A Short-Lived Highflier

After Soviet radar tracked the U-2 on its first flight, CIA officials needed a more advanced aircraft.




Corrected on 9/21/07: CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden described the A-12 as one of the greatest technical achievements "in CIA history," not in "U-2 history" as incorrectly quoted in an earlier version of the story.

After Soviet radar units tracked the U-2 spy plane on its very first flight over the Soviet Union in 1956, CIA officials decided they needed an even more advanced aircraft that could fly higher and safer.

The result, after nine years of painstaking development and rigorous testing, was the A-12, an engineering marvel that flew higher and faster than any airplane before or since. Code-named OXCART, the plane could reach altitudes of over 90,000 and fly at speeds over Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound.

In the end, the A-12's operational life was quite short, completing only 29 missions over 12 months. But the technological feats were remarkable. "The A-12 is, without a doubt, one of the greatest technical achievements in CIA history," CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden said September 19 at a ceremony to present an A-12 that will be mounted in the CIA parking lot as part of the agency's 60th anniversary celebration.

Engineers at Lockheed, which built both the U-2 and the A-12, had to invent almost every component from scratch so that the plane could withstand temperatures in excess of 550 degrees Fahrenheit generated by flying Mach 3.

Steel was too heavy for the plane, so engineers decided to use a titanium alloy for the A-12's exterior. (Ironically, high-quality titanium was so hard to find that some had to be obtained covertly from the Soviet Union—the plane's intended target.) The titanium shell was then molded into a continuously curving shape, in part to help make it more difficult for radar to detect. "It laid the foundation for future stealth research," Hayden said.

A newly released CIA history of the A-12 program catalogs the long list of innovations for the plane, including new kinds of fuel, lubricants, tires, windshields—and even drills and other tools strong enough to penetrate the titanium shell. It also included electronic countermeasures to deflect incoming missiles.

The massive turbojet engines were also revolutionary, with each of the two engines producing as much power (160,000 horsepower) as all four of the massive turbines on the Queen Mary ocean liner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the A-12 also consumed voracious amounts of fuel—some 11,000 pounds of fuel per hour—and had to be refueled several times during each mission.

Test flights were not always flawless. Former A-12 pilot Ken Collins, who retired from the Air Force in 1980, recalls having to eject from an A-12 flying 30,000 feet over the Utah desert during a May 24, 1963, test flight. Suddenly, the plane's instruments went haywire, and the plane pitched, stalled, and turned upside down before Collins could eject. "I wasn't sure how high I was," he says. Amazingly, he was uninjured.

Other pilots were not so lucky. Two CIA pilots were killed while flying the A-12.

Although the plane was originally intended for use over the Soviet Union, U.S. officials decided the flights would be too risky. For one thing, U.S. reconnaissance satellites had become capable of performing many of the necessary intelligence-gathering tasks.

Instead, the A-12 was deployed to eastern Asia in 1968 to assist intelligence efforts in the Vietnam War. By this time, several U-2s and other reconnaissance planes had been lost over China, and satellites could not be quickly redirected to photograph tactical sites.

On May 31, 1968, the A-12 flew its first-ever operational flight over North Vietnam. The A-12 was so fast that it crossed North Vietnam in less than nine minutes, but it still managed to photograph 70 of the 190 known surface-to-air missile sites, as well as nine other targets.

In all, the A-12 flew 24 missions over North Vietnam, two over Cambodia and Laos, and three over North Korea. In January 1968, an A-12 flight managed to locate and photograph the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship that was captured by North Korea. The missions provided critical proof that the ship and crew were being held by Pyongyang (and the crew members were released 11 months later).