SR-71 Blackbird

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

How close did a Blackbird Mach 3 spy plane ever come to being shot down?

The iconic SR-71 Blackbird spy plane is known for being the official record holder for the fastest jet-powered, piloted aircraft of all time.

The SR-71 was based on another Mach 3, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, the A-12 Oxcart.

Another Blackbird, the YF-12 high-altitude, Mach 3 interceptor was developed from the A-12 to defend against supersonic bombers. The YF-12 was never adopted by the military as an operational aircraft. The YF-12 too was, however, a precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane.

A-12 Mach 3 spy plane

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.

Now when talking about Blackbird family on of the most frequently asked Blackbird questions is – has it ever been hit by the enemy during spy missions? How close did it ever come to being shot down?

‘There are all sorts of people out there that claim to know everything about the Blackbirds,’ 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 information I have collected from the pilots and crews that flew and maintained these incredible Blackbirds [are quite interesting].

SA-2 in Vietnamese service

‘To my knowledge, only one Blackbird, a CIA A-12 Blackbird was hit with shrapnel on Oct. 30, 1967 while on the CIA’s third pass over Hanoi in three days. The crews protested flying the same route three days in a row, but they were out-ranked.

‘Denny Sullivan [Dennis B. Sullivan retired as an Air Force Brigadier General and passed away in 2020. Sullivan was one of only 6 A-12 mission pilots, known as “Drivers”, his call-sign was Dutch 23] ran into some debris from part of the fusing components of a Soviet-built SA-2 as he was leaving the area [over Vietnam, during Operation Black Shield (as the A-12 deployment at Kadena Air Base was codenamed), where he survived multiple SAM missile attacks on his Oxcar while he was cruising at altitudes in excess of 82,000 feet]. The damage was found on a post-flight inspection and the composite inboard leading edge had something wedged in it, and the CIA identified it as part of the fusing mechanism of the SA-2.’

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The story of Sullivan A-12 being damaged by SAM’s debris is confirmed by the article Black Shield appeared on Air & Space Forces Magazine, that says: “On another October flight, pilot Dennis Sullivan detected radar tracking on his first pass over North Vietnam. Two sites prepared to launch missiles, but neither did. During the second pass, however, at least six missiles were fired at Sullivan’s aircraft, each confirmed on mission photos by missile vapor trails. Sullivan saw these vapor trails and witnessed three missile detonations. Postflight inspection of the aircraft revealed that a piece of metal had penetrated the lower right wing fillet area and lodged against the support structure of the wing tank. The fragment was not a warhead pellet but may have been a part of the debris from one of the missile detonations observed by the pilot.”

Goodall concludes;

‘The Israeli military tried to shoot one down during the ’73 War’ but couldn’t. If they couldn’t, then no one could.’

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

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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