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Black shield

by Till Daisd
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A 12

The first of a series of Silverjavelin-coded long-distance, high-speed, high-altitude test flights took place on January 27, 1965. In about one hour and forty minutes, article Number 129 flew the 2580 nautical miles, with one hour and fifteen minutes of that time spent traveling at speeds more than Mach 3.1. Also attained were cruising altitudes of between 75,600 and 80,000 feet.

On March 18, 1965, the heads of the CIA and DoD decided to start making preparations for flying the A-12 over communist China. All of the Agency’s project pilots met the requirements for Mach 3 before the year’s end. Oxcart would never fly sorties over the USSR or China, despite this near-state of preparedness, due to political sensitivities surrounding the overflight conundrum. Then, where was this expensive national security asset to pay for itself? A covert project with the codename Upwind appeared to contain one potential immediate solution.

In 1964, a KH-4 Corona space photo-reconnaissance satellite captured images of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which some analysts thought to be an anti-ballistic missile installation. An A-12 would fly from the US into the Baltic Sea and meet up with a U-2, the latter of which was equipped to acquire electronic intelligence (ELINT). This composite mission was described in a highly classified proposal with the codename Project Scope Logic (with the confidential cryptonym Project Upwind). The A-12 would then travel north of Norway before turning around and traveling back south along the border with Soviet-Finnish. Before continuing west to the States, the pilot would travel west-southwest around the Baltic Sea, avoiding the coasts of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and East Germany.

The A-12 would need four aerial refuelings to accomplish the 11,000-mile flight, which would take eight hours and forty minutes. Although the high-speed, high-altitude target did not enter Soviet airspace, it was believed that it would cause Soviet radar operations to trigger the Tallinn system. High-resolution photos of the anti-ballistic missile site would be captured by the A-12’s Type 1 camera, while the more susceptible U-2 would remain out of range of the SA-2 and record the signal characteristics of the radar. Despite the idea’s backing from both Agency and DoD officials, Secretary of State Dean Rusk vehemently disagreed with it, and the powerful and covert “303 Committee” (which controlled covert operations) never forwarded the proposal to President Lyndon Johnson for his approval.

Cuba was another potential area of activity for Oxcart. Early in 1964, Project headquarters started making preparations for potential “contingency overflights” as part of the plan known as Skylark. Article Numbers 125, 127, 128, and 132, four of the thirteen A-12s now stationed at Area 51, were first designated as primary Skylark aircraft. Later, aircraft 129 and 131 were added to the group as a result of the installation of additional modifications. A consensus over the platForm vulnerability over the skies of Cuba, however, could not be reached during a meeting between Agency and government officials on September 15. As a result, it was decided that more research should be done.

Skylark was instructed to become operationally ready for emergencies by 5 November by Gen. Marshall S. Carter, Head of the National Security Agency, on 5 August 1965. Any emergency missions would have to be carried out below the A-12’s maximum capability (nearer to Mach 2.8) if security concerns required it. The aircraft would need to be deployed without its whole electronic countermeasures (ECM) arsenal in order to achieve this short deadline.

Although there was little time to prepare the aircraft, they were ready on the day specified by Gen. Carter with a restricted capacity. The Cuban contingencies were never used because, on September 15, 1966, the “303 Committee” decided not to send Oxcart on any reconnaissance missions to Cuba since they may be regarded as provocative and disturb the political calm that was already in place. Southeast Asia was now facing a more serious crisis, therefore it was given precedence.

On March 22, 1965, Brigadier General Jack Ledford briefed Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance on Project Black Shield, which involved the deployment of Oxcart to the Japanese island of Okinawa in response to the growing SA-2 threat that U-2 and Firebee drone reconnaissance assets were now facing as they were making overflights over communist China. Although the President would need to personally approve such missions, Secretary Vance was willing to make $3.7 million available to build support facilities at Kadena Air Base. These facilities were to be completed by the fall of 1965.

On June 3, 1965, Secretary McNamara met with the Under Secretary of the Air Force to discuss the buildup of SA-2 missile sites near Hanoi and the potential for switching out the vulnerable U-2s that were conducting reconnaissance flights over the North Vietnamese capital for A-12s. He was told that if sufficient aircraft performance was confirmed, Black Shield may fly over Vietnam.

After a maximum endurance flight of six hours and twenty minutes was accomplished on November 20, 1965, the Silverjavelin validation procedure was finished. During this period, the A-12 showed sustained speeds beyond Mach 3.2 at altitudes close to 90,000 feet. Kelly Johnson accepted personal responsibility for making sure that the four A-12s chosen for Black Shield operations were entirely “squawk-Free.”

On December 2nd, 1965, a formal request to deploy Oxcart operations to the Far East was made to the “303 Committee.” However, the committee decided that all efforts should be made to create a quick-reaction capability for deploying the A-12 system within a 21-day window at any time after January 1, 1966. The idea was swiftly rejected.

The committee received multiple requests to put the Black Shield Operations Order into effect in 1966, but they were all denied. Nonetheless, crew training and testing went on, and the time needed to deploy the A-12s was further shortened from 21 to 11 days. Bill Park flew non-stop 10,200 miles in just over six hours on December 21, 1966, to further demonstrate the aircraft’s ability to perform long-range reconnaissance operations.

Nevertheless, only 15 days after Park’s proof-of-range flight, another plane crashed, this time killing pilot Walt Ray, bringing tragedy to the program. On January 5, 1967, at 11:50 a.m. (local time), Walt took off from Area 51 using his personal call sign, “Dutch 45.” He had just finished the final 30 minutes of a routine training and test sortie when he reported that his fuel consumption was unusually high. He radioed that he was down to 7500 pounds at 15:22 and said, “I don’t know where it’s gone.”

He reported that he was running low on fuel 30 minutes later while near Hanksville, Utah, and one minute later declared an emergency. At 1556 hours, he radioed that he was 130 miles from his destination, had only 4000 lbs. of fuel left, and was using it too quickly. Within 30 seconds, he said that the engines were blazing out. Five minutes later, he reported that the fuel low-pressure lights had turned on.

Walt made his last radio communication at 16:03, informing that both engines had burned out and that he was ejecting. Just 70 miles from Area 51, Article Number 125 (60-6928) had run out of fuel. Walt was killed when he hit the ground after “gliding” to a lower altitude and doing a controlled bale out because he was unable to detach his parachute from the ejection seat. Both the loss of an excellent pilot and a highly regarded cast member was sad.

The book Lockheed SR-71 Operations in the Far East is available to purchase here.

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