The Lockheed A-12: The Blackbird Predecessor That Had The Soviet Union Running For Cover

The A-12 is the often forgotten forerunner to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is one of the most famous and iconic military aircraft ever made. This Mach 3 + capable spy plane quickly became something that the Soviet Union could not live with, with them never able to intercept a Blackbird when they were on a spy mission. Not even the MiG-25 could catch the SR-71. Despite being retired for some 30 years or so, the Blackbird still resonates with so many people. But something that is forgotten is that it wasn’t the first Mach 3 capable spy aircraft that the United States built.

Backstory And Development Of The Lockheed A-12

The A-12 was needed to supplement the Lockheed U-2, and become an aircraft that could overfly the Soviet Union fast, with little or minimal detection, and of course faster than any Soviet aircraft could do so at the time. The project began with the Archangel 1 and 2 concepts before it progressed to the A-11 design. Lockheed would update the A-11, adding twin canted fins instead of a single right-angle one, and this would serve as the basis for the A-12 design.

The A-12 was way ahead of its time, which led to new technologies and materials to be used in its production. The A-12 was mostly constructed of titanium, and radar-absorbing composite materials made from iron ferrite and silicon laminate were combined with asbestos. This was to absorb radar returns and to make the aircraft more stealthy as well. Following development and production at the Lockheed Skunk Works, the A-12 first flew on April 25th 1962, on an unofficial and unannounced test flight. The A-12 started flying with Pratt & Whitney J75 engines but all would soon be fitted with the later J58 engines by early 1963. Soon, the A-12 was ready for active service.

Operational History Of The A-12

Despite initially being built to replace the U-2 flying over the Soviet Union, and Cuba, the A-12 was never used in those roles. After Gary Powers and his U-2 were shot down in May 1960, the purpose of the A-12 was changed, and instead they were deployed to Asia. Specifically, the A-12 was to be flown over North Vietnam to photograph surface-to-air missile sites, beginning with Operation Black Shield on May 31st, 1967. The A-12s would fly out of Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to fulfil these missions.

There were close shaves against Vietnamese SAM sites during these operations. Pilot Dennis Sullivan had a close encounter, when six missiles were fired at his A-12 and one exploded within 300 to 700 ft of his spy aircraft. Debris from the missile did indeed hit the aircraft as well. The final Black Shield mission over North Vietnam was on March 8th 1968, and three missions were then flown that same year over North Korea. One of these flights came just after the seizure of the Navy intelligence ship Pueblo in January 1968. Even that early in the year though, the writing was on the wall for the A-12.

The Lockheed A-12 Was Retired In 1968

Thanks to its intended purpose in replacing the U-2 being changed, the A-12 ended up having a very short service life. New Soviet radar systems rendered the aircraft vulnerable, despite the initial shock of the speed the aircraft possessed. In fact, the A-12 program ended in December 1966, even before the Black Shield operations began. The impending arrival of the SR-71 though meant that the A-12 was no longer needed, with the final flight of the aircraft taking place on 21st June 1968.

The Foundations The A-12 Laid For Future Of Spy Aircraft

The A-12 may have had a short service life, but it laid strong foundations. The SR-71 became one of the most successful spy aircraft in the world, and was even more capable than its predecessor. It even led to the YF-12 interceptor, a very capable Mach 3 interceptor that was only really scuppered due to internal politics. There was also the M-21 drone carrier, which carried the D-21 reconnaissance drone. Several A-12s are preserved in museums across the United States, serving as reminders to many that it was the forerunner to the SR-71 Blackbird and that it laid the foundations for one of the world’s most incredible aircraft.