Following World War 2 (1939-1945) and into the 1950s, more and more national powers were secretly investing in stealth aircraft products to bypass air defense networks now largely reliant on radar-directed missile networks. Radar Absorbent Material (RAM) became the buzz-word of the period and "Project Rainbow" in the United States used a modified U-2 spyplane to test out the concept in 1957. While this test failed, it brought along "Project Gusto" with the intent to deliver a high-speed stealthy flying wing to succeed the aging U-2 line. While championed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the service also worked on pushing through another high-altitude, reconnaissance-minded design based highly on Radar Cross Section (RCS) reduction - this initiative producing the Lockheed "A-12" spyplane - forerunner to the more famous (though now-retired) SR-71 "Blackbird" of the United States Air Force (USAF).
Archangel was the name given internally at Lockheed Skunkworks to the A-12 project. It was developed in competition to Convair's "Kingfish" through the "Project Oxcart" initiative of the CIA to which the former was chosen for service. The A-12 was given certain RCS reduction features including a chined body and inward-canted tail fins. The design looked very much like the upcoming SR-71 with its long-necked fuselage holding the cockpit well-forwards and two tubular engine nacelles intersecting the wing mainplanes. An all-black RAM-centered body coat covered the aircraft completely.
Power came from 2 x Pratt & Whitney J58-1 afterburning turbofan engines each developing 32,500 pounds thrust. Performance included a maximum speed of Mach 3.2 (faster than the heavier SR-71) - roughly 2,210 miles per hour - with a service ceiling up to 95,000 feet. Range was out to 2,200 miles and rate-of-climb measured at 11,800 feet per minute.
The Lockheed design was chosen based on promised performance specifications, cost and past work over the Convair bid. First flight of an A-12 prototype come on April 26th, 1962 and, following successful testing, was operationally running from 1963 until 1968 (it was officially introduced in 1967 but not publically revealed until 1990s). Thirteen aircraft built to the A-12 standard (and a further two as M-21s detailed later) emerged and all operated under the secretive CIA banner. The A-12 designation came simply from the design being the twelfth in a series of presented aircraft possibilities related to the same program.
Variants of the A-12 included a two-seat trainer form featuring tandem cockpits with dual control schemes for student and instructor. Only one was completed and known as the "Titanium Goose". The YF-12A was an interceptor-oriented model approved by the USAF to shore up the void left by the cancelled North American XF-108. Three A-12 production forms were taken to fill the YF-12A requirement and these completed with support for 3 x Hughes AIM-47A Air-to-Air Missiles (AAMs) held in internal weapons bays. A Hughes AN/ASG-18 Look-Down/Shoot-Down (LDSD) Fire Control Radar (FCR) was also fitted. Performance included a maximum speed of Mach 3.35 (2,275 miles per hour), a range out to 3,000 miles and a service ceiling of 90,000 feet. Rate-of-climb was listed at 11,820 feet-per-minute.
The M-21 became a slightly modified A-12 form intended as a carrier for the D-21 drone. The M-21 would seat the drone over its aft fuselage (between the engine nacelles) and special launch controls would be fitted aboard the mothership. This model was cancelled when a drone collided with the carrier ship - the crew ejecting safely but one drowning after landing in the ocean. Two M-21 aircraft were completed.
Despite its design for high-altitude work over the Soviet Union, the A-12 never saw operations over this vast airspace due to the downing of an American U-2 spyplane in May of 1960. This meant that the A-12's work was to be centered on Asia to keep eyes on North Korea and North Vietnam. Improved Soviet air defense weapons delivered to the region ultimately limited the A-12's mission reach. Retirement of the A-12 came in 1968 with official program conclusion on December 28th. The SR-71 series was already coming online by now which hastened the A-12's departure from service.
Some A-12 aircraft have managed preservation as museum showpieces and protected displays throughout the United States. At least six A-12s were lost to accidents at the cost of three lives.
None. Reconnaissance mission equipment held in four internal bays.
A-12 - Base Series Designation; thirteen aircraft completed; one-off two-seat trainer also introduced ("Titanium Goose").
M-21 - Modified A-12 to serve in the Lockheed D-21 reconnaissance drone-launching program; two completed from available A-12 production stock.
YF-12A - Related dedicated interceptor model; fitted with AN/ASG-18 series fire control radar and supporting 3 x Hughes AIM-47A missiles; three examples modified.
"Archangel" - Product Nickname
"Cygnus" - Alternative Nickname
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