“During early flight testing at Area 51 with the A-12s, Jim Eastham told me that A-12 #128 flew as fast as any A-12 during testing. On the particular day that the A-12 red lined everything,” Jim Goodall.
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. It became operational on Nov.12, 1965.
Not only did the A-12 prove its worth during its short operational life, but the overall Oxcart project produced the second-longest-lasting aerial reconnaissance platform in US intelligence history: the SR-71.
No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71 Blackbird. It is the fastest aircraft propelled by air-breathing engines. The Blackbird’s performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War.
When the SR-71 became operational, orbiting reconnaissance satellites had already replaced manned aircraft to gather intelligence from sites deep within Soviet territory. Satellites could not cover every geopolitical hotspot so the Blackbird remained a vital tool for global intelligence gathering. On many occasions, pilots and RSOs flying the SR-71 provided information that proved vital in formulating successful US foreign policy.
The Blackbird was designed to cruise at “Mach 3+,” just over three times the speed of sound or more than 2,200 miles per hour and at altitudes up to 85,000 feet.
“I’ve answered this question before, but here goes,” says Jim Goodall, former Master Sergeant at U.S. Air Force and author of the book Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated History of America’s Legendary Mach 3 Spy Plane. “The fastest an SR-71A has ever gone is Mach 3.43 in 974 [Blackbird #61-17974, better known as “Ichi-Ban”], at the time, a Site II bird. It blew out both inlets as it had a dual unstart.”
Goodall continues. “Ben Rich told me that the inlets were designed to fly at its “Sweet Spot” of Mach 3.24. All manned Blackbirds from the A-12 through to the last SR-71 built were and designed to all fly at the same top speed.
“But during early flight testing at Area 51 with the A-12s, Jim Eastham told me that A-12 #128 flew as fast as any A-12 during testing. On the particular day that the A-12 red lined everything.
“During a routine top speed envelope expansion flight, A-12 #128 was having a hard time getting past Mach 2.7 as the outside air was too warm. The reason for the flight test card that day was to validate a new inlet bypass door schedule.
“Jim said he dropped the nose down a bit to see if he could at least reach Mach 3.0. Out of nowhere, Jim hit good air and in the dive with good air he red lined everything. He went into his descent profile and headed back to the test site.”
“When all was said and done; and for a very brief 15 seconds, Jim hit Mach 3.56, or just under 2,400 mph. Mind you, this was a one-time event and was never duplicated.”
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency