Tag Archives: Skunk Works

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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9 October 1999

9 October 1999: At a Saturday air show at Edwards Air Force Base, California, NASA Research Pilot Rogers E. Smith and Flight Test Engineer Robert R. Meyer, Jr., flew Lockheed SR-71A-LO 61-7980, NASA 844, on what would be the very last flight of a Blackbird. Although it was scheduled to fly again for the Sunday air show, a serious fuel leak prevented that flight.

61-7980 (Lockheed serial number 2031) was the final SR-71A to be built.

NASA 844 was retired after the final flight and placed in flyable storage, but in 2002, it was placed on static display at the Dryden Flight Research Center,¹ Edwards Air Force Base, California.EC92-02273 

¹ In 2014, DFRC was renamed the NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC).

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 August 1955

Right profile illustration of the first Lockheed U-2. Image courtesy of Tim Bradley Imaging, © 2015
Right profile illustration of the first Lockheed U-2, Article 341. Image courtesy of Tim Bradley Imaging, © 2015

1 August 1955: Test pilot Anthony W. LeVier made the first flight flight of the Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance airplane at Groom Lake, Nevada. LeVier was conducting taxi tests in preparation for the planned first flight a few days away, when at 70 knots the U-2 unexpectedly became airborne.

LeVier later said, “I had no intentions whatsoever of flying. I immediately started back toward the ground, but had difficutly determining my height because the lakebed had no markings to judge distance or height. I made contact with the ground in a left bank of approximately 10 degrees.”

On touching down on the dry lake, the U-2’s tires blew out and the brakes caught fire. A landing gear oleostrut was leaking. Damage was minor and the airplane was soon ready to fly. Tony LeVier was again in the cockpit for the first actual test flight on 4 August.

The Lockheed U-2A is a single-place, single-engine aircraft powered by a turbojet engine, intended for very high altitude photographic reconnaissance. Thirty U-2A aircraft were designed and built for the Central Intelligence Agency by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s secret “Skunk Works” under the supervision of Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.

The company designation for the proposed aircraft was CL-282. Its fuselage was very similar to the XF-104 Starfighter and could be built using the same tooling. The reconnaissance airplane was produced under the code name Operation AQUATONE.

The U-2A was 46 feet, 6 inches (14.173 meters) long with a wingspan of 80 feet (24.384 meters). Its empty weight was 10,700 pounds (5,307 kilograms) and the gross weight was 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms). The engine was a Pratt and Whitney J57-P-37A which produced 10,200 pounds of thrust. This gave the U-2A a maximum speed of 528 miles per hour (850 kilometers per hour) and a ceiling of 85,000 feet (25,908 meters). It had a range of 2,200 miles (3,541 kilometers).

Because of the very high altitudes that the U-2 was flown, the pilot had to wear a David Clark Co. MC-3 partial-pressure suit with an International Latex Corporation  MA-2 helmet and faceplate. The partial-pressure suit used a system of capstans and air bladders to apply pressure to the body as a substitute for a loss of atmospheric pressure. Each suit was custom-tailored for the individual pilot.

Robert Sieker
Robert Sieker

On 4 April 1957, Article 341 was flown by Lockheed test pilot Robert Sieker. At 72,000 feet (21,946 meters) the engine flamed out and the cockpit pressurization failed. Parts of the U-2 had been coated with a plastic material designed to absorb radar pulses to provide a “stealth” capability. However, this material acted as insulation, trapping heat from the engine inside the fuselage. This lead to a number of engine flameouts.

Sieker’s partial-pressure suit inflated, but the helmet’s faceplate did not properly seal. He lost conciousness and at 65,000 feet (19,812 meters) the U-2 stalled, then entered a flat spin. Sieker eventually regained consciousness at lower altitude and bailed out. He was struck by the airplane’s tail and was killed. The first U-2 crashed northwest of Pioche, Nevada and caught fire. Robert Sieker’s body was found approximately 200 feet (61 meters) away.

Because of the slow rate of descent of the airplane while in a flat spin, the impact was not severe. Portions of Article 341 that were not damaged by fire were salvaged by Lockheed and used to produce another airframe.

The first Lockheed U-2A, Article 341. (Lockheed)
The first Lockheed U-2A, Article 341. (Lockheed)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 June 1981

Lockheed Full Scale Development YF-117A, 79-10780, in light, three-tone desert camouflage. (Lockheed Martin)
Lockheed Full Scale Development YF-117A, 79-10780, in three-tone desert camouflage. (Lockheed Martin)

18 June 1981: At 6:05 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time (1305 UTC), the first Full Scale Development Lockheed YF-117A Nighthawk, 79-10780, made its first flight at Groom Lake, Nevada with Skunk Works test pilot Harold “Hal” Farley, Jr. at the controls. The super-secret airplane was made of materials that absorbed radar waves, and built with the surfaces angled so that radar signals are deflected away from the source.

Harold "Hal" Farley, Jr., with a Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk.
Harold “Hal” Farley, Jr., with a Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk. (Lockheed Martin)

Hal Farley is a former U.S. Naval Aviator, who spent eight years testing F-14 Tomcat fighters for Grumman before going to work at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” on the Have Blue proof-of-concept prototype and the Senior Trend F-117 program. When he retired from Lockheed, he had more that 600 flight hours in the F-117s. His call sign is “Bandit 117.”

Commonly called the “Stealth Fighter,” the Nighthawk is actually a tactical bomber. Five developmental aircraft and 59 operational F-117As were built. They were in service from 1983 until 2008, when the Lockheed F-22 Raptor was planned to assume their mission. They are mothballed and could be returned to service if needed.

A Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk takes off from Groom Lake, Nevada.
A Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk takes off from Nellis Air Force, Base, Nevada. (Lockheed Martin)

The Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk is a single-seat, twin-engine tactical bomber with swept wings and tail surfaces. It is 65 feet, 11 inches (20.091 meters) long with a wingspan of 43 feet, 4 inches (13.208 meters) and height of 12 feet, 9½ inches (3.899 meters). It has an empty weight of 29,500 pounds (13,380.9 kilograms) and a loaded weight of 52,500 pounds (23,813.6 kilograms).

The F-117 is powered by two General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofan engines which produce 10,600 pounds of thrust, each. These give it a maximum speed of 0.92 Mach (617 miles per hour, 993 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling is 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) and range is 930 nautical miles (1,070.2 miles, 1,722.4 kilometers), though inflight refueling capability gives it world-wide range.

F-117A drops GBU-28
A Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk drops a 2,000-pounds GBU-27 Paveway III laser-guided bomb. (U.S. Air Force)

The Nighthawk has no defensive armament. It can carry two 2,000 pound (907.2 kilogram) bombs in an internal bomb bay.

Scorpion One, 79-10780, is now mounted on a pylon as a “gate guard” at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk in flight. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 May 1965

Lockheed YF-12A 60-6936, flies test mission near Edwards Air Force Base, Califrnia. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed YF-12A 60-6936, flies test mission near Edwards Air Force Base, Califrnia. (U.S. Air Force)

1 May 1965: Lockheed YF-12A 60-6936 established five Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Speed: 3,351.507 kilometers per hour (2,070.102 m.p.h.) over a 15/25 Kilometer Straight Course; 2,644.22 kilometers per hour (1,643.04 miles per hour) over a 500 Kilometer Closed Circuit; and 2,718.01 kilometers per hour (1,688.89 miles per hour) over a 1,000 Kilometer Closed Circuit. On the same day, 6936 set an FAI World Record for Altitude in Horizontal Flight of 24,463 meters (80,259 feet).

The World Record-setting flight crews, from left to right, Captain James P. Cooney, Major Walter F. Daniel, Colonel Robert L. Stephens, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andre and Major Neil T. Warner. (U.S. Air Force)
The World Record-setting flight crews, from left to right, Captain James P. Cooney, Major Walter F. Daniel, Colonel Robert L. Stephens, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andre and Major Neil T. Warner. (U.S. Air Force)

The YF-12A interceptor prototype was flown by pilots Major Walter F. Daniel and Colonel Robert L. Stephens, with fire control officers Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andre, Major Neil T. Warner and Captain James P. Cooney. Colonel Stephens and Lieutenant Colonel Andre were awarded the Thompson Trophy for the “J” Division, 1965. Their trophy is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Lockheed YF-12A 60-6936 during speed record trials. The white cross on the aircraft's belly was to assist timers and observers. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed YF-12A 60-6936 taking off from Edwards Air Force Base during the speed record trials, 1 May 1965. The white cross on the aircraft’s belly was to assist timers and observers. (U.S. Air Force)

FAI Record File Num #3972 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Speed over a closed circuit of 1 000 km with 1 000 kg payload
Performance: 2 718.01 km/h
Date: 1965-05-01
Course/Location: Edwards AFB, CA (USA)
Claimant Walter F. Daniel (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed YF-12A (06936)
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58/JTD11D-20A

FAI Record File Num #3973 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Speed over a closed circuit of 1 000 km with 2 000 kg payload
Performance: 2 718.01 km/h
Date: 1965-05-01
Course/Location: Edwards AFB, CA (USA)
Claimant Walter F. Daniel (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed YF-12A (06936)
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58/JTD11D-20A

FAI Record File Num #8534 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Altitude in horizontal flight
Performance: 24 463 m
Date: 1965-05-01
Course/Location: Edwards AFB, CA (USA)
Claimant R.L. Stephens (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed YF-12A
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58/JTD11D-20A

FAI Record File Num #8855 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Speed over a closed circuit of 500 km without payload
Performance: 2 644.22 km/h
Date: 1965-05-01
Course/Location: Edwards AFB, CA (USA)
Claimant Walter F. Daniel (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed YF-12A
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58/JTD11D-20A

FAI Record File Num #8926 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Speed over a closed circuit of 1 000 km without payload
Performance: 2 718.006 km/h
Date: 1965-05-01
Course/Location: Edwards AFB, CA (USA)
Claimant Walter F. Daniel (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed YF-12A
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58/JTD11D-20A

FAI Record File Num #9059 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Speed over a straight 15/25 km course
Performance: 3 331.507 km/h
Date: 1965-05-01
Course/Location: Edwards AFB, CA (USA)
Claimant R.L. Stephens (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed YF-12A
Engines: 2 Pratt & Whitney J-58/JTD11D-20A

World Speed Record holders and Thompson Trophy winners, Colonel Robert F. Stephens and Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andre. (U.S. Air force)
World Speed Record holders and Thompson Trophy winners, Colonel Robert L. Stephens and Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Andre. (U.S. Air Force)

60-6936 was one of three Mach 3 YF-12A interceptors designed and built by Kelly Johnson’s “Skunk Works”. It was developed from the CIA’s Top Secret A-12 Oxcart reconnaissance airplane. The YF-12A was briefly known as the A-11, which was a cover story to hide the existence of the A-12. Only three were built. The Air Force ordered 93 F-12B interceptors into production as a replacement for the Convair F-106A Delta Dart, but for three straight years Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara refused to release the funds that had been appropriated. In 1968, the F-12B project was cancelled.

On 24 June 1971, 60-6936 suffered an in-flight fire while on approach to Edwards Air Force Base. The crew successfully ejected and the airplane crashed a few miles to the north of EDW. It was totally destroyed.

The only surviving example of a YF-12A, 60-6935, is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The 1965 Thompson Trophy on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
The 1965 Thompson Trophy on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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