605. Lockheed A-12

On This Page:

  1. Level
  2. Fast Facts
  3. Exhibit Description
  4. Photos & Videos
  5. More Information
  6. Statistics

Level: Flight Deck

Floor plan of the flight deck. A red star marks the center of the Lockheed A-12.

Read directions to Lockheed A-12

Fast Facts

  • The A-12 was the product of a secret military program to develop a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
  • First flown in 1962, the A-12 was capable of performing sensitive intelligence-gathering missions while flying at speeds over three times the speed of sound.
  • A-12s were flown by civilian pilots of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The black A-12 jet is in the center of the frame, facing left. It is long and narrow with a small cockpit on top and a large pointed jet engine on its thin delta wing. The New York City skyline is in the background.
The Lockheed A-12 is the fastest, highest-flying jet in the Museum’s collection. In fact, the A-12 (along with the similarly designed YF-12A and SR-71 Blackbird) still hold speed and altitude records almost six decades after the prototype first flew.

Exhibit Description

The Lockheed A-12 is the biggest jet on the flight deck, at 101 feet (30.8 m) long. A-12s were built to perform sensitive reconnaissance missions while flying at over three times the speed of sound. It could fly at an altitude of one hundred thousand feet. 

Lockheed starting making A-12s in 1962 for the Central Intelligence Agency. Even today, it remains one of the fastest planes the world has ever seen. It was light years ahead of its time. Lockheed built 13, and only 11 remain, so the Intrepid Museum is very lucky to have one here.

The A-12 doesn’t look like any other aircraft on the flight deck. First, it’s painted a dull matte black. It has an extremely long, thin fuselage, or body. And it has two stubby delta shaped wings way back in the last third of the plane. The wings of most jets start up close to the front of the plane. To get an idea of its shape, imagine the body as a long pencil, its nose sharpened to a fine point. The wings are attached more than halfway toward the eraser of the pencil.

There is a round cylinder, or tube, mounted on each wing. These are the powerful engines. Each tube has a pointy cone called a shock cone sticking straight out of it.  To start the engines, crewmembers needed something that is parked here beneath a wing of the plane. It looks like a bright yellow box on black tires, about the size of a golf cart.  It’s called a start cart, and inside are two Buick V8 racecar engines whose power helped get the A-12 engines started. The operation was deafening.

The part of the A-12 you cannot see is what made it so special. High-powered cameras shooting from a little window on the bottom of the plane could reveal tiny details, even from 80,000 feet (24,384 m) up, like cars and even individual people.

Photos & Videos

Video description: Curator of Aviation Eric Boehm does a walk-around tour of the A-12 on Intrepid’s flight deck, pointing out technical features of the remarkable A-12.  Historical videos and images are used throughout to further illustrate important details and a notable mission performed by the aircraft.

Go to transcript

 A black A-12 jet flies over clouds; a fuel line running from its top is connected to back of a larger grey jet plane that is partially visible above it.
The massive Pratt and Whitney J58 turbo-ramjet engines used the onboard fuel supply very quickly, making in-flight refueling an essential part of A-12 operations. To accomplish this, the KC-135 tanker, shown here, had to fly at its maximum speed while the A-12 approached stall speed, the minimum speed required to maintain flight. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Roadrunners Internationale
 A black A-12 jet flies above clouds toward the lower left corner of the frame; its nose and body are narrow and sleek, with one large pointed jet engine on each side of the thin delta wing toward the back of the plane.
The pointed parts at the front of each jet engine intake are called shock cones. Without shock cones, air entering the engine inlets would extinguish the jet engines when flying at supersonic speeds. The shock cones create a shock wave that slows the incoming air so that the engine can use it efficiently. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Defense Visual Information Center

More Information

The A-12 was the product of Project Oxcart, a secret military program to develop a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. First flown in 1962, the A-12 was built by Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects office, now known as Skunk Works. The A-12 was capable of performing sensitive intelligence-gathering missions while flying at speeds over Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used A-12s for surveillance missions until 1968. Later versions, known as the SR-71 Blackbird, served in reconnaissance and test missions for the U.S. Air Force and NASA through the 1990s.

Flown by CIA pilots, the A-12 was used for strategic reconnaissance over North Vietnam between May 1967 and March 1968. Its primary objective was to look for suspected surface-to-surface missile (SSM) sites. Evidence of SSM facilities was never found, but the A-12 did determine the location of many surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and other strategically important targets. In total, A-12s were flown on 24 missions over Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong. SAMs were fired at the A-12s on two occasions. Other than some minor shrapnel damage to one aircraft, the A-12s survived unscathed.

The A-12 on display, code-named Article 122, served as a radar-test example early in 1962 at the secluded test site known as Area 51, near Groom Lake, Nevada. A special radar signature–lowering paint covered the mostly titanium airframe, which also incorporated radar-absorbing materials. Massive Pratt and Whitney J58 turbo-ramjet engines powered the plane. These engines were used only in the A-12 and the SR-71 Blackbird.

The adjacent yellow starter cart used a connecting drive shaft to spin the engines at up to 3,200 revolutions per minute and initiate the ignition cycle of the turbo-ramjet engines. The cart uses two Buick 401 cubic-inch “Wildcat” V-8 automobile engines of 350 horsepower, similar to those used in American “muscle cars” and racing cars of the era.

This aircraft and its starter cart are on loan from the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Statistics

Length:102 feet (31 m)
Wingspan:55 feet 7 inches (16.9 m)
Height:18 feet 3 inches (5.5 m)
Empty Weight:54,600 pounds (24,766 kg)
Max Weight:120,000 pounds (54,431 kg)
Top Speed:2,269 miles per hour (3,651 kph)
Ceiling:95,000 feet (28,956 m)
Crew:One
Armament:2,500 pounds (1,133 kg) of imaging sensors