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By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest
On October 30, 1967, a CIA spy-plane soared eighty-four thousand feet over Hanoi in northern Vietnam, traveling faster than a rifle bullet at over three times the speed of sound. A high-resolution camera in the angular black jet’s belly recorded over a mile of film footage of the terrain below—including the over 190 Soviet-built S-75 surface-to-air missiles sites.
(This first appeared several weeks ago.)
The aircraft was an A-12 “Oxcart,” a smaller, faster single-seat precursor variant of the Air Force’s legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
The jet’s driver, Dennis Sullivan had earlier flown one hundred combat missions in an F-80 Starfighter over Korea for the U.S. Air Force. But Sullivan was technically no longer a military pilot—he had been “sheep-dipped,” temporarily decommissioned to fly the hi-tech jet on behalf of the CIA. He now sat in the cramped cockpit in a refrigerated space suit, as the friction generated by his plane’s Mach 3 speeds heated the cockpit to over five hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
Sullivan noted warnings light up on his instrument panel as Vietnamese Fan Song radars locked onto him. But they did not launch missiles. In twelve-and-a-half minutes he completed his run and looped around over Thailand, where he received aerial refueling. Then he embarked on a second pass.
But the North Vietnamese were waiting for him. A missile launch notification warned him that a 10.5-meter-long missile was heading towards him.
Decades later, Sullivan described in a speech seeing one of the missiles streak just past him, two-hundred meters away.
“Here comes a big’ol telephone sailing right by the cockpit—going straight up. That’s interesting . . . So I continued down the route, and didn’t see anything—until I got down the road, and then I could see behind me in the rear-view periscope at least four missile contrails, all spread out. Those four contrails went up about 90-95,000 feet and all turned over, bunched up in a line, headed for my tail end.”
The A-12 officially had a maximum speed of Mach 3.2—but the missiles that were following Sullivan could attain Mach 3.5.
“I said, ‘Holy smokes—those things fly pretty good up there for something which doesn’t have much in the way of wings.’ So I watched them come.… They’d get up right behind me, very close, and all of the sudden there’d be a big red fireball—a big white cloud of smoke—and you’d immediately pull away from it. You were going thirty miles a minute. [Note: actually, 41 miles per minute!] Every one of those SAMs guided absolutely perfectly and did the same darn thing.”
The missile’s 440-pound proximity-fused warhead was designed to swat planes out of the sky within 65 meters of the point of detonation. However, in the thinner air of the upper atmosphere, its fragments could travel up to four times as far.
Sullivan escaped and landed his A-12 in Kadena Air Base, where it spent several minutes cooling on the tarmac before mechanics could even touch its friction-heated skin. The stress of the heat and high speeds exacted a steep physical toll on the jet’s pilots, who lost an average of five pounds of body weight on the completion of their three to four- hour missions.
He was sitting for debriefing when mechanics burst in the room to show him two metal fragments from a missile’s nose cone they had found buried under his low left wing—just shy of his jet’s fuel tank.
Later when, Sullivan’s camera footage was found to have captured the ghostly white contrails of six surface-to-air missiles surging towards him from the ground.
Operation Black Shield
The CIA’s twelve ultra-fast A-12 jets were doomed to a brief operational career after the first flight in 1962. Following on the heels of several U-2 spy plane shootdowns, Washington was no longer willing to authorize overflights of Soviet territory which the A-12 had been designed to perform. Meanwhile, the Air Force ordered a larger SR-71 variant of the A-12 that was deemed superior in a “fly off” in November 1967. Unwilling to fund both highly similar aircraft, the CIA’s A-12 fleet was promptly scheduled for retirement.
However for ten months, the A-12 briefly filled a vital niche providing rapid high-value photo intelligence over Asia, where the political and military risks were deemed acceptable. Between May 31, 1967, and March 8, 1968, CIA drivers flew A-12 on twenty-nine spy missions over Cambodia, North Korea and Vietnam in an operation codenamed Black Shield. The jets flew out of Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, Japan, supported by over 250 support personnel.
Initially, President Lyndon B. Johnson was concerned by reports that North Vietnam had obtained Surface-to-Surface (SSM) missiles for attacks on South Vietnam. On May 31, 1967, CIA driver Mele Vojvodich took of in a rainstorm and recorded a mile-long reel of camera footage covering most of Northern Vietnam. The reel was then air-transported for development by Kodak in Rochester, NY. The verdict, confirmed by subsequent overflights, was that Hanoi had no SSMs after all.
A-12 intelligence often directly influenced LBJ’s decisions to commit to air raids during the Vietnam War. However, the Oxcart’s stealth features never proved adequate to avoid detection by Soviet-built radars.
On October 28, 1967, an S-75 launched a missile at an A-12 flown by Miller, but did not come particularly close. However, after Miller’s close call two days later on October 30, the Black Shield flights were temporarily suspended. A later January 4 mission on the same route over Hanoi also elicited a missile launch, to no effect.
Meanwhile, on January 23, 1968, North Korean patrol boats seized the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship operating in international waters, taking her crew into captivity. Worrying the incident, combined with a failed commando raid on the South Korean presidential palace, might herald a second Korean War, Johnson was persuaded to dispatch an A-12 flown by Jack Weeks over North Korea on January 26.
Analysis of Week’s photos located the USS Pueblo near Wonsan anchored next to two patrol boats—and also revealed that Pyongyang had not mobilized its troops for war. This led Johnson to rule out plans for a preemptive or punitive strike in favor of diplomatic measures which eventually saw the ship’s abused crew released nearly a year later.
A-12s flew two additional missions over North Korea to keep tabs on the ship, which was eventually moved to Pyongyang. Tragically, Weeks died a half-year later on June 5 when a malfunction in his A-12’s starboard turbojet engine caused its to overheat, breaking his plane apart over the South China Sea. Sixteen days later, a CIA A-12 made its last flight before the type was retired from service.
Sullivan’s close brush over Vietnam suggests its fortunate no A-12 overflights were authorized over the Soviet Union, where they would have been exposed to even greater peril, from high-speed interceptors and more advanced SAMs like the S-200 (SA-5). Today, such high-risk photo intelligence is largely acquired by satellite, or by expendable drones.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.