A-12 Operational

An A-12 Oxcart taxis past a US Air Force F-101B chase plane on the paved runway at Groom Lake. Aircraft of the A-12 fleet spent most of their service lives flying out of this facility.

This late 1963 family portrait of A-12s includes two YF-12As parked at the far end. Second in line is Article 124, the Titanium Goose, the only A-12B two-seat trainer. It has been said that this group photo included all extant A-12s, which would date it to late 1963.

The YF-12A was one of the great what-if stories of twentieth century aviation. With its speed and armament, it would have been able to intercept and destroy any bomber/UFO that was ever operationally deployed. The second YF-12A (top) is shown here with the second SR-71 (61-7951), the latter having been marked with a bogus tail number (60-6937) in the YF-12A sequence. As a cover story, it was called the “YF-12C.” Beneath the belly of the aircraft is a heat transfer fixture that exposed experiments to rapid temperature rises during sustained supersonic flight.

Three years and seven months after first flight in April 1962, Lockheed and the CIA declared the A-12 ready for operational use at design specifications. The period thus devoted to flight tests was remarkably short, considering the new fields of aircraft performance under exploration. As the A-12s reached each higher Mach number, the support contractors continued correcting defects and making improvements. Everyone concerned gained experience with the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the vehicle.

With approximately 1000 individuals assigned, a mix of air force, CIA, many varied Contractors such as Car Co, David Clark, EG&G, EK Kodak, Firewel, Honeywell, Magnavox, Perkins Elmer, Pratt & Whitney (aka United Aircraft Co), Ree Co, Sylvania (Blue Dog ECM C&J Engineering (parts supply , Hughes, Hamilton Standard, and of course Lockheed personnel all being involved in some manner or form. That these companies were involved, or what services they performed was probably never known by the vast majority of those assigned to the Area.

The air inlet and related control continued for a long time to present the most troublesome and refractory problem. Numerous attempts failed to find a remedy, even though a special task force concentrated on the task. For a time, there was something approaching despair, and the solution, when finally achieved, they greeted with enormous relief. After all, not every experimental aircraft of advanced performance has survived its flight testing period. The possibility existed of OXCART also failing despite the significant cost and effort expended upon it.

A few dates and figures will serve to mark the progress of events. The year 1963 ended with 573 flights totaling 765 hours, and nine aircraft in the inventory.

On 20 July 1963, the A-12 flew for the first time at Mach 3. In November, it reached Mach 3.2, the design speed, and reached 78,000 feet altitude. The longest sustained flight at design conditions occurred on 3 February 1964; lasting ten minutes at Mach 3.2 and 83,000 feet. The end of 1964 totaled 1,160 flights and 1,616 hours flight time with eleven aircraft available, four of them reserved for testing and seven assigned to the detachment.

Stating the record another way, the A-12 reached Mach 2 after six months of flying; Mach 3 after 15 months. Two years after the first flight the aircraft flew a total of 38 hours at Mach 2, three hours at Mach 2.6, and less than one hour at Mach 3. After three years, Mach 2 time increased to 60 hours, Mach 2.6 to 33 hours, and Mach 3 time to nine hours. Only the test aircraft flew any Mach 3 time. The detachment aircraft remained restricted to Mach 2.9.

As may be seen from the figures, most flights lasted a short duration, averaging little more than an hour each, longer flights unnecessary at this stage of testing. Everyone felt the less seen of the A-12, the better, and short flights helped to preserve the secrecy of the proceedings. It remained virtually impossible for an aircraft of such dimensions and capabilities to remain inconspicuous. At its full speed, OXCART required a turning radius of no less than 86 miles, and at times up to 125 miles. There was no question of staying close to the airfield; its shortest possible flights took it over a vast expanse of territory.

The first long-range, high-speed flight occurred on 27 January 1965. One of the test aircraft flew an hour and fifteen minutes above Mach 3.1 for 2,580 nautical miles total range, at altitudes between 75,600 and 80,000 feet.

The year 1965 saw the test site reach the high point of activity with all the detachment pilots Mach 3.0 qualified. Completion of construction brought it to full physical size with a site population of 1,835. Contractors worked three shifts a day. Lockheed Constellations flew daily flights between the factory in Burbank and the site. The C-47 flew two flights a day between the site and Las Vegas. Now officials began considering how and when and where to use OXCART in its appointed role.

A-12s Lost at Area 51

Following Collins’ crash, the program during this phase lost two more aircraft. On 9 July 1964, Article No. 133 made its final approach to the runway. At an altitude of 500 feet and airspeed of 200 knots, it began a smooth, steady roll to the left. Lockheed test pilot Bill (Dutch 50) could not overcome the roll. At about a 45-degree bank angle and 200-foot altitude he ejected. He swung down to the vertical in the parachute at the same time his feet touched the ground, for what must have been one of the narrower escapes in the perilous history of test piloting.

The primary cause of the accident was a frozen servo for the right outboard roll and pitch control. No news of the crash ever filtered out.

On 28 December 1965, Aircraft No. 126 crashed immediately after takeoff and was destroyed. Detachment pilot Mele Vojvodich (Dutch 30) ejected safely at an altitude of 150 feet. Like what happened to Bill Park, Vojvodich’s parachute opened at the same time his feet touched the runway. He suffered a sprained ankle.

The accident investigation board determined that a flight line electrician had improperly connected the yaw and pitch gyros had in effect reversed the controls. This time Mr. McCone directed the Office of Security to investigate the possibility of sabotage. While discovered no evidence of sabotage, they found indications of negligence. The manufacturer of the gyro earlier warned Lockheed of the possibility of connecting the mechanism could engage in reverse. No one acted or even an elementary precaution such as painting the contacts different colors. Again, no publicity occurred related to the accident.

Besides the pilot narrowly escaping death, the accident proved spectacular in another way. The A-12 aircraft required a special fuel with a high flash point and thermal stability. The fuel, JP-7 (Jet Propellant 7), required a radioactive Cesium additive as a stealth feature to reduce the radar signature of its exhaust plumes. Everyone referred to the additive as Panther Piss.

The fuel also used triethylborane (TEB) to ignite the engines. This additive ignited when it met the air. TEB produced a characteristic green flame seen during engine ignition. When Mele Vojvodich’s plane crashed on the runway at Groom Lake, ice covered the runway. The crash released the triethylborane that ignited as it spread beneath the ice. By the time the rescue vehicles could respond, the burning TEB covered a large area beneath the ice near the crash site.

At the time of Vojvodich’s crash, Col Slip Slater (Dutch 11), commander of the 1129th SAS at Groom Lake was in California visiting his daughter during the Christmas holiday, leaving Colonel Holbury in command at the facility. Maj Harold Burgeson was on duty at the Ops building when the accident occurred. Hearing that Mele had just crashed, he headed for the Ops vehicle at a dead run. Just as he reached the outside gate, Col Holbury screeched to a halt in his staff car, picked him up, and they went to the site together. After assuring that Vojvodich was OK, they looked at the wreckage before going to see him. The aircraft was grossly out of trim. Project Test Pilot, Denny Sullivan was in another station wagon monitoring the take-off and narrowly missed Mel when he drove to the crash site.

Maj Roger Andersen was on duty in the command post monitoring the tower frequencies during take-off when he heard the aircraft crash and rushed out on the lakebed. He saw Vojvodich land quite close to where the plane crashed. He witnessed one of the fire trucks narrowly miss running over Vojvodich in its rush to get to the fire.

The accident occurred about dusk, and the fire trucks arrived on the scene quickly. One of the fire trucks rushed quite close to Vojvodich standing and watching the thick black smoke and orange flames boiling from the wreckage. The fire trucks gained control of the flames coming from the wreckage. About that time, Andersen saw fuel from the crash area flowing out onto the lakebed and getting under a thin layer of ice. The TEC ignited on its own and continued burning under the ice with an eerie greenish white flame, looking like a large votive candle as darkness set in at Groom Lake.

Vojvodich merely sprained his ankle when he bailed out, escaping death by inches. When he returned home to Los Angeles, his wife, Carol, asked him about his limping. He told her that he sprained his ankle playing tennis.

Major Burgeson served as a member of the accident board where the Lockheed team determined the SAS connections accidentally reversed, causing the plane to misinterpret the pitch and yaw signals. A few days later, base commander Colonel. Slater, the project pilots, Major Burgeson, and Lockheed test pilot Bill Park went to Beale AFB to check the cable reversal out in Beale’s new simulator for the SR-71. Mele Vojvodich and a colonel from Wright-Patterson AFB accompanied them.

Bill Park took the first flight in the simulator with the cables reversed while the rest waited in an adjacent room. Bill Park had a tremendous sense of humor, and when he returned, he winked at Burgeson then remarked that it was a rough ride, however, flyable. Burgeson then took his flight, and when he returned, he continued the charade with a similar observation. Per Burgeson, Vojvodich looked so crestfallen, they burst into laughter and confessed to both of them crashing in the simulator.

What the Historians Never Knew About Vojvodich’s Crash:

During Project OXCART, one of the air force and CIA’s most loyal defenders of their careers was BGen Jack C. Ledford. On August 1958, General Ledford received an assignment to deputy chief of staff for weapons effects and tests, Headquarters, Defense Atomic Support Agency, Washington, DC.

He left this position in 1961 to attend the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, graduating with distinction in August 1962. Washington during his tour of duty, he earned a master of business administration in management from The George Washington University.

In September 1962, he served as an air commander with the 1040th Air Force Field Activity Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, DC. Following that, he became the Director of special projects, Headquarters Air Force, making him the director of the Office of Special Activities, DD/S&T for Project Oxcart at Area 51.

Ledford was newly assigned to the CIA and leading OSA in 1962 when he took the request to the Special Group to get authorization for the 14 October 1962 flight over Cuba. He met stiff resistance, however, held his ground against the “do-nothing, worry a lot crowd.” Everyone acted apprehensive after a SAC U-2 strayed slightly over Russia and the CIA lost a U-2 over China that summer.

Bobby Kennedy came to his rescue and insisted on a vote up or down. The Special Group approved the mission and caught the Russian missiles in Cuba. The rest was history.

When Mele Vojvodich bailed out on takeoff, Jack Ledford and Dr. Albert D. “Bud” Wheelon, Ph.D., Director for Science and Technology at CIA immediately flew to Los Angeles and picked up Kelly Johnson en route to Area 51.

On the way up, Johnson started bitching bout the quality of the CIA’s operational pilots.

General Ledford took issue, and it ended up with Wheelon breaking up a fistfight between General Ledford and Kelly Johnson in the plane’s small cabin as they headed to Groom Lake.

Ledford always stood up for his people and good reason. It turned out that Kelly Johnson’s people caused the crash by inserting the two augmentation rate gyros in backward on Vojvodich plane. (The author, TD Barnes [[Thunder), CIA pilot Frank Murray (Dutch 20), and Roger Andersen attended General Ledford’s funeral in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Wheelon attended as well and told this story as part of his eulogy for the general.

While about fuels, another occurrence comes to mind. In 1958, Shell Oil vice president Jimmy Doolittle arranged for the company developing the fuel for the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret Lockheed A-12 spy plane. The A-12 needed a low-volatility fuel that wouldn’t evaporate at high-altitude. Manufacturing several hundred thousand gallons of the new fuel required the petroleum byproducts Shell commonly used to make Flit insect repellant, causing a nationwide shortage of that product that year.

In July 1966, Lockheed made a fourth launch attempt from M-21 (60–6941) with 60–6940 flying chase. Thus, the second A-12 converted to an M-21 for launching the D-21 departed Groom Lake on 30 July 1966. Lockheed Test Pilot Bill Park piloted the aircraft, and Lockheed engineer Ray Torrick the LCO flew back seat for launching the drone.

The mother ship and drone went feet wet at Point Mugu, California and launched the drone over the Pacific. Following launch, the drone pitched down and struck the M-21 Mothership, breaking it in half. Pilot Bill Park and LCO (Launch Control Officer) Ray Torrick stayed with the plane a short time before ejecting over the Pacific Ocean. Both made a safe ejection. However, Ray Torrick opened his helmet visor by mistake, and his suit filled up with water which caused him to drown.

This terrible personal and professional loss drove Kelly Johnson to cancel the M-21/D-21program. This accident also prompted water survival training by the A-12 pilots based at Groom Lake. Under the supervision of 1129th SAS commander, Col Hugh Slater, the pilots, wearing their flight suits, lifted high above the waters of Lake Mead on a parasail towed by a United States Coast Guard whaler. Colonel Slater quickly aborted the training when some of the fully suited pilots almost drowned after dropping from the parasail into the water.

In January 1967, while returning to Area 51 from a routine training flight, A-12 Article #125 crashed near Leith, Nevada. A faulty gauge had allowed the jet to run out of fuel 70 miles short of Groom Lake. Walt Ray (Dutch 45) ejected, however, failed to separate from his seat, killing him on impact with the ground. Walt Ray had married only three months earlier.

Capt Charlie Trapp was in Las Vegas with the UH-1 helicopter when he received a call that Walt Ray was missing. He gathered his crew and a Nellis flight surgeon and started the search. Dark mountain terrain and high winds made it difficult. The H-43 searched from Area 51. They called off the search because the H-43 was low on fuel and there was no sign of fire nor were emergency radio signals heard. They rescheduled first light ops for the next day. He took an F-105 pilot and flight surgeon with him and his Pararescue jump crew. The F-105 pilot thought he knew the approximate crash location.

They flew the UH-1 to the area and found the A-12 very soon after arriving. The drag chute had deployed. They deployed the PJs to search the area and the aircraft and discovered that the ejection seat and Walt were missing.

They searched the rest of the day without success and planned the next day’s search with several agencies. They started at the point of impact and searched back along the flight path. Trapp’s UH-1 crew flew past Ray that morning and did not see him due to shadows caused by the low sun angle. Later in the day, the C-47 crew saw a sun reflection from his suit or visor, and they directed us to the site where they landed and picked up Ray. He was still in his ejection seat. They took him to Nellis and his new bride, Diane.

They later returned to search for the canopy and the camera–it took 15 days to find them using horses as well.

A month or two before all this happened, the PJs and Captain Trapp had taken Walt Ray and other pilots to Fort Myers Florida for jungle and sea coast survival training. The only transport to the training site was by boat. The guys had to survive on land vegetation, fish, and turtles for several days. Trapp provided the psychological stress by announcing at the end of each day that he was leaving for the night for a shower, a few drinks, and a steak dinner and they were not. They chased him to the boat, but all was forgotten when he brought them a case of cold beer for the last night.

The Loss of Pilots Continued

On 27 September 1967, James S. Simon, Jr., flew chase for a night sortie of the TA-12, the two-seat A-12 trainer affectionately called the Titanium Goose, flown by CIA pilot Jack Layton and air force pilot Harold Burgeson. As the TA-12 approached the south end of the runway, Simon’s F-101B struck the ground and exploded near the south rim pad.

Layton, Dutch 12, the pilot occupied the front cockpit and Burgeson, the instructor pilot the rear. Jim Simon, the chase pilot, flew the F-101B (56–0286). After the trainer had become safely airborne and all systems checked normal, Simon routinely flew around in the local area to await their return.

Layton and Burgeson completed their mission and returned to Groom Lake where Layton started an instrument letdown for a full stop landing. During the letdown, Burgeson called the chase and informed Simon of their return with no problems. Simon asked for their position, and Burgeson gave it to him, again stating all systems normal and the A-12 trainer not needing any assistance. Simon responded that he wanted to find them at least.

Layton turned the trainer on final approach and received clearance for a full stop landing. In the cockpit, neither could physically see the wings or engines. On short final, a sudden explosion occurred off the trainer’s right wing. Layton and Burgeson saw the flash and felt the concussion. Layton instinctively stop cocked the right engine, lit the left afterburner, and said, “Burgie be ready to bail out.” Burgeson replied, “That was not us, Jack. It was the chase. If you keep this thing flying straight, I will restart the right engine.” Burgeson got the engine started, and they circled for a landing. Both avoided looking at the fire as they approached the runway and Layton made a smooth landing. Until they called for landing clearance, the tower operators thought it was A-12 trainer aircraft that crashed.

No one ever knew for sure what caused the crash. What the pilots knew was that joining up with a dark, unlit airplane on a night at final approach airspeed is not easy. The aircraft contacted the ground in a flat attitude near the South Trim Pad of the Groom Lake landing strip. The manner of crashing suggests that Simon got a little low and flew into the ground. They could only speculate that he might have overshot a little and dropped down for clearance or that something in the cockpit, such as a warning light distracted him. This was speculation that served no useful purpose. In any case, that night the OXCART project lost an exceptional officer, an excellent pilot, and a good friend. Simon left a spouse and three sons. Simon’s widow never remarried and remained in their Las Vegas home until she died in 2006.

Also in 1967, Operation BLACK SHIELD meteorologist Weldon “Walt” King was TDY from Groom Lake to Kadena when killed in an F-101 VooDoo during a weather flight. He met with bad weather during which he lost the tail of his aircraft. King survived bailing out only to have the plane crash on top of him.

The air force lost the third YF-12A on 24 June 1971 in an accident at Edwards AFB when a fire broke out while Lt Col Ronald J. Layton and systems operator William A. Curtis approached the traffic pattern. A fuel line fracture caused by metal fatigue enveloped the entire aircraft in flames on the base leg, forcing both crew members to eject from Article 936 on moments before it crashed and burned near Barstow, California.

An impressive demonstration of the A-12’s capability occurred on 21 December 1966 when Lockheed test pilot Bill Park flew 10,198 statute miles in six hours. The aircraft left the test area in Nevada and flew northward over Yellowstone National Park, thence eastward to Bismarck, North Dakota, and on to Duluth, Minnesota, where it then turned south and passed Atlanta en route to Tampa, Florida. The plane turned northwest and headed towards Portland, Oregon and then southwest to Nevada. Again, the flight turned eastward, passing Denver and St. Louis. Turning around at Knoxville, Tennessee, it passed Memphis in the home stretch back to Nevada. This flight established a record unapproachable by any other aircraft; it began at about the same time a typical government employee started his workday and ended two hours before his quitting time.

Tragedy befell the program during a routine training flight on 5 January 1967 when the fourth aircraft was lost, together with its pilot. The accident occurred during descent about 70 miles from the base. A fuel gauge failed to function properly, and the aircraft ran out of fuel only minutes before landing.

The pilot, Walter Ray, ejected but died when he failed to separate from the ejection seat before impact. The air force located the wreckage on 6 January and recovered Ray’s body a day later.

Through air force channels, the air force released a story to the effect that an air force SR-71, on a routine test flight out of Edwards Air Force Base, was missing and presumed down in Nevada. The announcement identified the pilot as a civilian test pilot, and the newspapers connected him with Lockheed. Flight activity at the base again suspended during an investigation of the causes both for the crash and for the failure of the seat separation device.

It is worth observing that none of the four accidents occurred in the high Mach number, the high-temperature regime of flight. All traditionally involved problems inherent in any aircraft the OXCART was by this time performing at high-speeds, with excellent reliability.

Requirement

The president received a briefing on 20 July 1959 by Mr. Dulles, General Cabell, Mr. Bissell, Land, General White, Secretary McElroy, Drs. Killian, and Kistiakowsky. The president approved the study’s approach toward gaining intelligence on the Soviet Union and instructed Mr. Bissell to work with the Bureau of the Budget on the funding essential to the continuation of the effort. The choice of contractors hinged on the final design proposal submissions.

A meeting between Mr. Bissell and the Bureau of the Budget personnel on 22 July 1959 ended with the understanding that necessary financial arrangements were forthcoming to carry on the program.

Now the one major step of which design proposal to pursue remained before entering a full-scale development agenda. Lockheed and Convair had both submitted new proposals mid-August 1959. Both were unstaged aircraft differing only in external configuration. Both proposed aircraft would reach an altitude of 90,000 feet, fly at Mach 3.2 with an approximate 4,000-mile range. Both had a similar size, weight, and aerodynamic performance and preferred the P&W J58 engine over the General Electric Corporation J 93 which lacked higher cruise altitude of the J58.

17 August 1959 Comparison of general, characteristics.

Lockheed/Convair

Aircraft designation A-12 KINGFISH

Speed Mach 3.2 Mach 3.2

Range (total) 4120 nm 4000 nm

Range (at altitude) 3800 nm 3400 nm

Cruise Altitudes Lockheed Convair

Start 84,500 ft. 85,000 ft.

Mid-range 91,000 ft. 88,000 ft.

End 97,600 ft. 94,000 ft.

Dimensions

Length 102 ft. 79. 5 ft.

Span. 57 ft. 56. 0 ft.

Gross Weight 110,000 lbs. 101, 700 lbs.

Fuel Weight 64, 600 lbs. 62,000 lbs.

Lockheed’s designer, Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, creator of the U-2 called his new vehicle the A-11. Its design exhibited many innovations.

The designation changed to A-12 to distinguish it from the A-11 designator, for the all metal version proposed initially. Small scale testing predicted the Convair being slightly better at S-Band frequencies.

On 20 August 1959, the joint DOD/air force/CIA source selection group chose the Lockheed design. Initial development, exclusive of engine costs, went to Mr. Bissell at project headquarters with the continuation of the Lockheed arrangement beyond initial development. Continuing the project was contingent on the success of design changes in the A-12 reducing the radar cross section.

The two factors favoring the choice of Lockheed were its substantially lower bid and the company’s experience from the U-2 program. Lockheed was already geared to launch into another highly classified program. It had handled the U-2 program without attracting undue attention in the industry and still possessed a reservoir of labor with the necessary security clearances and was readily available. Lastly, everyone was confident in Mr. Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson and his ability to produce a new vehicle as he had done with the U-2.

Bill Yenne

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