So the Central Intelligence Agency is working with the USAF to develop a drone that can fly between 87,000 and 95,000 feet at Mach 3.5 and has a range of 3,000 nautical miles. Other than those performance stats, the drone would eject its payload over the ocean, an aircraft would catch it, and then the airframe would eventually self-destruct. You ask, “Why in this day and age of real time data would you eject your payload?” Good question! The answer is these aren’t specs for a modern UAV/UAS but one from 1962. The result was the Q-12 or D-21.
On May 1, 1960 reality had sunk in at the CIA and Pentagon when Francis “Gary” Powers U-2A was shot down over the Soviet Union by a SA-2 SAM. The CIA needed a higher, faster aircraft. The result was the A-12. The A-12 is actually a Lockheed designation and does not mean Attack. It stood for Archangel. The A-12 would eventually evolve to become the SR-71, though they are different aircraft. While Kelly Johnson was designing the A-12 he also came up with the Q-12.
The Q-12 was a mini A-12. It had the titanium construction, double delta wing, and Radar Cross Section (RCS) reduction of the A-12. Johnson decided on a ramjet to power the Q-12. A ramjet needs air flowing through it to ignite the fuel. The ramjet decided on was the Marquardt RJ43-MA-11, originally designed for the CIM-10 Bomarc built by Boeing. The engine was “uprated “ for higher temperatures and longer endurance.
The Q-12 had a “Q-Bay.” The Q-Bay was a design carryover from the U-2 and A-12. All of the inertial guidance as well as cameras and film were fitted in a module called the “HATCH.” The size of the HATCH forced miniaturization. At the end of the mission the Hatch would be ejected from the Q-12 and deploy a parachute. A JC-130 would recover the package using the skyhook system developed for satellite retrieval. If the 130 missed, it could float on the water and be retrieved via ship.
While the CIA was non-plussed, the USAF desperately wanted the project as a recon platform and as a cruise missile. The latter mission was dropped. In March of 1963, Lockheed was awarded the contract for full-scale development (FSD).
The program was given the name TAGBOARD. The Q-12 was re-designated D-21. With that, came two A-12s, 60-6940 and 60-6941. The A-12s were stretched to add an additional systems operator, called the LCO or Launch Control Officer. A large aerodynamic pylon was fitted between the Vertical Stabs. The pylon was sloped to provide a nose-high attitude for the drone. The A-12s were designated M-21s. The “M” stood for “Mother”; the “D” for “Daughter.”
The M/D-21 combination first flew on December 22, 1964. This was the first capture flight. The D-21 had aerodynamic covers over the shock cone and engine nozzle, similar to the Shuttle’s tail cone when flying on the SCA 747. Johnson’s original plan was to eject these fairings before launch, but wind tunnel tests showed it was dangerous to the drone, mother aircraft, or both. After several flights they were removed.
On March 5, 1966 the first live launch occurred. The D-21 left the back of the M-21 and after what seemed a lifetime—though it was only a few seconds—the D-21 flew dangerously close to her mother ship. The second launch took place on April 27th. The D-21 cleared the M-21. It reached 90,000 feet and MACH 3.3 before a hydraulic pump failure caused it to break up over the ocean. In spite of the two failures the USAF ordered more D-21s.
The third test took place on June 16th. The mission was a qualified success: it flew its complete profile; however, it didn’t deploy its hatch.
The final test occurred this week, July 30th 1966, and it is the reason why I decided to report on this aircraft this week. This fourth test would be different than the previous three. The first three had the M-21 pointing downward in a .9g dive. Flight four would be in level flight. In real world combat, you wouldn’t really have time to trim your aircraft into a nice dive. You would want to launch and go.
Lockheed Test Pilot Bill Park and LCO Ray Torick were flying the mission. The release occurred successfully for 2 or 3 seconds. Unexpectedly, the D-21 could not fly through the shockwave of the M-21. The D-21 was thrown back into the M-21. The explosion cleanly separated the nose from the wing area. Both Park and Torick ejected safely. Both landed safely; however, Torick had a failure of his pressure suit and fatally drowned.
While it was the end of TAGBOARD, it wasn’t the end of the D-21. Johnson suggested that the D-21 be launched from B-52s. Two B-52Hs became SENIOR BOWL. The B-52 had proven successful as a mother craft for the X-15. The pylon built for the X-15 was modified and the BUFF could carry a D-21 under each wing. Interestingly, the intention was never to launch two missions. The right wing Drone was considered Primary, with the left as a redundant back up. Internally, the B-52 lost the ECM and Tail Gunners stations and were replaced with identical panels with launch controls, one for left and one for right.
The D-21 was re-designated D-21B; “B” was for Booster. Since the BUFF couldn’t go Mach 3 to start, the ramjet a 60-foot long solid rocket fuel booster and was mounted to the bottom of the D-21.
The first flight of SENIOR BOWL was hardly a success. Shortly after takeoff, the D-21B dropped off the pylon due to a stripped nut. The Booster fired upon hitting the ground causing “quite a sight” according to crews on the ground. Picture a Roman candle.
Four operational missions were flown over mainland China. The target was the Lop Nor Nuclear test sight. Missions were flown from Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base. On November 9, 1969 a D-21B was launched. It failed to turn around, over flew China, and self-destructed in Siberia, Russia.
A second “TEST” flight was flown in February 1970 to fix the issues from the first operational mission. The second Operational mission occurred in December of that year. The D-21B made it to Lop Nor, turned around, and then had its hatch fail. It was never recovered. The third mission in March of 1971 repeated the process and had its hatch sunk when it was ran down by the destroyer trying to recover it. Two weeks later, the last flight of a D-21B occurred when it disappeared over China. The wreckage was eventually found and now resides in the China Aviation Museum.
By July of 1971 the program was cancelled. The KH satellites and the SR-71A had come on line. The D-21 was not by any stretch of the imagination successful. 38 D-21/b were built with 21 expended in launches. The remainders were stored at Norton Air Force Base then to the Bone Yard at Davis-Monthan Air Force base where they were designated GTD-21Bs.
The one that crashed in Siberia was attempted to be reversed-engineered by the Russians unsuccessfully.
60-6940, the surviving M-21, was mated with #510 D-21 and can be seen displayed at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The remaining 16 were parsed out to other museums across the country.
Drendel, Lou. SR-71 Blackbird in Action. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1982. Print.
Goodall, James C. SR-71 Blackbird. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1995. Print.
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"Www.habu.org - 06941 - BLACKBIRD PHOTO ARCHIVE." Www.habu.org - 06941 - BLACKBIRD PHOTO ARCHIVE. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.