If you were presented with a photo of the Lockheed A-12, chances are you probably answered that it was an SR-71 Blackbird. Don’t feel bad about it. We don’t blame you. Honestly, it’s a mistake anybody could make, especially because of their physical similarities. Anybody without intimate knowledge about these two very special aircraft could mistake an A-12 for an SR-71 and vice-versa.

Chances are that military buffs would answer the world-famous SR-71 Blackbird as it was the more known aircraft of the two. Many would even say they’re basically the same aircraft, but they couldn’t be more different!

Let’s delve into the history of these military planes to get a better grasp of both.

The CIA Top Secret A-12 Oxcart

Ah yes, the legendary SR-71 Blackbird that everybody knows because of its speed and its science-fiction-like design which had never really fallen out of style. Many would say it looks like a plane that came straight out of a Star Wars movie!

Many wouldn’t know that the SR-71’s design actually came from the top-secret A-12 Oxcart! So, where did this futuristic aircraft come from anyway? The Lockheed A-12 was designed for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1959 for top-secret reconnaissance work as a replacement for the Lockheed U-2 spy plane, another equally famous aircraft.

An A-12 (60-6924) takes off from Groom Lake during one of the first test flights, piloted by Louis Schalk (Wikipedia). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_A-12#/media/File:A-12_Schalk_Flight,_1962.jpg
An A-12 (60-6924) takes off from Groom Lake during one of the first test flights, piloted by Louis Schalk (CIA/Roadrunners Internationale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

The story started when a U-2 spy plane was detected by the Soviet Union in 1960 while taking photographs in Soviet airspace, consequently getting shot down in the process. It was the height of the Cold War, so of course, the two countries were spying on each other. That wasn’t really much of a secret today. What was a secret was the U-2 spy plane, which the Soviets now discovered despite the US government claiming it was a weather research aircraft. With a shape designed to reduce radar cross-section and reconnaissance equipment abroad, the shot down U-2, the Soviets knew it wasn’t a weather research aircraft.

With their cover blown, the US government needed a new reconnaissance spy plane that was faster and could fly higher to avoid detection and evade anti-aircraft attacks. So they enlisted the help of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson along with Lockheed’s Skunk Works to design the new spy plane. It had some competition. However, Johnson would be competing with Convair’s FISH and Kingfish designs due to their smaller radar-cross sections.

So in 1957, they got to work and called the initial designs “Archangel” as the U-2 program had been known as “Angel.” Designs would then on be called Archangel-1 through eventually, Archangel-12 or A-12.