Tag Archives: SR-71 Blackbird

The Time I Found a Formerly Top Secret D-21 Supersonic Drone in the Arizona Desert

In the Back Lot of the Pima Air & Space Museum You Can Discover History.

1547 Hrs. December 20, 2009. In the Back Storage Yard of the Pima Air & Space Museum Outside Tucson, Arizona.

Most of what is lying around in the dusty expanse of the aircraft graveyards around Tucson, Arizona is readily identifiable and not entirely remarkable.

Ejection seats from old F-4 Phantoms. An old CH-53 helicopter hulk. An interesting find over there is a fuselage section of a Soviet-era MiG-23 Flogger. No idea how it got here. Other than that, it’s just long rows of old, broken, silent airplanes inside high fences surrounded by cactus, dust, sand and more sand. An errant aileron on a dead wing clunks quietly against the hot afternoon breeze as if willing itself back into the air. But like everything here, its days of flying are over.

But there… What is that strange, manta-ray shaped, dusty black thing lying at an angle just on the other side of that fence? It may be an old airfield wind vane or radar test model. But it also may be…

Once I found an opening in the fence I could walk right up to the D-21. It had been recovered by the museum from the AMARG Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB and was awaiting restoration. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

I had only read about it and seen grainy photos of it. I know it’s impossible. The project was so secret not much information exists about the details even today. But I stand there gawking through the chain link fence as the ruins of the other planes bear silent witness. It’ like the corpses of the other airplanes are urging me to look closer. To not leave. Their silent dignity begs me to tell this story.

After nearly a minute of studying it through the fence I realize; I am right. It is right before my eyes. Ten feet away. Despite the 100-degree heat I get goosebumps. And I start running.

I quickly locate a spot where the entire fence line opens up. I skirt the fence and in a couple minutes running around the sandy airplane corpses I’m inside. There, sitting right in front of me on its decrepit transport cart and dusted with windblown sand, abandoned in the Sonoran Desert, is one of Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich’s most ambitious classified projects from the fabled Lockheed Skunk Works.

A previously classified photo of the Lockheed D-21 drone at the Skunkworks manufacturing facility. (Photo: Lockheed)

I just found the CIA’s ultra-secret Mach 3.3+ D-21 long-range reconnaissance drone. The D-21 was so weird, so ambitious, so unlikely it remains one of the most improbable concepts in the history of the often-bizarre world of ultra-secret “black” aviation projects. And now it lies discarded in the desert. The story behind it is so bizarre it is difficult to believe, but it is true.

July 30, 1966: Flight Level 920 (92,000 ft.), Mach 3.25, Above Point Mugu Naval Air Missile Test Center, Off Oxnard, California.

Only an SR-71 Blackbird is fast enough and can fly high enough to photograph this, the most classified of national security tests. Traveling faster than a rifle bullet at 91,000 feet, near inner-space altitude, one of the most ambitious and bizarre contraptions in the history of mankind is about to be tested.

“Tagboard” is its codename. Because of the catastrophic May, 1960 shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 high altitude spy plane over the Soviet Union the CIA and is in desperate need of another way to spy on the rising threat of communist nuclear tests. Even worse, the other “Red Menace”, the Chinese, are testing massive hydrogen bombs in a remote location of the Gobi Desert near the Mongolian/Chinese border. It would be easier to observe the tests if the Chinese did them on the moon.

The goal is simple, but the problem is titanic. Get photos of the top-secret Red Chinese hydrogen bomb tests near the Mongolian border deep inside Asia, then get them back, without being detected.

Lockheed Skunkworks boss Kelly Johnson and an elite, ultra-classified small team of aerospace engineers have built an aircraft so far ahead of its time that even a vivid imagination has difficulty envisioning it.

Flat, triangular, black, featureless except for its odd plan form as viewed from above, like a demon’s cloak, it has a sharply pointed nose recessed into a forward-facing orifice. That’s it. No canopy, no cockpit, no weapons. Nothing attached to the outside. Even more so than a rifle bullet its shape is smooth and simple. This is the ultra-secret D-21 drone.

An Air Force photo of the D-21 mounted on the M-21 launch aircraft. The M-21 launch aircraft was a special variant of the SR-71 Blackbird. Only two were produced. (Photo: USAF)

The D-21 is truly a “drone”, not a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Its flight plan is programmed into a guidance system. It is launched from a mothership launch aircraft at speed and altitude. It flies a predetermined spy mission from 17 miles above the ground and flashes over at three times the speed of sound. It photographs massive swaths of land with incredible detail and resolution. And because of its remarkably stealthy shape, no one will ever know it was there.

Today the D-21 rides on the back of a Lockheed M-21, a specialized variant of the SR-71 Blackbird, the famous Mach 3+ high altitude spy plane. The M-21 version of the SR-71 carries the D-21 drone on its back up to launch speed and altitude. The it ignites the D-21’s unique RJ43-MA20S-4 ramjet engine and releases it on its pre-programmed flight.

Chasing the M-21 and D-21 combination today is a Lockheed SR-71, the only thing that can keep up with this combination of aircraft. It is the SR-71’s job to photograph and film the test launch of the D-21 drone from the M-21 launch aircraft.

There have been three successful launch separations of the D-21 from the M-21 launch aircraft so far. In each of these flights, even though the launch was successful, the D-21 drone fell victim to some minor mechanical failure that destroyed the drone, because, at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, there really are no “minor” failures.

Today Bill Park and Ray Torick are the flight crew on board the M-21 launch aircraft. They sit inside the M-21 launch aircraft dressed in pressurized high altitude flight suits that resemble space suits.

Once at predetermined launch speed and altitude the M-21/D-21 combination flies next to the SR-71 camera plane. Keith Beswick is filming the launch test from the SR-71 camera plane. Ray Torick, the drone launch controller sitting in the back seat of the tandem M-21, launches the D-21 from its position on top of the M-21’s fuselage between the massive engines.

Something goes wrong.

The D-21 drone separates and rolls slightly to its left side. It strikes the left vertical stabilizer of the M-21 mother ship. Then it caroms back into the M-21’s upper fuselage, exerting massive triple supersonic forces downward on the M-21 aircraft. The M-21 begins to pitch up and physics takes over as Bill Park and Ray Torick make the split-second transition from test pilots to helpless passengers to crash victims.

The triple supersonic forces rip both aircraft apart in the thin, freezing air. Shards of titanium and shrapnel from engine parts trail smoke and frozen vapor as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. There is no such thing as a minor accident at Mach 3+ and 92,000 feet.

Miraculously, both Bill Park and Ray Torick eject from the shattered M-21 mother ship. Even more remarkably, they actually survive the ejection. The pair splash down in the Pacific 150 miles off the California coast. Bill Park successfully deploys the small life raft attached to his ejection seat. Ray Torick lands in the ocean but opens the visor on his spacesuit-like helmet attached to his pressurized flight suit. The suit floods through the face opening in his helmet. Torick drowns before he can be rescued. Keith Beswick, the pilot filming the accident from the SR-71 chase plane, has to go to the mortuary to cut Ray Torick’s body out of the pressurized high-altitude flight suit before he can be buried.

The ultra-secret test program to launch a D-21 drone from the top of an M-21 launch aircraft at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, is cancelled.

The D-21 program does move forward on its own. Now the drone is dropped from a lumbering B-52 mothership. The D-21 is then boosted to high altitude and Mach 3+ with a rocket booster. Once at speed and altitude the booster unit drops off and the D-21 drone begins its spy mission.

After more than a year of test launches from the B-52 mothership the D-21 drone was ready for its first operational missions over Red China. President Nixon approved the first reconnaissance flight for November 9, 1969. The mission was launched from Beale AFB in California.

Despite a successful launch the D-21 drone was lost. In the middle of 1972, after four attempts at overflying Red China with the D-21 drone and four mission failures, the program was cancelled. It was imaginative. It was innovative. It was ingenious. But it was impossible.

So ended one of the most ambitious and outrageous espionage projects in history.

1604 Hrs. December 20, 2009. In the Back Storage Yard of the Pima Air & Space Museum Outside Tucson, Arizona.

I pet airplanes when I can. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe to be able to say I did. Maybe to try to gain some tactile sense of their history. Maybe to absorb something from them, if such a thing is possible. Maybe so that, when I am old and dying, I can reflect back on what it felt like to stand next to them and touch them. I don’t know why I touch them and stroke them, but I do.

The D-21 is dusty and warm in the late afternoon Arizona sun. Its titanium skin is hard, not slightly forgiving like an aluminum airplane. It gives away nothing. Silent. Brooding. After I touch it my hand came away with some of the dust from it. I don’t wipe it off.

Sometime later in the coming years, the D-21B drone, number 90-0533, is brought inside the vast restoration facility at the Pima Air & Space Museum and beautifully restored. Now it lies in state, on display inside the museum.

But when I first found it sitting abandoned in the storage yard, dusty and baking in the Sonoran Desert sun, it felt like its warm titanium skin still had some secret life left in it.

The fully restored Lockheed D-21 drone at the Pima Air & Space Museum outside Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: Pima Air & Space Museum)

The Enigmatic SR-72 And the Palmdale Sightings: What Do They Tell Us About America’s Secret Hypersonic Program?

The Media is Full of Speculation, But What Do We Know and What Can We Predict?

One of 2017’s biggest defense and aviation stories is the anonymous sighting by a “handful of witnesses” of the landing of a mysterious, unidentified new aircraft at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Flight Test Facility in Palmdale California. What was it?

Aviation Week reporter Guy Norris scooped the story but was guarded in his reporting of sources. On September 27, 2017 Norris wrote:

“According to information provided to Aviation Week, one such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California as seen from the air in an early photo. (Photo: USAF)

Nearly every article quoting Norris’ story suggests that, what the unnamed witnesses saw is related to a new global intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) gathering asset. Likely a new hypersonic remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that could be a sub-scale developmental testbed for a planned manned version. While it is a significant leap to extrapolate this sighting to a full-scale manned platform, the silence from Lockheed Martin about the incident is deafening. Had the sighting been nothing, they would have said it was nothing.

It isn’t much of a leap to suggest that any proposed, new manned aircraft, colloquially referred to in most media as the “SR-72” would have global range, fly in excess of Mach 6, be low-observable and potentially have strike capability. This is one list of requirements for an SR-71 follow-on.

The U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California with static display SR-71s and F-117s. (Photo: USAF)

When analyzing the role of a possible new strategic reconnaissance/strike asset, manned and unmanned, a few assumptions can reasonably be made. The mission of a high-speed reconnaissance (and possibly even strike) platform likely includes four unique capabilities for the strategic ISR and global strike mission:

1. It is very low observable. The relevance and quality of any intelligence collected is degraded substantially if the adversary knows it has been collected. A stealthy, ultra-high-speed intelligence gathering and strike asset could obtain signals, atmospheric and image intelligence across several spectrums potentially without detection. This improves the actionable relevance of the intelligence since the adversary does not know their operational security has been compromised.

2. It is timely. An ultra-high speed (some reports suggest Mach 6+) asset could be over the reconnaissance target area quickly and provide either real-time intelligence via secure datalink or be back on the ground quickly for retrieval and analysis of intelligence gathered over the target and stored onboard the asset.

3. It is difficult to intercept if detected. One of the primary defensive capabilities of the Mach 3+ SR-71 was its speed and altitude performance. It could outrun and out-climb most missiles and interceptor aircraft. But advances in detection, tactics, aircraft, aircraft weapons and surface to air missiles and even soon-to-be fielded focused energy beam weapons (as from the Chinese) provide a requirement for a faster, higher flying and lower observable platform.

4. It provides on-board decision-making capability in the manned configuration. While a manned asset exposes a flight crew to the risks associated with overflight it also keeps the human decision-making capability inside the mission loop. While this may not be critical in the ISR role, it may be in the strategic strike role. Once strategic strike platforms such as ICBMs and cruise missiles are committed to the attack they can be difficult to re-task or abort, especially in a dynamic tactical environment. A manned strategic strike asset with ultra-high-speed and global range retains a human in the decision loop. This is attractive both empirically and morally.

Having identified these four potential unique capabilities to a presumptive “SR-72” type asset it is appropriate to examine the possible regions and roles the asset would be employed in. Given the current and near-future strategic situation these four global missions may be part of the SR-72s tasking:

1. North Korea. The crisis has reached a near flashpoint with Pyongyang’s repeated missile and nuclear proliferation and continued adversarial rhetoric. Accurate and timely monitoring of North Korea’s actual testing activity and developmental capabilities is critical to managing the U.S. response in the crisis. This includes preventing the crisis from becoming an armed conflict. A strategic reconnaissance asset that is stealthy, fast and field-able would bolster the U.S. position in intelligence gathering, especially in this dynamic environment. A similar low observable, hypersonic strike asset would also be critical in maintaining our first strike capability should the rapidly evolving situation warrant it.

2. Iran. With potential changes in the U.S. doctrine and Iran’s nuclear policy maintaining real-time intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is critical. The political environment surrounding Iran, and its attendant diplomatic ramifications, dictate that the best intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and any weapons development be gathered covertly and updated in a timely manner. While orbital reconnaissance assets can provide excellent imaging across the entire spectrum from visible to infra-red to electronic emissions a reconnaissance satellite cannot collect atmospheric samples that are key to detecting nuclear testing. Also, re-tasking spy satellites not already in position with orbits over key targets makes a more dynamic, high-speed, low-observable atmospheric reconnaissance platform desirable.

3. Syria. The tenuous relationship with Russia in the Syrian conflict has been well-managed to date, but the potential for serious incidents still exists. Intelligence gathered covertly in real or near real-time about both Syrian and Russian activities in the region can help manage each participants’ agendas while lowering the risk of fratricide and other accidental conflict. It can also provide exclusive intelligence to the United States unavailable to other participating nations, providing a strategic intelligence advantage in the conflict.

4. The emerging global theater. The United States enjoys a geographic separation from the major Asian, African and Middle Eastern conflict areas. The geographic separation from conflict zones afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been a significant reason for the U.S. ability to maintain security and prevent a large-scale conflict on U.S. soil. But this geographical distance from conflict zones also means preemptively managing conflict globally. It requires long reach and high-speed for timely intelligence gathering. A new high-speed, low-observable ISR/strike platform is required to maintain that agenda. This is a persistent requirement within the U.S. arsenal and will remain indefinitely.

Global conflicts thousands of miles from the U.S. dictate the continued need for stealthy, long range, high speed strategic reconnaissance (Photo: Center for Preventative Action)

Any new strategic reconnaissance and strike asset in development now could still be years from operational fielding, or it may already be in service. Recall that the F-117 Nighthawk was flying in 1981 but not officially revealed until 1988, a span of seven years during which the program remained hidden. While media has changed since the 1980s and it is more difficult to keep a program secret today, the possibility still exists that the program is much farther advanced than publicly revealed.

The F-117 sub-scale prototypes, some called “Have Blue”, were secretly flown from Palmdale without detection. (Photo: USAF)

As early as 1985 a line item appeared in the U.S. defense budget for $85 million USD attributed to a project called “Aurora”. By 1987 that allocation had bloated to over $2.3 billion for the same project. Some reports suggest the U.S. Air Force was working on an SR-71 replacement as early as 1988.

Subsequent reports in credible media like Jane’s Defense and Aviation Week & Space Technology have featured accounts of hearing and seeing unidentified aircraft in the region of the Nellis test ranges.

Another famous sighting happened over the North Sea in November 1991. Scottish petroleum engineer Chris Gibson, who was also serving in the British Royal Observer Corps according to reports, was working on the offshore oil rig Galveston Key. Gibson, an experienced and trained professional aircraft spotter, saw “The shape of a pure isosceles triangle” flying behind a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft in formation with two F-111s. The aircraft were sighted in the 6A air-to-air refueling zone according to reports. Gibson’s accounting was substantiated by another witness, lasted a significant amount of time, and has been repeatedly analyzed, but never explained.

The Chris Gibson/North Sea 1991 sighting suggested an early possible sighting of an SR-71 replacement. The sighting has never been explained. (Photo: Chris Gibson)

Trying to organize the sightings and information we have of any possible new hypersonic low-observable reconnaissance/strike aircraft with the mission requirements and global strategic need for aerial intelligence still leaves massive gaps between what we know and what is possible according to accounts, but within this massive gap of the unknown exists plenty of room for a real project that, when we eventually do hear about it, will undoubtedly be one of the most sensational defense and aviation stories of this century.

Top image: Distributed briefing slide showing conceptual image of SR-72 with SR-71. (Photo: USAF)