Share This Article

Lockheed A-12: The CIA’s Blackbird and Other Variants

by Paul F. Crickmore, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England, 2014

The shooting down of Francis Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 by SA-2 surface-to-air missiles at 70,500 feet showed that high altitude alone could not be a defense for American spy planes. Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” (its advanced development program) responded by designing the A-12, a technological marvel capable of speeding along at Mach 3.2 at 82,000 feet while taking photos that plainly identified objects such as helicopters. In Lockheed A-12, No. 12 in Osprey’s Air Vanguard series, Paul F. Crickmore focuses specifically on the early models of the “Blackbird,” prior to the YF-71 and SR-71 versions.

Along with providing exterior and interior views of the A-12, its anatomy and equipment, the book includes a comprehensive account of its operational career—with a section devoted to Vietnam overflights that might come as a surprise to veterans unfamiliar with the hitherto classified Blackbird story. Like the plane’s very genesis, politics overcame ambivalence about using it in Vietnam, when the National Security Council was briefed on the possibility that North Vietnam was importing surface-to-surface missiles in May 1967. The Blackbird’s capabilities made possible the CIA’s Operation Black Shield, whose surveillance flights by July had ascertained that no such weapons escalation had taken place. During subsequent overflights, the North Vietnamese displayed their proficiency for hands-on learning with a series of surface-to-air missile attacks.

Blackbird pilot Denis Sullivan acquired the distinction of being attacked on two separate missions and returning from one with a tiny piece of shrapnel in his lower wing fillet, lodged against a support strut of the wing tank—the closest that any unfriendly object of the Blackbird’s attentions ever came to shooting one down.

Besides its coverage of an outstanding airplane, Lockheed A-12 should provide anyone with an interest in the Vietnam War with yet another, little-known facet.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.