Where Does a Stealth Jet Begin? Trains, Boats & Planes | 21 June 2016 Share article facebook twitter google pinterest “Stealth jet” is a somewhat unassuming term for one of the most profound feats of aircraft engineering in US history: the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird stealth jet was created at the height of the Cold War in 1964 for the purpose of strategic reconnaissance. This spy plane flew more than three-and-a-half times the speed of sound, which was so fast that no other aircraft could catch it. Above 80,000 feet, its pilots had to wear full-pressure flight suits similar to what was used aboard the space shuttle. Before the SR-71 reached the drafting table, however, it was preceded in development by a series of Archangel planes, later to be dubbed by their single initial, A, which lead to the creation of the A-12. Below is an excerpt from Col. Richard H. Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated Profile of Every Aircraft, Crew, and Breakthrough of the World’s Fastest Stealth Jet. The tail of SR-71 968 flies with the marking DBX, which stands for “Dolby Noise Reduction.” Photo credit: Lockheed Martin / The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird In the mid-1950s the United States had a tremendous thirst within the intelligence community to learn more about the Soviet Union’s nuclear capability, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, and their military installations. In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency retained the Lockheed Corporation to build the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. Essentially a jet-powered glider, the U-2 could fly at seventy thousand feet, beyond the range of Soviet fighters or missiles, and take detailed photographs over the Soviet Union. Its publicity cover story stated the aircraft would be used primarily by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Funding for the new aircraft came from the CIA’s secret Contingency Reserve Fund. The contract with Lockheed was signed December 9, 1954. Lou Schalk piloted the second test flight of the A-12 924 on April 30, 1962. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin / The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird The U-2 was ready for operations in June 1956. At the time, CIA project officers had estimated that the U-2 would be able to fly safely over the Soviet Union for two years at the most before it became vulnerable to Soviet air defenses. The Soviets tracked the U-2 on its first mission. One of the revelations of the overflight program was the ease with which the Soviet radar systems found and tracked the U-2 before and after it penetrated Soviet airspace. The estimate had proven too optimistic, and a more radical solution was needed—an entirely new aircraft. An A-12 931 rests on a taxiway at Minneapolis Air National Guard in Minnesota prior to embarking to the CIA for display. Photo credit: James Goodall / The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird Convinced the U-2 would have a short service life, in the fall of 1957, Kelly Johnson was contacted and asked if Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects engineering team would conduct an operational analysis to determine how far the probability of shooting down an aircraft varied with speed, altitude, and radar cross section (RCS), a measure of radar reflectivity. Johnson agreed to accept the project. The resulting analysis concluded that supersonic speed, coupled with the use of radar attenuating materials and design considerations, greatly reduced the chances of radar detection. Attention in the CIA now focused on the possibility of building an aircraft that could fly at extremely high speeds and altitudes and would also incorporate the best available radar-absorbing materials. This effort was code-named “Gusto.” In the fall of 1957, U-2 project manager Richard Bissell established an advisory committee to help select a design for the U-2’s successor. Chaired by Polaroid chief executive Edwin Land, the committee met seven times between November 1957 and August 1959. Designers from several aircraft manufacturers and senior officials from the Navy and Air Force attended some of the meetings. The two most prominent aircraft firms involved in the process were Lockheed and Convair, which was building a supersonic bomber for the Air Force, the B-58 Hustler. On April 21, 1958, Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects component, jokingly nicknamed “Skunk Works” after the backwoods moonshine still in the comic strip Li’l Abner, began designing an aircraft that would cruise at Mach 3.0 at altitudes above ninety thousand feet. Kelly Johnson, head of Skunk Works, said, “It makes no sense to just take this one or two steps ahead, because we’d be buying only a couple of years before the Russians would be able to nail us again . . . I want to come up with an airplane that can rule the skies for a decade or more. . . . The higher and faster we fly, the harder it will be to spot us, much less stop us.” On July 23, 1958, Johnson presented his concept to Land’s committee, which expressed interest in the approach. By September, Skunk Works had studied various configurations called “Archangel-1,” “Archangel-2,” and so forth. Each configuration soon became simply “A-1,” “A-2,” etc. On November 25, 1958, the Land Panel conducted a review of studies provided to it by the two competing design teams and decided that each company would be granted a year to refine its initial proposal and generate a definitive aircraft design. This decision was relayed to President Dwight Eisenhower, who agreed that funding would be made available from the CIA’s special Contingency Reserve Fund. A-12 930 on display at US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Photo credit: David Allison / The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird For the next twelve months, Kelly and Lockheed program manager Dick Boehme went into overdrive and studied no fewer than ten major design models designated A-3 to A-12. Each of these were further subdivided into a number of variations on the “parent” design. On May 18, 1959, at the request of General Thomas White, Air Force chief of staff, a CIA panel was formed to further provide expert advice in respect to the looming design selection process. On August 20, the final design submissions from Lockheed and General Dynamics (Convair was now part of General Dynamics) were delivered to the joint Department of Defense (DoD), Air Force, and CIA selection panel. On August 28, Kelly wrote in his project log, “Saw the director of the program office [Mr. Bissell] alone. He told me that we had the project and that General Dynamics is out of the picture. They [CIA] accept our conditions 1) of the basic arrangement of the A-12 and 2) that our method of doing business will be identical to that of the U-2. He agreed very firmly to this latter condition and said that unless it was done this way, he wanted nothing to do with the project either.” Much of the eventual success of the A-12 Oxcart program can be attributed to CIA and Lockheed following the best practices from the U-2 project that Johnson and Bissell tacitly referred to: an urgent national need, development in total secrecy, complete trust between customer and contractor, individual responsibility and accountability, start-to-finish ownership of design, willingness to take risks, tolerance for failure, and streamlined bureaucracy with minimal staffing and paperwork. The next day, the selection panel voted for the A-12 but required Lockheed to demonstrate by January 1, 1960, that it could reduce the aircraft’s RCS. The CIA awarded a four-month contract to Lockheed to proceed with antiradar studies, aerodynamic structural tests, and engineering designs. “Oxcart” was selected from a random list of code names to designate this research and development and all later work on the A-12. The aircraft came to be called “Oxcart” as well. Funding for the four-month period was $4.5 million. This carriage box was built at the Burbank, California, Skunk Works facility to hide and transport A-12 924’s main fuselage while traveling to Groom Lake. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin / The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird Johnson’s number two man at Skunk Works was Ben Rich, who is considered the father of stealth technology. When Johnson retired, Rich took over as head of the Skunk Works in 1975 and retired in 1991. During tests over the trial period, Lockheed demonstrated that its concept of shape, nonmetallic parts, and fuel additives would produce the needed reduction in RCS. In the course of this phase of radar testing and after, which required a full-scale, pylon-mounted mockup and further wind tunnel tests, the A-12 took on more of its distinctive cobra-like shape that allowed for better dispersion of radar pulses. To further reduce radar reflections, the two canted rudders were fabricated from laminated nonmetallic materials. No one knew that its wings, tail, and fuselage were loaded with special composite materials, mostly iron ferrites laced with asbestos that absorbed radar energy rather than returning it to the sender. Basically 65 percent of its low radar cross section comes from shaping the airplane; 35 percent from radar absorbent coating. Lockheed could not do research and development work on the A-12 at its Burbank, California, facility because the runway there was too short and the facility too public. Ideally, the test site would be remote from metropolitan areas and aviation flight routes, easily accessible by air, reasonably close to an Air Force installation, and able to accommodate large numbers of personnel. It needed to have good weather, fuel storage facilities, and a runway at least eight thousand feet long. It was inevitable that Oxcart flight testing would be completed from Groom Lake, also known as Area 51, Paradise Ranch, Watertown, and Dreamland. With the help of the California and Nevada highway patrol, the secret A-12 convoy heads to Groom Lake for the first time with aircraft 924 dismantled. Photo credit: Lockheed Martin / The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird Very little had changed after the U-2 program moved out of Groom Lake. A small group of contractors were required to bring Groom Lake up to new standards. In September 1960 work began in earnest and continued in double shifts. Construction began that month with a weekly air shuttle ferrying work crews from Burbank to Las Vegas, Nevada, and then to Groom Lake. By November the new 8,500-foot runway had been completed, as the old one could not handle the A-12’s gross weight. All essential facilities at the site were ready for the delivery of the first A-12, scheduled for August 1961. By the time the testing ended, more than four years later, the site had a population of more than 1,800, and three shuttle flights arrived every day from Burbank to Las Vegas. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: The ultimate SR-71 book which profiles the history, development, manufacture, modification, and active service of all 50 models in the SR-71 program. At the height of the Cold War in 1964, President Johnson announced a new aircraft dedicated to strategic reconnaissance. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane flew more than three-and-a-half times the speed of sound–so fast that no other aircraft could catch it. Above 80,000 feet, its pilots had to wear full-pressure flight suits similar to what was used aboard the space shuttle. Developed by the renowned Lockheed Skunk Works, the SR-71 was an awesome aircraft in every respect. It was withdrawn from use in 1998, when it was superseded by satellite technology. Twelve of the thirty-two aircraft were destroyed in accidents, but none were ever lost to enemy action. Throughout its thirty-four-year career, the SR-71 was the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft. It set world records for altitude and speed: an absolute altitude record of 85,069 feet and an absolute speed record of 2,193.2 miles per hour. The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird covers every aspect of the SR-71’s development, manufacture, modification, and active service from the insider’s perspective of one of its pilots and is lavishly illustrated with more than 400 photos. Former pilot and author Richard Graham also examines each of the fifty planes that came out the SR-71 program (fifteen A-12s; three YF-12s; and thirty-two SR-71s) and tells each plane’s history, its unique specifications, and where each currently resides. A veteran of fifteen years of assignments within the SR-71 community, Colonel Richard H. Graham is uniquely qualified to tell the Blackbird’s story. Crew member, instructor pilot, chief of the standardization/evaluation division, Colonel Graham was named SR-71 Squadron Commander, 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, in January 1981. A command pilot with more than 4,600 military flying hours, he has earned military decorations and awards including the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with eighteen oak leaf clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with “V” device and one oak leaf cluster, Air Force Organizational Excellence Award, Combat Readiness Medal with one oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with four service stars, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with palm, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. Colonel Graham’s books on the SR-71 include SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story and SR-71 Blackbird: Stories, Tales and Legends. He lives in Plano, Texas. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.