Tag Archives: Clarence L. Johnson

26 April 1962

Lockheed test pilot Louis W. Schalk, Jr. (Lockheed)
Lockheed test pilot Louis W. Schalk, Jr. (Lockheed Martin)

26 April 1962: At a non-existent location in the Mojave Desert of Nevada, Lockheed Chief Test Pilot Louis Wellington (“Lou”) Schalk, Jr., was scheduled to take the first Oxcart for a high-speed taxi test on the specially constructed 8,000-foot (2.44 kilometer) runway. However, he had received secret, specific instructions from designer Kelly Johnson to take the craft, known as “Article 121,” airborne.

Lou Schalk roared down the runway and lifted off. He flew at about 20 feet for two miles. The super-secret aircraft was oscillating badly so he set it down straight ahead on the dry lake bed and disappeared into a cloud of dust and flying sand. Johnson said that it “was horrible to watch.” A few minutes later, the needle nose of Article 121 appeared out of the dust as Schalk taxied back to the runway. It turned out that some equipment had been hooked up backwards. Subsequent flights were made without difficulty.

This was the actual first flight of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Top Secret A-12 reconnaissance aircraft. The “official” first flight would come several days later.

Lockheed A-12 60-6924 lands at Groom Lake, NV, after its first flight, 30 April 1962. (Lockheed)
Lockheed A-12 60-6924 lands at Groom Lake, NV, after its first flight, 30 April 1962. (Lockheed Martin)

Designed as the successor to the Agency’s subsonic U-2 spy plane, the twin-engine  jet was capable of flying more than Mach 3 (over 2,000 miles per hour/3,218.7 kilometers per hour) and higher than 80,000 feet (24,384 meters). Built by Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” the new airplane wasn’t “state of the art,” it was well beyond the state of the art. New materials were developed. New equipment designed and built. New manufacturing processes were invented.

The A-12, developed under the code name “Oxcart,” was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. The first A-12 was referred to as Article 121. “A” = “Article.” “12-” is for A-12. “-1” is for the first production aircraft. So you get “Article 121.” What could be simpler?

The A-12 was so fast and could fly so high that it was invulnerable to any defense. No missile or aircraft or gun could reach it.

Lockheed A-12 Oxcarts and YF-12As at Groom Lake, Nevada. (Central Intelligence Agency)
Lockheed A-12 Oxcarts and YF-12As at Groom Lake, Nevada. (Central Intelligence Agency)

Thirteen A-12s were built for the CIA.  Two M-21 variants, built to carry the Mach 4 D-21 drone, were also produced. An interceptor version was developed for the Air Force as the YF-12A.

Ninety-three Lockheed F-12B interceptors were ordered though Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara  refused to release the funding for production. After three years, the order was cancelled. The Air Force liked the A-12, however, and ordered 32 of the more widely known two-place SR-71A “Blackbird” reconnaissance ships.

Today, Article 121 is on display at the Blackbird Airpark, an annex of the Air Force Flight Test Museum, Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Lockheed A-12 60-6924 at the Blackbird Airpark, Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. (© 2012, Bryan R. Swopes)
Lockheed A-12 60-6924 at the Blackbird Airpark, Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. (© 2012, Bryan R. Swopes)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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29 February 1964

Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934, the first of three prototype Mach 3+ interceptors. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934, the first of three prototype Mach 3+ interceptors. (U.S. Air Force)

29 February 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly revealed the existence of the Top Secret Lockheed YF-12A, a Mach 3+ interceptor designed and built by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson’s “Skunk Works.” President Johnson referred to the interceptor as the “A-11.”

Intended as a replacement for Convair’s F-106 Delta Dart, three pre-production YF-12As were built for testing. On 1 May 1965, a YF-12A set a speed record of 2,070.103 miles per hour (3,331.507 kilometers per hour) and reached an altitude of 80,259 ft (24,463 meters).

Lockheed A-12 Oxcarts and YF-12As at Groom Lake, Nevada. (Central Intelligence Agency)
Lockheed A-12 Oxcarts and YF-12As at Groom Lake, Nevada. (Central Intelligence Agency)

The reason for President Johnson’s announcement of the existence of the YF-12A prototypes was to conceal the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency’s fleet of Lockheed A-12 Oxcart reconnaissance aircraft based at Groom Lake, Nevada. Any sightings of these aircraft could be attributed to test flights of the YF-12As based at Edwards Air Force Base, 160 miles (258 kilometers) to the southwest.

The YF-12A interceptor is very similar to its A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird stablemates. It was flown by a pilot and a Weapons System Officer. The airplane is 101 feet, 8 inches (30.988 meters) long with a wingspan of 55 feet, 7 inches (16.942 meters) and overall height of 18 feet, 6 inches (5.639 meters). It has an empty weight of 60,730 pounds (27,547 kilograms) and a maximum takeoff weight of 140,000 pounds (63,503 kilograms).

The YF-12A is powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58 (JT11D-20A) high-bypass turbojets which produce 34,000 pounds of thrust (151,240 Newtons), each, with afterburner, burning JP-7 fuel.

Pratt & Whitney J58 test. (Central Intelligence Agency)
Pratt & Whitney J58 test. (Central Intelligence Agency)

The YF-12A has a maximum speed of Mach 3.35 (2,232 miles per hour/3,342 kilometers per hour) at 80,000 feet (24,384 meters). Its service ceiling is 90,000 feet (27,432 meters) and it has a range of 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers).

The United States Air Force ordered 93 production F-12B aircraft, which would have been armed with three Hughes AIM-47A Falcon air-to-air missiles in enclosed bays in the bottom of the fuselage. However, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara refused to release the funds for the purchase for three consecutive years and eventually the project was cancelled.

AIM-47A missile ready for loading into the weapons bay of a Lockheed YF-12A. (U.S. Air Force)
Hughes AIM-47A guided missile ready for loading into the weapons bay of a Lockheed YF-12A. (U.S. Air Force)

The first YF-12A, 60-6934, seen in the top photograph, was extensively damaged by a brake system fire on landing at Edwards AFB, 14 August 1966. It was salvaged and rebuilt as SR-71C 61-7981. The third YF-12A, shown in the photograph below, was lost due to an inflight fire 24 June 1971. The crew safely ejected.

The only existing YF-12A, 60-6935, is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Lockheed YF-12A 60-6936, holder of three World Absolute Speed Records and the World Absolute Altitude Record. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed YF-12A 60-6936, holder of three World Absolute Speed Records and the World Absolute Altitude Record, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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23 February 1934

The prototype Lockheed Model 10 Electra, NX233Y, during flight testing over Southern California, 1934. (Lockheed Martin)

23 February 1934: Test pilot Marshall Headle, Chief Pilot in Charge of Flight Operations for Lockheed Aircraft Company, took the prototype Lockheed Model 10 Electra, serial number 1001, registered NX233Y, for its first flight at United Airport, Burbank, California (which soon became United Air Terminal, then Lockheed Air Terminal and is now the Hollywood-Burbank Airport, BUR).

The Lockheed Model 10 Electra was designed as a 10-passenger commercial transport and was a contemporary of the Boeing Model 247. This was Lockheed’s first all-metal airplane. The Electra had two engines, a low wing and retractable landing gear. An engineering team led by Hall L. Hibbard worked on the airplane.

A young engineer, Clarence L. (“Kelly”) Johnson, an assistant aerodynamicist at the University of Michigan, performed the wind tunnel tests on scale models of the proposed design and recommended changes to the configuration, such as the use of two vertical fins mounted at the outboard ends of the horizontal stabilizer. This became a design feature of Lockheed airplanes into the 1950s and included the Model 14 Super Electra/Hudson, Model 18 Lodestar/PV-1 Ventura, the P-38 Lightning fighter and the L-1649 Starliner, which was produced until 1958. Johnson would become the leader of Lockheed’s legendary  “Skunk Works.”

Clarence L. "KellY" Johnson conducted wind tunnel testing of the Model 10 at the University of Michigan.
Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson conducted wind tunnel testing of the Model 10 at the University of Michigan.

The prototype Electra was was used for certification testing. During a full-load test at Mines Field (now, LAX, Los Angeles International Airport) the Electra’s landing gear malfunctioned. Babe Headle flew the airplane back to Burbank and made a one-wheel landing. The prototype was slightly damaged but quickly repaired.

The prototype Lockheed Model 10 Electra, NC233Y, after delivery to Northwest Airways, St. Paul, Minnesota. Note the forward slant of the cockpit windshield. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
The prototype Lockheed Model 10 Electra, NC233Y, after delivery to Northwest Airways, St. Paul, Minnesota. Note the forward slant of the cockpit windshield. (San Diego Air & Space Museum Archive)

After testing was competed the prototype Electra was delivered to Northwest Airways, Inc., at St. Paul, Minnesota, 31 December 1934. The experimental registration was changed to a standard registration, NC233Y, and it was assigned the Northwest fleet number 60.

Lockheed Model 10 Electra NC233Y at St. Paul, Minnesota, 1934. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
Lockheed Model 10 Electra NC233Y at St. Paul, Minnesota, 1934. (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

Like the Boeing 247, the Electra was originally produced with a forward-slanting windshield to prevent instrument light reflection during night flights. This resulted in ground lighting reflections, though, and was changed to a standard, rearward slant with the fifth production airplane. NC233Y was modified by Northwestern’s maintenance staff.

Lockheed built 147 Model 10s in various configurations. The first production variant was the Model 10A. It was 38 feet, 7 inches (11.760 meters) long with a wingspan of 55 feet (16.764 meters), and height of 10 feet, 1 inch (3.073 meters). The wings had a total area of 458.3 square feet (42.6square meters). Their angle of incidence was 0°, and there were 5° 34′ dihedral.

The airplane had an empty weight of 5,455 pounds (2,474 kilograms) and a gross weight of 9,000 pounds (4,082 kilograms).

The Model 10A was powered by two air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liters) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. SB  9-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6:1. They were rated at 400 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. for takeoff, using 87-octane gasoline. The SB engines were direct-drive and turned two-bladed Smith variable-pitch propellers. The Wasp Jr. SB was 3 feet, 6.59 inches (1.056 meters) long, 3 feet, 11.75 inches (1.162 meters) in diameter, and weighed 645 pounds (293 kilograms). The engines were covered by NACA cowlings.

The airplane had a cruise speed of 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) and maximum speed of 215 miles per hour (346 kilometers per hour) at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). The service ceiling was 20,000 feet ( meters) and the range at cruise speed was 750 miles (1,207 kilometers).

The prototype Lockheed Model 10 Electra, NC233Y, after cockpit windshield modifications by Northwestern Airways, Inc. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
The prototype Lockheed Model 10 Electra, NC233Y, after cockpit windshield modifications by Northwestern Airways, Inc. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Newsreel footage of the Lockheed Model 10 prototype’s first flight, by cinematographer Alfred Dillimtash Black for Fox Movietone News, is in the collection of the Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina, University Libraries, and can be viewed at:

http://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc%3A9629

Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart and Lockheed's chief pilot, Marshall E. Headle, with Earhart's Model 10E Electra Speical. (Courtesy of neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart and Lockheed’s chief pilot, Marshall Headle, with Earhart’s Model 10E Electra Special. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

The Electra was “the Lisbon plane” in the  classic 1942 motion picture, “Casablanca,” which starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

Probably the best-known Lockheed Electra is the Model 10E Special, NR16020, which was built for Amelia Earhart for her around-the-world flight attempt in 1937. She took delivery of the airplane on her 39th birthday, 24 July 1936.

Amelia Earhart with her Lockheed Electra 10E, NR16020, at Burbank, 1937.
Amelia Earhart with her Lockheed Electra 10E, NR16020, at Burbank, 1937.

The prototype Lockheed Model 10 later carried U.S. registrations NC2332, NC17380, and Canadian registration CF-BRG. It was placed in service with the Royal Canadian Air Force with the serial number 7652. One of 15 Lockheed Electras in RCAF service during World War II, it was destroyed by fire at RCAF Station Mountain View, Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada, 14 October 1941.

Marshall Headle, as a junior at MAC, 1911 (Index)

Marshall Headle was born 21 March 1893 at Winthrop, Massachussetts, United States of America, He was the third child of Edwin Charles Headle, a clergyman, and Clarendo Yeomans Headle. He attended Winthrop High School before going on to the Massachussetts Agricultural College at Bolton. He graduated in 1912 with a Bachelor of Science degree (B.Sc.) in Floriculture.

Headle enlisted in the United States Army in 1917, and attended aviation ground school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). His flight training took place at Tours, France. He held the rank of First Lieutenant, Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force, United States Army. Lieutenant Headle served as a flight instructor at Tours and at the 2nd Aviation Instruction Center.

1st Lt. Marshall Headle, Air Service, United States Army.

From 1919 to 1922, Headle was attached to the United States Embassy in Paris, France. He then returned to the United States.

Marshall Headle enlisted as a private in the United States Marine Corps, 25 October 1924. He served with the Marines in China as an airplane crew chief and aviator. He was promoted to gunnery sergeant (Gy.Sgt.). He returned to the United States in 1928, and resigned from the Marine Corps to become a civilian pilot.

In 1929, Headle married Dorothea Evelyn Breeder.  They had two children, Marshall Ronald Headle, born in 1932, and Michele Ann Headle. (Mrs. Headle died in Honolulu, Hawaii, 25 May 2010, at the age of 99 years.)

Lockheed test pilot Marshall Headle with a Lockheed Air Express, circa 1930. (San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives AL77A-032)

Headle joined Lockheed in 1929, as chief pilot, flight operations. On 30 October 1929, Headle made the first flight of the all-metal Detroit-Lockheed DL-2 Sirius.

In 1930, Headle attempted to set a world altitude record with a 500 kilogram (1,102 pounds) payload, flying a Lockheed Vega. He used a pressurized tank of oxygen with a flexible tube.

Marshall Headle demonstrates his high-altitude breathing apparatus, standing with his Lockheed Vega. (International Newsreel/Shamokin News-Dispatch)
Marshall (“Babe”) Headle. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

In 1931, he took the Model 9 Orion, NX960Y, on its first flight.

In 1933, became the company’s chief test pilot, succeeding Wiley Post. He also traveled world-wide demonstrating Lockheed’s airplanes.

Headle also made the first flight of Gerard Vultee’s Vultee V-1A single-engine airliner, 19 February 1933.

On 29 July 1937, he made the first flight of the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra. The Model 14 fuselage was stretched, resulting in the Model 18 Lodestar. Headle, with Louis Upshaw, took the prototype, NX17385, for its first flight, 21 September 1939. The Lodestar would be developed into the Lockheed Ventura bomber.

On 16 September 1940, Headle made the first flight of the Lockheed YP-38 service test prototype. Headle was featured in magazine and billboard advertisements for Camel cigarettes in 1941.

In 1941, he was injured in an altitude chamber accident and was no longer able to fly.

Prototype Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, NX17385. (Lockheed Martin)

Marshall Headle died 14 May 1945 at the age of 52 years. He was buried at the Valhalla Memorial Cemetery, Burbank, California.

Lockheed test pilot Marshall Headle with a YP-38 prototype at Burbank, California, circa 1940. (Lockheed Martin)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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8 January 1944

Lockheed XP-80 prototype, 44-83020, at Muroc AAF, 8 January 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
The Lockheed XP-80 prototype, 44-83020, at Muroc AAF, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company)
Milo Burcham
Milo Garrett Burcham

8 January 1944: At Muroc Army Air Field (later to become Edwards Air Force Base), the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s chief engineering test pilot, Milo Garrett Burcham, took the prototype Model L-140, the Army Air Forces XP-80 Shooting Star, 44-83020, for its first flight.

Tex Johnston, who would later become Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, was at Muroc testing the Bell Aircraft Corporation XP-59 Airacomet. He wrote about the XP-80’s first flight in his autobiography:

Early on the morning of the scheduled first flight of the XP-80, busload after busload of political dignitaries and almost every general in the Army Air Force arrived at the northwest end of the lake a short distance from our hangar. Scheduled takeoff time had passed. I was afraid Milo was having difficulties. Then I heard the H.1B fire up, and he taxied by on the lake bed in front of our ramp. What a beautiful bird—another product of Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s famed chief design engineer—tricycle gear, very thin wings, and a clear-view bubble canopy. Milo gave me the okay sign.

This was the initial flight of America’s second jet fighter, and what a flight it was. Milo taxied along in front of generals and politicians, turned south and applied full power. I could see the spectators’ fingers going in their ears. The smoke and sand were flying as the engine reached full power, and the XP-80 roared down the lake. Milo pulled her off, retracted gear and flaps, and held her on the deck. Accelerating, he pulled up in a climbing right turn, rolled into a left turn to a north heading, and from an altitude I estimated to be 4,000 feet [1,219 meters] entered a full-bore dive headed for the buses. He started the pull-up in front of our hangar and was in a 60-degree climb when he passed over the buses doing consecutive aileron rolls at 360 degrees per second up to 10,000 feet [3,048 meters]. He then rolled over and came screaming back. He shot the place up north and south, east and west, landed and coasted up in front of the spectators, engine off and winding down. I have never seen a crowd so excited since my barnstorming days. I returned to the office and dictated a wire to [Robert M.] Stanley [Chief Test Pilot, Bell Aircraft Corporation] “WITNESSED LOCKHEED XP-80 INITIAL FLIGHT STOP VERY IMPRESSIVE STOP BACK TO DRAWING BOARD STOP SIGNED, TEX” I knew he would understand.

Tex Johnston: Jet-Age Test Pilot, by A.M. “Tex” Johnston with Charles Barton, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1 June 1992, Chapter 5 at Pages 127–128.

A few minor problems caused Burcham to end the flight after approximately five minutes but these were quickly resolved and flight testing continued.

The XP-80 was the first American airplane to exceed 500 miles per hour (805 kilometers per hour) in level flight.

Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson with a scale model of a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. Johnson's "Skunk Works" also designed the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Company)
Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with a scale model of a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. Johnson’s “Skunk Works” also designed the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company)

The Lockheed XP-80 was designed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and a small team of engineers that would become known as the “Skunk Works,” in response to a U.S. Army Air Corps proposal to build a single-engine fighter around the de Havilland Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. (The Goblin powered the de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 fighter.)

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was given a development contract which required that a prototype be ready to fly within just 180 days.

Milo Burcham, on the left, shakes hands with Clarence L. Johnson following the first flight of the Lockheed XP-80, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed)
Milo Burcham, on the left, shakes hands with Clarence L. Johnson following the first flight of the Lockheed XP-80, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.)

The XP-80 was a single-seat, single-engine airplane with straight wings and retractable tricycle landing gear. Intakes for engine air were placed low on the fuselage, just forward of the wings. The engine exhaust was ducted straight out through the tail. For the first prototype, the cockpit was not pressurized but would be on production airplanes.

As was customary for World War II U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft, the prototype was camouflaged in non-reflective Dark Green with Light Gull Gray undersides. The blue and white “star and bar” national insignia was painted on the aft fuselage, and Lockheed’s winged-star corporate logo was on the nose and vertical fin. Later, the airplane’s radio call, 483020 was stenciled on the fin in yellow paint. The number 20 was painted on either side of the nose in large block letters. Eventually the tip of the nose was painted white and a large number 78 was painted just ahead of the intakes in yellow block numerals. Early in the test program, rounded tips were installed on the wings and tail surfaces. This is how the XP-80 appears today.

Lockheed XP-80 parked at Muroc Dry Lake, 1944 (Lockheed)
The highly-polished Dark Green and Light Gull Gray Lockheed XP-80 prototype parked at Muroc Dry Lake, 1944 (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.)

The XP-80 is 32 feet, 911/16 inches (9.9997 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, ⅞-inch (11.2998 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 21/16 inches (3.1004 meters). It had a Basic Weight for Flight Test of 6,418.5 pounds (2,911.4 kilograms) and Gross Weight (as actually weighed prior to test flight) of 8,859.5 pounds (4,018.6 kilograms).

The Halford H.1B Goblin used a single-stage centrifugal-flow compressor, sixteen combustion chambers, and single-stage axial-flow turbine. It had a straight-through configuration rather than the reverse-flow of the Whittle turbojet from which it was derived. The H.1B produced 2,460 pounds of thrust (10.94 kilonewtons) at 9,500 r.p.m., and 3,000 pounds (13.34 kilonewtons) at 10,500 r.p.m. The Goblin weighed approximately 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms).

Cutaway illustration of the Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. (FLIGHT and AIRCRAFT ENGINEER)

The XP-80 has a maximum speed of 502 miles per hour (808 kilometers per hour) at 20,480 feet (6,242 meters) and a rate of climb of 3,000 feet per minute (15.24 meters per second). The service ceiling is 41,000 feet (12,497 meters).

Unusual for a prototype, the XP-80 was armed. Six air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns were placed in the nose. The maximum ammunition capacity for the prototype was 200 rounds per gun.

The Halford engine was unreliable and Lockheed recommended redesigning the the fighter around the larger, more powerful General Electric I-40 (produced by GE and Allison as the J33 turbojet). The proposal was accepted and following prototypes were built as the XP-80A.

Lockheed built 1,715 P-80s for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. They entered combat during the Korean War in 1950. A two-seat trainer version was even more numerous: the famous T-33A Shooting Star.

Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star 44-83020 was used as a test aircraft and jet trainer for several years. In 1949, it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. 44-83020 is on display at the Jet Aviation exhibit of the National Air and Space Museum. It was restored beginning in 1976, and over the next two years nearly 5,000 man-hours of work were needed to complete the restoration.

The prototype Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star, 44-83020, at teh Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The prototype Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star, s/n 140-1001, 44-83020, at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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14 October 1962

This is one of the reconnaissance photographs taken by Major Richard S. Heyser  from his Lockheed U-2, flying at 72,500 feet over Cuba, 14 October 1962. (U.S. Air Force)

14 October 1962: Major Richard Stephen (“Steve”) Heyser, a pilot with the 4028th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, United States Air Force, boarded Item 342, his Top Secret reconnaissance airplane, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Over the next seven hours he flew from Edwards to McCoy AFB, near Orlando, Florida, landing there at 0920 EST.

Major Richard S. Heyser, U.S. Air Force, with a Lockheed U-2. Major Heyser is wearing a MC-3 capstan-type partial-pressure suit for protection at high altitudes. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Richard S. Heyser, U.S. Air Force, with a Lockheed U-2. Major Heyser is wearing a MC-3 capstan-type partial-pressure suit for protection at high altitudes. (U.S. Air Force)

But first, Steve Heyser and Item 342 flew over the island of Cuba at an altitude of 72,500 feet (22,098 meters). Over the island for just seven minutes, Heyser used the airplane’s cameras to take some of the most important photographs of the Twentieth Century.

Item 342 was a Lockheed U-2F. Designed by Clarence L. (“Kelly”) Johnson at the “Skunk Works,” it was a very high altitude, single-seat, single-engine airplane built for the Central Intelligence Agency. Item 342 carried a U.S. Air Force number on its tail, 66675. This represented its serial number, 56-6675.

It had been built at Burbank, then its sub-assemblies were flown aboard a C-124 Globemaster transport to a secret facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, called “The Ranch,” where it was assembled and flown.

Originally a U-2A, Item 342 was modified to a U-2C, and then to a U-2F, capable of inflight refueling.

Major Heyser had been at Edwards AFB to complete training on the latest configuration when he was assigned to this mission.

A Lockheed U-2A, 56-6708, “Item 375”. (U.S. Air Force)

Major Heyser’s photographs showed Russian SS-4 Sandal intermediate range nuclear-armed missiles being placed in Cuba, with SA-2 Guideline radar-guided surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile sites surrounding the nuclear missile sites.

President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba and demanded that Russia remove the missiles. Premier Nikita Khrushchev refused. The entire U.S. military was brought to readiness for immediate war. This was The Cuban Missile Crisis. World War III was imminent.

(Left to Right) Major Richard S. Heyser, General Curtis E. LeMay and President John F. Kennedy, at the White House, October 1962. (Associated Press)

Richard S. Heyser died 6 October 2008.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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