The A-12 Blackbird was the first airplane made largely of titanium, a strong, light metal.
Spy planes need to collect information, but they also need to survive flying through unfriendly areas. That means being hard to spot on radar, cruising high up out of reach, and flying fast enough to outrun anything in pursuit. The A-12 met all these challenges better than any plane had before.
The Skunk Works, a special classified projects group at the Lockheed Aircraft Company, made huge advances in aircraft technology to build the A-12. Since the A-12 was the first titanium aircraft, the project team discovered a lot about how to work with this challenging metal. The A-12 team developed new methods so fuels and oil could stand up to the extreme heat in the plane’s engine. They also tested new ways to make aircraft less visible to radar.
In the late 1960s, A-12s flew 29 spy missions over North Vietnam and North Korea as part of Operation Black Shield. In North Vietnam, the planes looked for missile sites. They flew so fast that it took just over 12 minutes to fly the nearly 500 miles over North Vietnam, moving at three times the speed of sound (Mach 3) at altitudes between 85,000 and 90,000 feet. Missions over North Korea were extremely sensitive. The first happened a few days after a U.S. spy ship, the USS Pueblo, was captured in January 1968. The missions were designed to see if North Korea was planning a major attack on South Korea.
The Science Center's A-12
The aircraft on display is the only A-12 trainer ever built. It flew more flights and spent more hours in the air than any other A-12, by far. The trainer has two cockpits: one for an instructor and one for a pilot in training. Black paint on the plane’s nose kept reflected sunlight from blinding the pilots.