Clarence “Kelly” Johnson described the first flight of the top secret A-12 Oxcart as “horrible to watch.” Here’s why.

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson described the first flight of the top secret A-12 Oxcart as “horrible to watch.” Here’s why.

By Dario Leone
Apr 27 2021
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Upon returning to the runway, it was discovered that some of the A-12’s equipment was installed backwards.

On Apr. 26, 1962, the top secret A-12 “Oxcart” made its first flight at a non-existent airfield in Nevada. The aircraft, codenamed “Article 121”, began oscillating badly in the air and disappeared into a dust cloud which Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the aircraft’s designer, described as “horrible to watch.” According to Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum Facebook Page, upon returning to the runway, it was discovered that some of the A-12’s equipment was installed backwards. The error was corrected and subsequent flights were performed without a hitch.

The top secret CIA aircraft, the replacement for the U-2, could fly at Mach 3 ( over 2,000 miles per hour) at an altitude greater than 80,000 feet.

The A-12 Oxcart was a super-secret, single-seater spy plane and was more secret and much rarer than the SR-71. In fact, the SR-71 was actually developed from the A-12.

SR-71 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. SR-71A Blackbird 61-7972 “Skunkworks”

Although it was meant to be the replacement for the U-2 spy plane, both it and the SR-71 were decommissioned before the U-2 (that still flies today).

According to Lockheed, the A-12 Oxcart was officially able to fly at 95,000ft and at 2,221 mph or at Mach 3.35. Compare that to 85,000ft and 2,112mph or Mach 3.2 of the SR-71. Though there are anecdotal stories of both aircraft surpassing the official records for speed and altitude.

The CIA operated the A-12 slightly under its capacity it seems because their documented numbers are slightly lower than Lockheed’s; about 3mph slower and 5000ft lower.

The following is a spec-sheet from the CIA’s official website.’

A-12 SR-71 Comparison

Both planes can be viewed side-by-side in Blackbird Park situated within Air Force Plant 42 next to Palmdale Regional Airport in Palmdale, California.

SR-71 A-12

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin, U.S. Air Force and CIA


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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