Frank Murray, the last of only six pilots to fly the A-12 for the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) legendary Oxcart program, passed away on Mar. 26, 2023.
According to Gathering of Eagles Foundation, Murray was born into an Army family on Sep. 21, 1930, the son of a professional Army soldier and an Army nurse, William and Agnes Murray. Frank grew up in San Diego, California, and graduated from St. Augustine High School in 1948. He was taught to fly by his older brother Bill at the age of 15. He followed in both his brothers’ footsteps by enlisting in the US Air Force in August 1948.
Frank’s career in aviation began when he was selected for and attended Airplane and Engine Mechanics School at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, where he graduated and stayed on as an instructor. Frank rose through the ranks over the course of four years until he made Sergeant. He was then accepted into the AF Aviation Cadet Flying Training Program. Frank’s love for flying was solidified in training at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, and Laredo AFB, Texas, in 1952.
Murray was commissioned a second lieutenant and soon transferred to Laughlin AFB, then to Luke AFB, for Gunnery School in the T-33 and F-84B. His first operational fighter assignment was to Chaumont, France, where he flew the F-84G and F-86F. Murray was then reassigned to Bergstrom AFB, Texas, where he again flew the F-84F and received his first experience with supersonic speeds in the F-101A/C. From there, Murray was assigned to Otis AFB, Massachusetts, to fly the F-94C and F-101B. His final assignment prior to becoming an A-12 pilot was a three-year tour as an A-12 safety chase pilot in direct support of Project Oxcart in the 1129th Special Activities Squadron at Area 51, Nevada.
Lt Col Murray’s transition to the CIA, the A-12, and Project Oxcart came just as he was promoted to the rank of major. He chose to resign his commission to take the job. Lt Col Murray flew four operational missions, most notably the second North Korea mission on Feb. 19, 1968. The Oxcart program was officially shut down in June of 1968 and Murray returned to regular Air Force life.
Murray’s career picked up where it left off and he was assigned to the 475th Test Squadron at Tyndall AFB flying the F-101 Voodoo. He volunteered for duty in Southeast Asia with the 1st Special Operations Squadron at Nakhon Phanom AB, Thailand. He flew 67 combat rescue missions in the A-1 Skyraider over Laos and Vietnam, ultimately commanding the squadron before returning to Tyndall and retiring from active duty in 1977 with 29 years of service.
He received the CIA’s Intelligence Star for Valor and was inducted into Nevada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2012. Murray currently resided in Gardnerville, Nevada, with Stella, his wife.
CIA developed the highly secret A-12 OXCART as the U-2 spy plane’s successor, intended to meet the nation’s need for a very fast, very high-flying reconnaissance aircraft that could avoid Soviet air defenses.
In 1965, after hundreds of hours flown at high personal risk by the elite team of CIA and Lockheed test pilots, the A-12 was declared fully operational, attaining the design specifications of a sustained speed of Mach 3.2 at 90,000 feet altitude.
The only A-12 reconnaissance operation, codenamed BLACK SHIELD, took place from May 1967 to May 1968. A detachment of six pilots and three A-12s based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa flew 29 missions over East Asia. The panoramic stereo camera aboard each aircraft yielded considerable high-quality imagery that within hours of landing was processed and under the eyes of photointerpreters, who extracted key intelligence information in support of US military operations during the Vietnam War.
By the time of CIA’s first A-12 deployment in 1967, the US Air Force was developing the SR-71 Blackbird, a modified version of the A-12. Seeing little value in maintaining both overt SR-71 and covert A-12 fleets with similar capabilities, President Johnson ordered retirement of the A-12 in 1968.
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Pages Habubrats and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, CIA
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