FACT: In the new movie “Iron Man,” defense-contracting billionaire and engineering genius Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) designs and builds a suit capable of individual flight (highly engineered control surfaces powered by an “arc-reactor” – it is Hollywood after all). During his first test flight, zooming straight up from Malibu and stressing the system to its max, he asks his onboard computer, “What’s the altitude record for the SR-71?” His computer responds back, “85,000 feet,” whereupon he zooms past that ceiling.
ANALYSIS: Funny moment, and excellent movie. In its honor, below I’m going to give you access to a remarkable, recently declassified document describing one of America’s boldest Cold War technical achievements. If you’ve ever run (or wanted to run) a high-tech company or program, like Tony Stark in the movie, you’ll appreciate the startling scope of the work – and if you’ve recently worked in DoD or the Intelligence Community you’ll marvel at how they did it “in the good old days.”
A few days ago I wrote about the A-12 high-altitude spy plane, the once-top-secret precursor to the more heavily publicized SR-71. Since the program was declassified last fall, a long-retired A-12 has now been installed over in the parking lot at CIA headquarters at Langley.
This morning I got a comment on my blogpost from none other than Col. Ken Collins, USAF ret’d and legendary A-12 pilot for the CIA, who was present at the Langley unveiling ceremony last fall. It means a lot for a guy like Ken (flying call sign “Dutch 21”) to have written in response to my post: “This is a great article for an amazing triple-sonic aircraft, the world’s first Mach 3.3, 90,000 feet combat aircraft… one year before the SR-71 was deployed. I flew them both.” Here’s more on Ken and his colleagues, and here’s a great story of the time Ken had to eject….
So how does a government agency wind up being able to accomplish such engineering feats as those required to build an A-12? At the Langley unveiling ceremony last fall, CIA Director Gen. Hayden’s remarks captured the audacity of the project as it began in the waning years of the Eisenhower Administration: “The goal was an aircraft that could outrun any Soviet missile. [Lockheed’s Kelly] Johnson, the visionary behind development of the U-2, shared his idea for something even more revolutionary: A long-range, radar-evading plane that would fly three miles higher and more than four times faster than the U-2.”
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of overseeing a multimillion-dollar secret program, as I did repeatedly at DIA for over four years, you know that there are challenges to managing a distributed engineering program within the contraints of secrecy and government red-tape. Yet I was doing so in the era of instantaneous global communications; I could get my engineers and managers on classified “face-phones” (desktop videoteleconferencing or DVTC machines) at the press of a button, from Korea to the Middle East or simply from another floor in the DIA building; I could call up spreadsheets and project files with a snap to track the current status of work; we even had some projects tracked in SharePoint wiki’s updated by distributed users in realtime.
Imagine the challenges of an enormous program like designing and building a revolutionary craft like the A-12 – and doing so in the strictures of secrecy at the height of the Cold War. Plus, no email!
It boggles the mind. They were giants in those days…. So Ken Collins’ pride in the plane made me hunt down the story of how it was done.
I recommend that anyone with an interest in technology, aviation, management, or even Cold War history, read Clarence “Kelly” Johnson’s own account of how the storied Lockheed Skunk Works accomplished building this early stealth aircraft. The CIA has done you a favor: they’ve recently declassified the official “History of the OXCART Program” which he wrote in the summer of 1968, as OXCART was shutting down and the SR-71 took on the single mantle of aerial high-altitude manned reconnaissance.
You can read about the program here on the CIA’s internal history using declassified A-12 documents – or download the formerly Top Secret “History of the OXCART Program” directly. The 25-page report is eye-opening, offhandedly funny in places, and remarkably candid. The description of a decade of innovative work captures, as Gen Hayden said in his remarks last fall, an important lesson we can draw from OXCART: “pioneering scientific achievement requires not only genius, but patience and discipline.”
And by the way, just to remind you of the flavor of just how cool and extraordinary the A-12 program was, here’s a snippet from pilot Ken Collins’ own description of his induction into the CIA’s Project OXCART published online for the A-12 and SR-71 alumni group:
At this phase (April 1961) of the overall evaluation we did not know for what we were being evaluated… I was scheduled for my “astronaut” physical at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is the same facility that the original astronauts received their medical evaluations. It was also the medical facility for the original U-2 pilots. I discovered this after I ran into and met Francis Gary Powers at the clinic…. I was told that it was not the astronaut program, but a project to fly and test an exotic new airplane for the Central Intelligence Agency. Still there was no pictures or any other details….
The first time I saw the A-12 or even heard the name was in December 1962 after I arrived at Area 51. Colonel Doug Nelson, Project Operations Officer, took me to the hangar and let me walk in by myself. What an amazing sight! There were no hangar lights. The sunrays entered the upper hangar windows illuminating only the nose and the spikes. As your eyes adjusted to the restricted light, you began to take in its sleek length, the massive twin rudders and its total blackness. A vision that will never be forgotten.”
Go here for more photos of the A-12 and its sister ships. Anyone still wondering how the rumors got started of UFO’s at Area 51?
Postscript: By the way, if you’ve seen “Iron Man,” you’ll find it funny that one apparent model for Stark Industries is Lockheed Martin – a comparison that has been blogged about, with one blog-commenter from the world of LMCO employees claiming that “Lockheed Martin gave Jeff Bridges a day with LM VPs and a VIP tour of its facilities, so he could get an idea of what its like to work for a DoD contractor!!” If you’re interested in the real-life story of Lockheed genius Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works programs, you can read his own autobiography, “Kelly,” or the broader history “Skunk Works” by Ben Rich.
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