SR-71 Blackbird

Skunk Works Director Ben Rich recalls when CIA financed the A-12 Oxcart with secret funds and back-door payments to Lockheed with personal checks to Kelly Johnson for more than $1 million

‘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.

CLICK HERE to see The Aviation Geek Club contributor Linda Sheffield’s T-shirt designs! Linda has a personal relationship with the SR-71 because her father Butch Sheffield flew the Blackbird from test flight in 1965 until 1973. Butch’s Granddaughter’s Lisa Burroughs and Susan Miller are graphic designers. They designed most of the merchandise that is for sale on Threadless. A percentage of the profits go to Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. This nonprofit charity is personal to the Sheffield family because they are raising money to house SR-71, #955. This was the first Blackbird that Butch Sheffield flew on Oct. 4, 1965.

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 (left) and Kelly Johnson (right)

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.”

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

*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.

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Linda Sheffield Miller

Grew up at Beale Air Force Base, California. I am a Habubrat. Graduated from North Dakota State University. Former Public School Substitute Teacher, (all subjects all grades). Member of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolutionary War). I am interested in History, especially the history of SR-71. Married, Mother of three wonderful daughters and four extremely handsome grandsons. I live near Washington, DC.

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  • My Grandfather worked on the fuel for the U2 spy plane in 1959 at Area 51. His name was Henry Oden Stevenson (Steve) is what people called him. He was a chemical engineer physics major at Berkeley. He spent one year living in Las Vegas. Before moving to Hanford Ca to work for Caminol oil refinery. He never told me about area 51. My dad told me after he passed. I’m fascinated if anyone knew him. Weird how I never knew but I’m obsessed w SAPs projects

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