Tag Archives: Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft

22 December 1964

 Lockheed M-21 with D-21 in position for takeoff. (Central Intelligence Agency)
Lockheed M-21 with D-21 in position for takeoff. (Central Intelligence Agency)

22 December 1964: At Groom Lake, Nevada, a Lockheed M-21, a special two-place variant of the Central Intelligence Agency’s A-12 Oxcart Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft, took off for the first time while carrying a D-21 drone. The pilot was William C. Park, Jr., Lockheed’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot.

Lockheed M-21 60-6940 in flight, carrying a D-21 drone. (The Museum of Flight)
Lockheed M-21 60-6940 in flight, carrying a D-21 drone. (The Museum of Flight)

Two M-21s were built, Article 134, 60-6940, and Article 135, 60-6941. Article 135 was struck by its drone during an air launch off the coast of California, 30 July 1966, and both aircraft were destroyed. Bill Park escaped, but the Launch Control Officer, Ray Torick, was killed.

Lockheed M-21 60-6940 is on display at The Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington.

M-21 60-6940 (Article 134) in flight, carrying a D-21 reconnaissance drone. (Central Intelligence Agency)
Lockheed M-21 60-6940 (Article 134) in flight, carrying a D-21 reconnaissance drone. (Central Intelligence Agency)

Bill Park has the distinction of having bailed out of four Lockheed aircraft and living to tell about it:  the first XF-104 prototype, 56-7786, when its tail came off at 12,500 feet (3,810 meters), 11 July 1957; an A-12, 60-6939, when the flight controls locked on approach to Groom Lake at only 200 feet (61 meters), 9 July 1964; the M-21; and the first Have Blue stealth technology demonstrator, 1001, at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), 4 May 1978.

A Lockheed M-21 with a D-21 drone. (Central Intelligence Agency)

© 2016, 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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