What It’s Like To Fly A Top-Secret Spy Plane

What It’s Like To Fly A Top-Secret Spy Plane

The SR-71 Blackbird remains an icon of American aerospace engineering to this day. Its speed and operating ceiling are unrivalled. However, it did not simply spring forth fully formed from the head of “Kelly” Johnson — it spent years in development as the A-12 Oxcart being flown by an elite group of Air Force pilots. Colonel Ken “DUTCH 21” Collins (ret) was among that cadre. He spoke to Gizmodo about his experience.

Gizmodo: Can you give the readers a brief background as to how you were selected into the Oxcart/Black Shield Program?

Col. Collins: I began my pilot training in 1951, got commissioned in February 1952, and went through jet training in the first Air Force jet, the F-80. In August of that year, I was in Korea, flying combat missions. You had to fly a hundred missions and most everybody got more than that. I flew 113 over North Korea, some even up into Manchuria. In 1955, I went to Germany as an instructor pilot at Spangdahlem in Western Germany. Then I came back in 1959, to South Carolina to Shaw AFB and flew the F-101.

I was being considered for a classified program at the time, which turned out to be the Oxcart program. I was up in Area 51, not that far from where I am now in the San Fernando Valley. I was in North Ridge, and every Monday I drove to Burbank where we flew out of Lockheed’s private air strip to get to Area 51. Everybody from the maintenance guys to the pilots to the engineers all flew out of Burbank for the duration of the experimental phase of the A-12. And then in ’68, we got operational and were deployed to Okinawa.

When we were there, we had two pilots, though there were six of us at the time for Operation Black Shield. We flew out of there for six weeks at a time — one guy would rotate out and another would come in. We kept that rotation up for a year. These were combat missions. This was the first Mach 3, 80,000 foot, combat mission flown in the history of aviation. We flew over North Vietnam and North Korea. Finally, the Air Force said that the CIA wasn’t supposed to be flying planes anyway.

Gizmodo: Can you tell me about any particular mission that really stood out for you?

Col. Collins: Well, the missions were pretty standard, because to get to North Vietnam you always went in over Hai Feng Harbour over Hanoi. And to do that, we’d take off from Okinawa and refuel shortly after. We learnt early on that you didn’t take off with a full fuel load because there was so much wear and tear and heat on the wheels. There were great big fans we had to put down next to the wheel after a landing.

If it hadn’t been for the A-12, there wouldn’t be an SR-71. They both used the same engine, the J-15, which was an amazing engine.

We took off from Okinawa, refueled 15 minutes after takeoff, and we headed down north of the Philippines and then we’d make a left over Hai Feng Harbour, over Hanoi, probably crossing a bit over Laos, and then we’d descend in and refuel again just east of Bangkok. And then we’d travel out along a slightly different route for full photo coverage.

The missions were about six hours apiece. I think we flew three or four missions up there in North Korea [during the USS Pueblo crisis]. And we were there for that year until 1968, when replaced our entire facility — and the entire thing was turned over to the Air Force from the CIA.

We had the option to go where we wanted to go, at the time the program was a big consideration for Air defence Command. I made the decision to go to Beale AFB and fly the SR-71. I was there from ’68 to ’74 flying the SR, mostly as an instructor and as a staff officer.

Gizmodo: You mentioned previously that you very much preferred the A-12 over the SR-71. Why is that?

Col. Collins: Well, it flew a little higher, and had a better centre of gravity, and didn’t have a guy in the back seat. It was just a good aeroplane, and didn’t leak as much. It didn’t have a sealant problem. [Fuel tanks 6A and 6B in the SR71 were notorious for leaking fuel, which doubled as the plane’s in-flight lubricant]. Both of them were great aeroplanes. I didn’t turn down the opportunity to fly the SR-71 again by any means.

The only guy that bailed out at high altitudes (over 80,000 feet) was Bill Weaver, a test pilot. He had a flight engineer in the back seat. They had an engine non-start in the left engine during a big right turn, which caused the plane to start tumbling apart. That’s because it was an SR-71 and it had an aft CG and it didn’t have enough stick authority to get the nose up quick enough. The guy in the back seat was killed from the ejection.

Jack Weeks was flying a test flight when we were getting ready to bring the planes back to the US from Okinawa. We had, in the A-12, what we called a bird watcher, because it chirped at you over the HF radio. And it would tell you where the left throttle was, whether it was at full power, the same thing with right throttle and so forth. So I was going over North Vietnam one time and they called me up over HF radio and said, “Check your left hydraulics.” So I looked at it and everything looked good, and I went down and refueled and coming back, the needle started fluctuating, which indicated there was a potential failure in the left hydraulic system. But it was pretty good, pretty centered (and that’s what it did, it gave you different parameters). Well, Jack Week’s aeroplane, it chirped going up through 75,000 feet (this was North of the Philippines and a test run) then the right throttle read that it was retarded back, which was unusual during that phase of the flight. And then, it continued chirping as he descended back down through 75,000 feet. And that was the last we heard or saw from him. Most of the pilots and maintenance people thought it was a catastrophic failure — the engine blew up.

Gizmodo: Can you tell us a bit about Article 123 and your crash in Wendover, UT?

Col. Collins: It’s a bit of a coincidental but Jack Weeks was actually in that chase plane(we have F-101’s in the area of Area 51). We used them during takeoff to take the A-12’s up and also we used them for air-to-air refueling. It was a good-proficiency aeroplane. I was flying before the J58 engine before it was officially approved to Mach 3 and so forth for some subsonic, low-altitude engine testing. And Jack was flying chase behind me in the F-101. I was in a standard flight suit (we didn’t go above 50k feet during testing so we didn’t need to wear the full pressure suit that we normally use). So I was doing all the engine testing and checking, taking the indications of what we had, and we had a recorder on board. So we made a turn back during the return, we turned south back towards Area 51 and got into some weather at 30,000 feet. The instruments were normal, they were just sitting there — both the engine and aeronautics instruments. Jack says, “You’re slowing down, I can’t stay up with you.” And he’s in this weather so he moves off, pulls away to the South.

I look at it and pretty soon my flight instruments start unwinding, my airspeed and altimeter. I thought that was strange, so during a debriefing with Kelly Johnson, he asked me “What was the last air speed you saw?” and I said “102 knots,” and he says, “that’s when it’ll pitch up” and that’s exactly what it did.

It pitched up, I was in the weather, and it inverted into a spin that you can’t recover from. I figured it was time to get out. So I ejected downward and got out of the weather before my seat separated. I look up, see my parachute, and say to myself, “That’s good.” So I start looking down at the ground thinking about where I’m going to land when, all of a sudden that chute separates. Now I didn’t know why it separated but I knew it was bad news. What it was, was the high altitude parachute that had deployed and that’s what I was looking at first. Then, at 15,000 feet it separated automatically before the main 35-foot chute opens. It’s a damn good thing it opened up.

So I land and start rolling up my chute and collect my stuff because I had no radio communications with anyone. I knew they’d be looking for me somewhere but I figured I was going to have to sleep in that chute. But three guys in a pickup truck come bouncing across the desert just west of Salt Lake and they said they’d offered me a lift back to my plane. I said, “well that’s an F-105 (that was our story and this is in May of ’63) and there’s a nuclear weapon on board.” And they say, “well you better get in here then cause we’re leaving.” They already had stowed my canopy in the bed of the truck so I toss my parachute in there too and they drove me to a nearby highway patrol substation just outside of Wendover. I made a phone call and the next thing you know there was an airfield there. [the CIA] took me and the plane back to Albuquerque, NM to the Lovelace medical facility (where actually all the astronauts and U2 pilots went) for a check out before heading back to Burbank.