In the heart of the Cold War, two iconic aircraft emerged from the depths of top-secret black projects, challenging the boundaries of aviation technology and pushing the limits of human engineering.

Often mistaken for each other, these aircraft had distinct origins: the OXCART, initially designed as a US Air Force interceptor, was later modified for reconnaissance drone deployment, while the Blackbird was the Air Force’s follow-on version of the A-12. The A-12, with its pioneering design, became operational in 1965 and paved the way for the creation of the SR-71 and other supersonic aircraft.

The A-12 OXCART and the SR-71 Blackbird, both developed by the legendary Skunk Works division of Lockheed, achieved unmatched speeds and altitudes, as well as groundbreaking contributions to stealth technology and have successfully risen to prominence as enduring symbols of American ingenuity.

Birth of the OXCART: CIA’s Secretly Funded Project

The story begins in the late 1950s when the United States found itself in the midst of an intense Cold War with the Soviet Union. The need for high-speed reconnaissance aircraft was pressing, as traditional reconnaissance planes were vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated enemy defenses.

Enter the A-12 OXCART, a top-secret project led by the brilliant aerospace engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and his team at the Lockheed Skunk Works, funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

A-12 aircraft (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Unveiled in 1960, the A-12 OXCART was a marvel of engineering. With its sleek, black design and powerful J58 engines, it could reach a top speed of Mach 3.2 (approximately 2,200 miles per hour) at 90,000 feet altitude—an unbroken record for piloted jet aircraft.

The aircraft was shrouded in secrecy, however, and its existence was known to only a select few in the intelligence community until its introduction around the mid-to-late 1960s.

USAF’s SR-71 Blackbird Takes Flight

While the A-12 was still in development, a reconnaissance version was created for the US Air Force, leading to the birth of the iconic SR-71 Blackbird.