 was no longer impervious to enemy fire.

Never the group to settle, and recognizing that it needed a capable successor to the U-2, CIA continued in its search for aviation excellence. Its answer would be the A12, codename OXCART. Learn more about this remarkable aircraft in Part Two.

Daredevil spy stories

We’re known for our daring spy missions. Like when we created a fake Hollywood production company and movie, ARGO, to help rescue American hostages in Iran in the 1980s. Or when we developed the fastest-ever secret spy plane, the A-12 OXCART, in the 1960s to avoid Soviet air defenses. Our stories sound like Hollywood fantasy, but for us, it’s real life.

Mission impossible!

We grabbed a Soviet submarine, in broad daylight, from the bottom of the ocean without anyone seeing.