‘Everything about the A-12 Oxcart program was dark alley, cloak and dagger. Even the way they financed the operation was highly unconventional,’ Ben Rich, second Director of Lockheed’s Skunk Works.
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.
CIA awarded the Oxcart contract to Lockheed (builder of the U-2) in 1959.
In meeting the A-12’s extreme speed and altitude requirements, Lockheed–led by legendary engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson–overcame numerous technical challenges with cutting-edge innovations in titanium fabrication, lubricants, jet engines, fuel, navigation, flight control, electronic countermeasures, radar stealthiness, and pilot life-support systems.
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.
Ben Rich (the second Director of Lockheed’s Skunk Works from 1975 to 1991, succeeding its founder, Kelly Johnson) recalls an interesting fact on how the CIA financed the A-12 Oxcart program in his book “Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed:”
‘Everything about this project was dark alley, cloak and dagger. Even the way they financed the operation was highly unconventional: using secret contingency funds, they back-doored payment to Lockheed by writing personal checks to Kelly [Johnson*] for more than a million bucks as start-up costs. The checks arrived by regular mail at his Encino home, which had to be the wildest government payout in history. Johnson could have absconded with the dough and taken off on a one-way ticket to Tahiti. He banked the funds through a phony company called “C & J Engineering,” the “C & J” standing for Clarence Johnson. Even our drawings bore the logo “C & J”—the word “Lockheed” never appeared. We used a mail drop out at Sunland, a remote locale in the San Fernando Valley, for suppliers to send us parts. The local postmaster got curious about all the crates and boxes piling up in his bins and looked up “C & J” in the phone book and, of course, found nothing. So, he decided to have one of his inspectors follow our unmarked van as it traveled back to Burbank. Our security people nabbed him just outside the plant and had him signing national security secrecy forms until he pleaded writer’s cramp.”
*According to Kelly Johnson book Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, he became known as ‘Kelly’ Johnson (his full name being Clarence Leonard Johnson) because while attending grade school in Michigan, he was ridiculed for his name, Clarence. Some boys started calling him “Clara”. One morning while waiting in line to get into a classroom, one boy started with the normal routine of calling him “Clara”. Johnson tripped him so hard the boy broke a leg. The boys then decided that he was not a “Clara” after all, and started calling him “Kelly”. The nickname came from the popular song at the time, “Has Anyone Here Seen Kelly? (Kelly from the Emerald Isle)”. Henceforth, he was always known as “Kelly” Johnson.
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Twitter Page Habubrats SR-71 and Facebook Page Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force