Forty-nine years ago this week, the highly-classified CIA/Lockheed A-12, with Lockheed Test Pilot Lou Schalk at the controls, took to the air for the first time. The historic flight originated from the U.S. government’s top secret flight test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada.
The high stakes of the Cold War compelled the United States to develop the capability to perform covert surveillance missions via overflight of the Soviet Union. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was tasked by the Eisenhower Administration for the job. The CIA partnered with the Lockheed Company to develop a high-flying reconnaissance aircraft known as the U-2.
Outfitted with a suite of high tech cameras and sensors, the U-2 was flown by CIA pilots from 1956 through 1960 to gather vital intelligence data regarding Soviet military capabilities. The aircraft penetrated Soviet territory at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet and a top speed of about 500 mph. The type’s unrefueled range was more than 5,500 nautical miles. Maximum endurance was 12 hours.
Soon after the U-2 began flying operational missions over the Soviet Union, the U-2 was detected on Soviet radar. Fortunately, Soviet ground-launched missiles were unable to reach the high-flying surveillance aircraft. But the writing was on the wall. It would be only a matter of time before the Soviets improved their defenses to the point that the U-2 would be intercepted. That day occurred on Sunday, 01 May 1960 when a U-2 flown by the CIA’s Francis Gary Powers was brought down over Russia by a Soviet SA-2 missile.
Three years prior to the U-2 incident, the CIA-Lockheed team had begun classified development of the next generation surveillance aircraft. The new aircraft was designed to enter denied airspace at altitudes beyond 85,000 feet and speeds in excess of 2,000 mph (Mach 3+). The camera and sensor systems payload would be a vastly improved over that of the U-2 as well. The idea was to fly when and where required as national security needs dictated.
The CIA’s new supersonic surveillance aircraft was known simply as the A-12. The “A” designation was shorthand for the name Archangel within the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects (The Skunk Works) organization in Burbank, California. The “12” represented the 12th and final iteration of the Archangel airframe design series. In January of 1960, the CIA contracted with Lockheed to produce a dozen A-12’s at the latter’s Burbank facility under the code-name of Project OXCART.
Groom Lake airfield, situated on the USAF’s Area 51 military installation in southern Nevada, was selected as the location for A-12 flight test. The remote and then-publicly-unknown test site was chosen to provide maximum protection from prying eyes and thus help maintain the covert nature of the A-12’s development.
The No. 1 A-12 (S/N 60-6924) was scheduled for what was to be a high-speed taxi test on Saturday, 26 April 1962. The official test plan called for Lockheed Chief Test Pilot Louis W. “Lou” Schalk to get the aircraft up to something just below the minimum rotation velocity of the airplane. However, the A-12’s chief architect, the inimitable Kelly Johnson, privately instructed Schalk to fly the aircraft off the runway and then quickly set it back down. Johnson wanted Schalk to experience how the aircraft felt during take-off in preparation for the upcoming official first flight.
Schalk did as he was instructed. However, as the aircraft took to the air, the pilot found it to be unstable in all three axes. After a pulse-elevating struggle with his shaky stead, Schalk managed to get the A-12 back on the ground in one piece. However, his wild nap-of-the-earth flight profile had consumed 8,000 feet of concrete runway and an additional mile or more of dry lakebed. All that on-lookers could see was a big dust cloud!
Fearing the worst, Groom tower attempted to contact Schalk to ascertain his immediate status. Shalk replied that he and his ship were OK, but the tower never heard his response. The pilot was finally able to turn the A-12 around and taxi back to the hangar area. The Lockheed test team knew that there was plenty to understand and do before the aircraft would be permitted to make its first flight!
Analysis showed that the aircraft (1) did not have its aerodynamic dampers switched to the ON position and (2) center-of-gravity (CG) was located significantly behind the aft CG limit. The former because most pilots would not engage dampers during the early stages of flight test of a new airplane. The latter because the fueling crew, expecting only a runway-hugging high-speed taxi test, had conveniently put most of the gas in the back of the airplane.
The No. 1 A-12 officially made its first flight on Wednesday, 30 April 1962. Take-off and recovery occurred at Groom Lake. The A-12 first achieved supersonic flight the next month. Following a brief, but intense, flight test program, the type entered the USAF operational inventory in 1963. The A-12 retired from active service in June of 1968. By that time, another triple-sonic aircraft had sprung from its loins. That aircraft was none other than the legendary SR-71 Blackbird.
Thirteen A-12 aircraft would ultimately be manufactured by Lockheed. Five of these aircraft were lost over the course of the type’s flying career. Remarkably, A-12 No.1 (S/N 60-6924) survived. In tribute, Lou Schalk’s A-12 first flight beauty is prominently displayed at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, California.