40th Anniversary of the A-12 (April 27, 2002)
by Connie Pardew

All photos by Rupert Scammell with friendly permission. Click on the photos for a larger version.

In marriage, a 40th anniversary is a special time in life. A time of reflection, to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor, and to recognize your accomplishments of raising your children and setting a foundation for the rest of your life.

A-12 at the Palmdale Blackbird Airpark
The same may be said for those who raised, nurtured and developed the mighty A-12 aircraft. Individuals from all over the country gathered in Palmdale, Calif. in April to celebrate the A-12's birth 40 years ago.

A crowd comprised of test and mission pilots, maintainers, authors, and aircraft enthusiasts descended at Blackbird Airpark April 27 where both an SR-71 and the A-12 prototype are on display.

A-12 test pilot Lou Schalk, YF-12 test pilot Jim Eastham and SR-71 test pilot Bob Gilliland, along with A-12 mission pilots, Frank Murray, Ken Collins, Mele Vojvodich, Jack Layton and Denny Sullivan were signing photographs and aircraft memorabilia.

Also on hand were Donn Byrnes, author of Blackbird Rising and Peter Merlin, author of his newly published "Mach 3+, NASA/USAF Research YF-12 Flight Research."

That evening, those involved with the A-12 Oxcart program and it's successors, the YF-12 interceptor and the SR-71 were recognized at the Blackbird Laurels Society induction banquet at the Park Plaza Hotel in Lancaster, Calif.

Hosted by the Flight Test Historical Foundation and the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, the banquet was attended by California Senator and former X-15 pilot, Pete Knight and Frank Roberts, Mayor of Lancaster in addition to the many military and civilian dignitaries, former OXCART program operatives and SR-71 personnel.

Attendees enjoyed viewing Blackbird memorabilia including one of the first flight suits. A silent auction of memorabilia offered bidders a chance to purchase a piece of Cold War history. Films featuring the father of the Blackbird, Kelly Johnson with his creation brought back many memories to those connected with the Blackbirds missions.

A-12 and SR-71 pilot, Ken Collins served as Master of Ceremonies. Collins completed 13 A-12 combat missions while deployed at Kadena. After the program was cancelled in 1968, he became the 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron Operations Officer, and instructor and test pilot for the SR-71 at Beale AFB.

Guest speaker, Retired Major General Mele Vojvodich recalled his days as a captain flying RF-86's over South Korea. While there he flew 125 combat missions. In May 1967, Vojvodich piloted the first A-12 deployed to Kadena AFB in Okinawa and flew the first operational mission over North Vietnam. "I was proud to have been part of the program," he said.

Kelly Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Blackbird Society along with 20 others. "Thank you for what you've done for our nation," said A-12 mission pilot and inductee, Jack Layton of Kelly. "The A-12 was a fine airplane with fine people."

Lou Schalk with one of the high-altitude pressure suits used by the Blackbird pilots
Inductee Lou Schalk has flown more than 70 types of aircraft in his career and on April 30, 1962, the Lockheed test pilot wowed the crowd of dignitaries from both the military and the Central Intelligence Agency as he flew the A-12 in it's first official flight over the remote test site in southern Nevada known as the "Ranch" or Groom Lake. Taking off with a total weight of 119,000 pounds the aircraft flew 55 minutes. Using J-75 engines the A-12 reached 1.2 on the mach meter.

Shortly before the flight Lockheed's Bill Fox recalled, "I walked out to the north side of the hangar where the bird was sitting with lots going on around it. I sat down against the hangar and Lou Schalk came over and sat beside me. We joshed a little and soon I noticed Lou had dozed off so I kept quiet.

Soon Larry Bohannon came over and was about to talk to Lou and then noticed he was asleep. He said, "Gosh, I'd like to talk to him about some things but I don't want to wake him up.
After a few minutes Lou snapped to life and Larry came back and briefed him on a couple of last minute items. I thought that is about as cool a test pilot as I have ever seen and remember it vividly."

The five remaining mission pilots, Ken Collins, Jack Layton, Frank Murray, Mele Vojvodich, and Dennis Sullivan were on hand to accept their induction into the Blackbird Laurels Society. In addition, both test pilots for the SR-71 and YF-12 were present.

Group photo of the Blackbird Laurels recipients
Jim Eastham began his aviation career in 1942 when he entered the CPT program under the sponsorship of the Army Air Corps. Eastham went on to become the project test pilot for Hughes Aircraft in 1956 on the Falcon Missile program. During that time he flew approximately 800 test missions in the F-102, F-106 and the YB-58 "Hustler."

He became the third to fly the A-12 and the first pilot to fly the YF-12A in 1963. Eastham was the Lockheed test pilot on all phases of that program. "The YF-12 did everything it was set out to do," he said. "It was the best interceptor the Air Force never bought," he quipped.

As the chief test pilot for Lockheed, Bob Gilliland gave the Air Force an early Christmas present when he made the first flight of the SR-71A on December 22, 1964 at Edwards Air Force Base.

In January 1968, Frank Murray was the first to fly over North Korea when North Korean gunboats seized the USS Pueblo. Murray made three passes over North Korea, mapping the entire country in just 105 minutes. Murray also had the privilege of making the final flight of the A-12 before it's retirement in 1968. The flight was a short hop from Groom Lake to Lockheed's Palmdale facilities.

Jack Layton was both an A-12 mission pilot and YF-12 pilot. Layton flew the last A-12 mission over North Korea while deployed at Kadena.

Retired Brigadier General Dennis Sullivan has more than 7,000 flying hours and began his military career in the U.S. Naval Academy. Throughout his service, Sullivan flew F-80's over North Korea and was command director in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex for the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Sullivan had six missiles launched against him while flying an A-12 mission over North Vietnam, 3 detonated and on post flight inspection, they found a small piece of metal imbedded in the lower wing fillet area.
After the Oxcart program was cancelled Sullivan served as director of operations and later vice commander of the 9th Strategic reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base.
"This (the Roadrunners) is the world's greatest flying club," he said. "It is the best program in my career that I've been associated with."

Retired Colonel Ken Collins followed in his forefather's footsteps with a military career. His grandfather, Sgt. Edward E. Collins of the 10th U.S. Calvary was sent out with the Troopers to fight the Battle of Wounded Knee.
Collins took to the skies at Goodfellow AFB, Texas in 1951 and later volunteered for Korea. In 1960, Collins was contacted by the USAF Office of NASA requesting that he volunteer for a highly classified space program. This evolved into the OXCART program. Collins' first flight in the A-12 was February 6, 1963.

Mele Vojvodich's career includes 135 combat missions in F-4's while in Southeast Asia and deputy chief of staff for tactical analysis, Tactical Air Warfare Center at Eglin AFB, Fla. The retired general is a command pilot with 6,000 flying hours. In June 1968 the five mission pilots along with deceased pilot Jack Weeks received the CIA Intelligence Star of Valor for their participation in the operational A-12 flights.

Colonel Hugh "Slip" Slater was commander of the 1129th Special Activities Squadron at Groom Lake. He was responsible for operations and the welfare of the crew. "It was an honor to serve at Groom Lake," he said.
"I thank the Lockheed guys, Kelly, the pilotsÓworking on the program was beyond my wildest dreams." Slater noted the contributions of pilots, Bill Park, Walt Ray, Jack Weeks and Bill Skliar who died in the line of duty.

Cockpit of the SR-71 Blackbird
Other inductees were an integral part of the development and operations of both the A-12 and the SR-71.

Bob Murphy was chief of manufacturing for Skunk Works and last year was honored with the Kelly Johnson Lifetime Achievement award at the Blackbird Association Reunion in Reno, Nev. Murphy's career goes back to the U-2 program in the 1950's.

Norm Nelson, CIA engineer inside Skunkworks during the A-12's production.

Tom Pugh, Wing Commander with more than 6,000 flying hours (735 in the SR-71).

Joe Rogers, former Director of Flight Test at Edwards and SR-71 pilot.

Henry Combs was the technical director of Skunk Works and is revered as the father of the titanium A-12 structure. As Combs accepted his award he could only say, "There are not enough words to express my respect and admiration for Kelly Johnson."

Bill Fox was the program manger for Skunkworks and worked on the YF-12 Nasa/Air Force testing. "I am humbled to receive this award," said Fox. "I can't believe I'm part of this group."

Fitz Fulton has flown 235 different types of aircraft accumulating 16,500 hours. Fulton participated in the YF-12 program.

CMSgt. Bill Gornik (Ret) was proud to be inducted into the Blackbird Laurels Society on behalf of all the enlisted men. "No doubt, this award pays homage to all the enlisted personnel-those who were the backbone of the Air Force," he said.

Jack Bassick, executive vice president of research and development of the Dave Clark Company accepted the award for his firm who designed and constructed the high altitude pressure suits used by the Blackbird pilots.

Retired Major General Eldon Joersz was an SR-71 instructor pilot and has logged 4,500 flying hours with 300 in the SR-71.

Robert Illian was responsible for all the preflight operations for the program.

Thanks to the efforts of these fine individuals and others like them, our country was safe during the turbulent Cold War Years. The state of the art designs conceived by Kelly Johnson and the hard work by those involved in the programs are a testament to our freedom. Johnson was proud of his child as it grew to protect our country proudly and reliably over hostile skies. If only for a few short years, it served us well and will always be remembered.

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