The Lockheed A-12 was designed in the late 1950s for the CIA as a follow-on to the U-2 under a programme codename ‘Oxcart’. The aircraft first flew from Groom Lake on 26 Apr 62 piloted by Lou Schalk. The aircraft was designed to directly overfly a target, as opposed to 'standing-off' a target and taking oblique photographs. A variety of different cameras could be carried in the 'Q' bay immediately behind the pilot. A variety of ECM packages were carried in the chine bays. The A-12 remains the fastest, highest flying plane ever built and achieved a speed of Mach 3.35 and a height of 95,000ft.
The only overseas detachment undertaken by the A-12 was to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, an operation known as Black Shield which began in May 67. On 31 May 67 the first Black Shield mission was flown over North Vietnam and China. Seven further missions were flown between 19 Jun and 21 Aug 67. A further 14 missions were then flown between 31 Aug and 16 Dec 67. Most of these missions were flown between 80-85,000ft and around Mach 3-3.5 and despite the best efforts of the Chinese and North Vietnamese, not one aircraft was actually successfully engaged. However, one aircraft did return with a small scrap of shrapnel embedded in the lower right wing fillet area from an SA-2 missile. This was the only time either an A-12 or SR-71 ever received any damage from a missile during an operational sorties.
During the first 3 months of 1968 a further 4 Black Shield missions were flown over North Vietnam without incident. On 23 Jan 68 the USS Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans. An A-12 from Kadena flown by Frank Murray eventually found the Pueblo in Wonsan harbor during a sortie in which he photographed the whole of North Korea in just four passes. A second mission over North Korea was flown on 19 Feb 68 and a final sortie was mounted on 8 May 68.
However, the USAF was keen to get its own version of this outstanding aircraft and Lockheed obliged by building the SR-71, which was designed from the outset for oblique photography, making it ideal for flying along borders, peering deep inside denied territory. There was insufficient funding for both aircraft and after a certain amount of 'politics', the A-12 programme finally closed down in 1968 allowing the SR-71 to take over.
Performance Comparison between A-12 and SR-71:
Single seat, rather than 2 seat SR-71