LANGLEY, United States (AFP) — A sleek piece of Cold War history was put on display at the CIA Wednesday -- the once supersecret A-12 spy plane, which flew higher and faster than any other manned aircraft to spy on North Vietnam and North Korea.
"It was a beautiful airplane," said Ken Collins, a retired air force colonel and one of only six pilots to fly the A-12s.
Collins and other veterans gathered at CIA headquarters to reminisce about aircraft which shattered records for speed and altitude in the secrecy of a 1960s CIA program codenamed Oxcart.
A black, needle-nosed missile of a plane with curved wings that anticipated modern stealth aircraft, the A-12 hit speeds of more than 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) an hour, or more than 3.2 times the speed of sound.
It cruised at altitudes between 80,000 and 90,000 feet, so high that the earth's curvature was visible from its cockpit.
"A marvel of aeronautical engineering, the A-12 literally took people's breath away when they first saw it fly," said CIA director Michael Hayden, an air force general.
The aircraft was so fast that it took only about 12 minutes to traverse North Vietnam.
Temperatures on the edge of the cockpit windshield would rise to as high as 680 degrees Fahrenheit, said Collins.
And as the plane blasted through Mach 2.5, two and a half times the speed of sound, it would be slammed by shock waves so violent that the planes would pitch and yaw, and sometimes stall.
But Collins, who flew six missions over North Vietnam, told reporters "it was a beautiful airplane to land, and just technically a fantastic airplane to fly."
The A-12 on display on the grounds of the CIA -- which was known as "Article 128" -- is one of 15 A-12s built. Only nine survive. Five were lost to crashes, and two pilots were killed.
Collins recalled ejecting and parachuting from an A-12 over Utah when a computer failure caused his aircraft to stall, pitch and go "flat upside down."
The A-12 was designed by Lockheed at its famous Skunk Works facility as a successor to the U-2, which had become increasingly vulnerable to Soviet air defense missiles.
"The goal was an aircraft that could outrun any Soviet missile," said Hayden.
They began operations in 1965 but flew combat missions out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa for only two years before they were retired in 1968.
Ironically, the U-2 is still flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, though even it is now being eclipsed by high-flying drones called Global Hawks.
No A-12s were shot down even though the Soviet Union learned of the outlines of the program and Russian and Chinese radars were able to track it.
"We were fired at frequently. They could track us. People kept changing our defense systems. But they kept coming up with new stuff," said Collins.
"But they never got the SAM (surface-to-air missiles) high and fast enough to get us. (We were) pretty comfortable up at 85,000 feet at 2,200 miles an hour," he said.
The CIA did not acknowledge the program's existence until 20 years after its last mission and only this week declassified documents related to the program and published an official history of Oxcart.
Codenamed "Black Shield," the A-12s last missions were flown in 1968 over North Korea after the capture of the USS Pueblo, a US electronic surveillance vessel seized in international waters.
Hayden credited the photographs taken by the A-12s with two key intelligence findings.
Missions in 1967 found that North Vietnam had no surface-to-surface missiles, easing US fears of an escalation.
And an A-12 photographed the USS Pueblo in a North Korean port three days after it was seized on January 23, 1968.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »