Tuesday, April 12, 2005

So they have it on display, but how much does Intrepid really know about #122

OK, so the Intrepid has A-12 #122 on display, but how much do they really know about her? More importantly, how much do they care about the accuracy of the information they present to the public about her? Forgive me, but I was under the impression that a museum is supposed to be concerned with the accuracy of the information they give to the public. If that's the case, then the Intrepid is truly lacking. After all, shouldn't a museum have the resources to properly research the exhibits it presents? If it doesn't have reliable information about something in its collection, shouldn't it be up front about that, too?

Have a look at their web page for A-12 #122, http://www.intrepidmuseum.org/intrepidmuseum/aircraft/item.php?id=2. Do you notice anything wrong here? I saw a few things and Jeannette showed me a few that I had missed.

The A-12 Blackbird was the fastest, highest-altitude manned aircraft in the
world when it first flew in 1962. Three decades later, it still is.

I noticed one big problem with this statement. The problem is that they claim that it still is the fastest, highest flying manned aircraft. I now refer you to Space Ship One, designed and constructed by Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites. Space Ship One is manned, flew to outer space and back (much higher than a Blackbird), and at about the same speed as an A-12. Back in the 1960s there was another manned aircraft that also flew higher and faster than the A-12 - the X-15. The X-15 reached speeds in excess of Mach 6 and altitudes of over 300,000 feet. The major difference is that the A-12 "breathes air" or uses atmospheric oxygen, while Space Ship One uses nitrous oxide and rubber for propulsion with the nitrous providing the oxygen for combustion. The X-15 used liquid fueled rocket motors which didn't need atmospheric oxygen for operation. Because it used the oxygen in the air rather than oxygen in its fuel, the A-12 had a much longer operational range than either of these other airplanes. Several other distinctions set the A-12 apart from the X-15 and Space Ship One. While both of these other manned aircraft have flown higher and (in the case of the X-15) faster than the A-12, neither were operaional aircraft. The A-12 flew regular missions where Mach 3+ at over 80,000 feet were the normal cruising speed and altitude. This was done day in and day out as a normal part of operating these aircraft. The X-15 and Space Ship One were both experimental aircraft with specific testing goals to be accomplished on each flight. Those aircraft expanded our ideas of what was possible in manned flight. The Archangels did all that and then continued to out perform all other operational aircraft in missions that mere angels wouldn't dream of.

Flying over 15 miles above the earth’s surface at speeds literally faster
than a speeding bullet, the Blackbird needs no armament to defend itself.
Although initially presented to the public as a fighter / interceptor to hide
its true function, the A-12 was designed from the beginning to be a pure
surveillance plane, capable of shooting nothing but high-resolution film. In
that role it continues to excel, although details of its performance and
missions remain classified.

True enough, the A-12 flew that high and that fast. No arguement there. My problems with this paragraph start with the second sentence. The aircraft that was presented to the public back then was the YF-12A. While these two aircraft are very close relatives, they are still different aircraft. A couple of differences between them are the fact that the A-12 has a crew of one while the YF-12A carried a crew of two and the fact that the YF-12A had a much different nose to accomodate a fire control radar and thermal sensors on either side of the nose. The YF-12A also had a rather large ventral fin located on the centerline of the rear of the fuselage. Make no mistake, the YF-12A was no reconnaisance plane! Instead of carrying cameras and sensors like the rest of its siblings, the YF-12 was to carry three or four nuclear tipped missiles with a range of nearly 100 miles to intercept and bring down formations of attacking Soviet bombers. As an added bonus, the YF-12 had the same high speed and altitude performance capabilities as the rest of the Blackbird fleet, so no fighter could have cought it and no surface to air missile could have shot it down. It would have been able to choose the time and place of any aerial engagement with impunity. For more information on the YF-12A, please visit TD Barnes' web page.

The Intrepid museum is right again when it says that the A-12 was designed as a reconnaisance platform from the very beginning, but after that we experience yet another departure from reality. From the way the Intrepid has written their website, one might think that the A-12 is still in service. Unless we're missing something, the A-12 fleet (all twelve aircraft) was retired back in 1968. If anyone has any information to the contrary, we'd certainly appreciate hearing it!

If you look at the schematic, or three view drawing on Intrepid's webpage, you'll see that the aircraft depicted there is actually an SR-71. The differences are subtle, but are still visible in the Intrepid's illustration. First, you'll notice that the aircraft in Intrepid's drawing has two cockpits - one behind the other. Since the nose isn't rounded like a YF-12A's, we know it's an SR-71. The tail is different as well.

Actually, there are many more differences between these aircraft than most would imagine.

TD Barnes has done a wonderful job of making declassified documents available online for the public. One of those documents is a study conducted by the National Reconnaisance Office (NRO) of the differences between the A-12 and the SR-71. Jeannette has also obtained a wealth of declassified documents relating to the A-12. Looking at the data from these declassified documents and comparing them to the specifications listed by the Intrepid, we can see that once again, the Intrepid gets it right only part of the time and the performance of the plane has come farther out of the black than ever before - if you know where to look. Click here to see copies of the actual declassified NRO documents discussing the differnces between the A-12 and SR-71.

Intrepid's specifications for the A-12 as presented on their web site:

Length: 102'
Height: 18' 3"
Wingspan: 55' 7"
No. of Engines: 2
Powerplant: Pratt & Whitney J58 turbo ramjets
Thrust (each): 32,500 lbs
Max Speed: 2,269 mph
Service Ceiling: 84,978 ft

A-12 specifications from NRO documents:

Length: 99 feet
Span: 56 feet
Height: 18.45 feet
Engine Thrust: 32,500 Pounds
Basic Weight: 52,700 Pounds
Fueled Weight: 122,500 Pounds
Crew: 1
Unrefueled range: 2,700 Nautical Miles
Payload: 2,500 lbs / 64 Cubic Feet

*From Jeannette's archives of declassified CIA datasheets for #122:

Confirmed altitude reached: 94,000 Feet
Cruising Altitude
Start--84,500 Feet
midrange-91,000 Feet
End--97,600 Feet
Engine operating limit: Mach 3.2 at 100,000 Feet
Cost summary for 12 aircraft without engines: $96.6 million
Construction: Titanium monocoque with some super-high-temperature plastics

The NRO documents also list the specifications for the SR-71.

Length: 107.5 feet
Span: 55.6 feet
Height 18.5 feet
Engine Thrust: 34,ooo Pounds
Basic Weight: 60,995 Pounds
Fueled Weight: 141,605 Pounds
Crew: 2
Unrefueled range: 2,800 Nautical Miles
Payload: 4,000 Pounds / 147.8 Cubic Feet
Note: The NRO documents have the maximum altitude and speed blacked out.

After comparing the statistics, it looks like the Intrepid has mixed in some SR-71 data with some A-12 statistics.

The names listed by Intrepid are also quite intreguing. Yes, these aircraft were designated A-12 and were also known as "Blackbirds". They were also known as "Oxcarts", as "Oxcart" was the US Government's codename for the A-12 program. A-12s were also commonly referred to as "Articles". This non descript reference to the aircraft is no doubt due to the aircraft's secret status. To this day, classified aircraft are still referred to as "Articles" as the term describes nothing at all about the topic of conversation. Lockheed had a couple of different names for the A-12 program. "Cygnus" was one of the names that Lockheed used with the A-12. "Cygnus" is the constellation of the Swan in the night sky and seemed much more suited to such a high flying and graceful being as the A-12. It seems that the designers, workmen, pilots, and groundcrew all thought that the A-12 was almost insulted by having such an unfitting name as "Oxcart." The other name Lockheed used for the A-12 was "Archangel." "Angel" was the Lockheed name for the U-2 program whose official US Government codename was "Aquatone." The A-12 was designed to succeed the "Angel," flying higher and faster than a mere "Angel." Lockheed asked themselves what could possibly out-do an "Angel" and the only thing they could think of was an "Archangel." "Dragonlady" was and is the designation for the U-2. How anyone could confuse a U-2 for an A-12 is beyond my comprehension.

I have one last bone to pick with the Intrepid's web page. One of the photographs on the page is of an SR-71. Take a close look at the picture of the black jet over the snowy mountains. Once again, the dead giveaway that this is a picture of an SR-71 is the aft cockpit for the Reconnaisance Systems Officer (RSO). I thought this was supposed to be a page about the Lockheed A-12.

The lack of proper research on the part of the Intrepid here is disappointing, but given the lack of care given to an historic aircraft such as #122, I'm sorry to say that it's not surprising. The mixing of A-12, YF-1A, and SR-71 data might be acceptable if it was presented by an amateur enthusiast or a model company. The problem here is that the Intrepid museum isn't just an amateur enthusiast or a model company. The Intrepid museum is supposed to be an institution for the preservation of History for posterity. Intrepid was tasked to care for #122 and all of the exhibits onboard. Sadly, the only way the name "Intrepid" seems to fit these days is with regard to the attitude the museum has taken toward those who care about #122 and the other aircraft onboard.

Please take the time to leave us a note in the guestbook or a comment with a post. The contact information for Intrepid and the USAF Museum are in the sidebar on the right. Please write to these museums and make your opinion known!

As always, thank you for taking the time to visit our page about #122!