• The Lockheed M-21 Blackbird was a mighty Mach 3.2 two seat reconnaissance spy plane built for the CIA which would later be developed into the two-seat Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird operated by the USAF. The A-12 first flew in 1962 and was operated from 1963 to 1968. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning engines.

    A variant of the A-12 was the Lockheed M-21 Blackbird. This was special variant operated by the USAF but built for the CIA ?Tagboard? program, where the M-21 acted as a mothership to launch the faster Lockheed D-21 ramjet powered, Mach 3+ reconnaissance drone for intelligence gathering.

    The M-21 Blackbird had a special pylon fitted on its spine to carry and launch the D-21 drone (pictured) and had a second cockpit installed for the Launch Control Operator/Officer (LCO). This was a feature that was retained in the later SR-71A Blackbird to seat the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO).

    Once launched the D-21 drone was autonomous and would head to its programmed path to gather intelligence. It would then fly to a designated location to release its camera module with a parachute for mid-air collection by a specially equipped Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Once the data package was ejected the D-21 would self-destruct. This was all intended to avoid an incident of getting an aircraft shot down by a SAM over enemy territory like Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 over the Soviet Union on May 1st, 1960.

    This all sounded fine in theory but in practice the program was fraught with danger and the program was cancelled following a 1966 collision between the drone and the tail of its mothership M-21 which resulted in a crash and the sad death of the Launch Control Officer.(The M-21 program was canceled in 1966 after a drone collided with the mother ship at launch. The crew safely ejected, but LCO Ray Torick drowned when his flight suit filled with water after landing in the ocean.) The D-21 program continued though and saw limited success being launched underwing from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

    Only 2 M-21 aircraft were manufactured in 1963.
    M-21 60-6940 is preserved at the Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington.

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