North Vietnamese Air Defenses hit one Blackbird Mach 3 Spy Plane: the story of the A-12 damaged by SAM debris

The story of the only Blackbird Mach 3+ spy plane hit by a SAM: the day a North Vietnamese SA-2 damaged an A-12 Oxcart

By Dario Leone
Jul 10 2024
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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The Blackbird Family

The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” is a long-range, advanced, strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft.

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The first flight of an SR-71 took place on Dec. 22, 1964, and the first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966.

At the time the first Blackbird was delivered to the US Air Force (USAF) there were numerous locations in the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) which were of interest to US intelligence. However, since direct overflights, especially of deep penetrating nature, were out of the question (after the well-known May 1, 1960 downing of the U-2 deep inside the USSR, American and other western high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft stopped venturing over the Soviet heartland) so the Americans had to be content with reconnoitring from outside of Soviet airspace sites, located in border areas utilizing stand-off viewing.

Two Blackbird Mach 3 Spy Planes were Hit by North Vietnamese Air Defenses: one A-12 was hit with shrapnel, another Oxcart was damaged by SAM debris
A-12 Mach 3 spy plane

As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991, the SR-71 was never shot down and, as far as is known, was not even fired on by the Soviet Air Defence Force (PVO); however, that does not mean that preparations to that end were not made. Of the assets available to Soviet air defences,’ high-altitude SAMs and fighter-interceptors were the means which theoretically, could facilitate the downing of a Blackbird.

Concerning surface-to-air missiles, the SR-71 was on a number of occasions, fired upon by North Vietnamese, North Korean and Libyan SAMs but never effectively.

Two Blackbird Mach 3 Spy Planes were Hit by North Vietnamese Air Defenses: one A-12 was hit with shrapnel, another Oxcart was damaged by SAM debris
SA-2 in Vietnamese service

A-12 Oxcart damaged by North Vietnamese SA-2

However, an A-12 was in one stance damaged by a SAM. Namely, on Oct. 10, 1967, while conducting a mission over North Vietnam an A-12 with pilot Dennis Sullivan at the controls, it was fired on by two S-75/SA-2 (the Vietnamese had no other) SAM sites which together launched no less than six missiles. At the time of coming under attack, the aircraft was flying with a speed of Mach 3.1 at an altitude of 84,000 feet (ca 25,600m).

A post-flight inspection revealed a piece of metal lodged against a support structure of the right-wing fuel tank which had penetrated the right wing’s underside, passing through three layers of titanium. It appears the piece of metal was not a fragment of the warhead but rather, debris from the missile’s body. That was of secondary importance as what mattered was that the A-12 was hit. Consequently, even an aircraft flying at an altitude of about 80,000 feet (approximately 24,000m) and with a speed of Mach 3, could not consider itself to be completely safe.

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

Bad luck

Thus, a Soviet S-200/SA-5 SAM had a chance of shooting-down a SR-71 but arguably, for this to happen, everything would have had to perfectly align for the Soviets whilst the Americans would have had more than their fair share of bad luck. In any case, this remains moot, for a Blackbird was never fired on in anger by the PVO’s SAMs.

Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Dru Blair via www.drublair.com, U.S. Air Force, CIA and Hoangprs5 Own work via Wikipedia

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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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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