Dull, dirty, and dangerous

Tuesday, April 9th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenThe development of drones become a national security priority, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), when Taiwanese “Black Cat” U-2 pilots got shot down over “Red” China:

Drones could accomplish what the U-2 could in terms of bringing home photographic intelligence, but a drone could do it without getting pilots captured or killed. Ideally, drones could perform missions that fell into three distinct categories: dull, dirty, and dangerous. Dull meant long flights during which pilots faced fatigue flying to remote areas of the globe. Dirty included situations where nuclear weapons or biological weapons might be involved. Dangerous meant missions over denied territories such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China, where shoot-downs were a political risk. Lockheed secured a contract to develop such an unmanned vehicle in late 1962. After Yeh Changti’s shoot-down, the program got a big boost. Flight-testing of the drone code-named Tagboard would take place at Area 51 and, ironically, getting the Lockheed drone to fly properly was among the first duties assigned to Colonel Slater after he left Taoyuan and was given a new assignment at Area 51.

“Lockheed’s D-21 wasn’t just any old drone, it was the world’s first Mach 3 stealth drone,” says Lockheed physicist Ed Lovick, who worked on the program. “The idea of this drone was a radical one because it would fly at least as fast, if not faster, than the A-12. It had a ram jet engine, which meant it was powered by forced air. The drone could only be launched off an aircraft that was already moving faster than the speed of sound.” The A-12 mother ship was designated M-21, M as in mother, and was modified to include a second seat for the drone launch operator, a flight engineer. The D-21 was the name for the drone, the D standing for daughter. But launching one aircraft from the back of another aircraft at speeds of more than 2,300 mph had its own set of challenges, beginning with how not to have the two aircraft crash into each other during launch. The recovery process of the drone also needed to be fine-tuned. Lovick explains, “The drone, designed to overfly China, would travel on its own flight path taking reconnaissance photographs and then head back out to sea.” The idea was to have the drone drop its photo package, which included the camera, the film, and the radio sensors, by parachute so it could be retrieved by a second aircraft nearby. Once the pallet was secure, the drone would crash into the sea and sink to the ocean floor.

The first test encountered some problems:

Park hit Ignite, and the drone launched up and off the M-21. But during separation, the drone pitched down instead of up and instantly split the mother aircraft in half. Miraculously, the drone hit neither Park nor Torick, who were both trapped inside.

The crippled aircraft began to tumble through the sky, falling for nearly ten thousand feet. Somehow, both men managed to eject. Alive and now outside the crashing, burning airplane, both men were safely tethered to their parachutes. Remarkably, neither of the men was hit by the burning debris falling through the air. Both men made successful water landings. But, as Slater recalls, an unforeseen tragedy occurred. “Our rescue boat located Bill Park, who was fine. But by the time the boat got to Ray Torick, he was tied up in his lanyard and had drowned.”

Kelly Johnson was devastated. “He impulsively and emotionally decided to cancel the entire program and give back the development funding to the Air Force and the Agency,” Johnson’s deputy Ben Rich recalled in his 1994 memoir about the Lockheed Skunk Works. Rich asked Johnson why. “I will not risk any more test pilots or Blackbirds. I don’t have either to spare,” Johnson said. But the Air Force did not let the Mach 3 drone program go away so quickly. They created a new program to launch the drone from underneath a B-52 bomber, which was part of Strategic Air Command. President Johnson’s deputy secretary of defense, Cyrus Vance, told Kelly Johnson, “We need this program to work because our government will never again allow a Francis Gary Powers situation develop. All our overflights over denied territory will either be with satellites or drones.”

Three years later, in 1969, the D-21 drone finally made its first reconnaissance mission, over China, launched off a B-52. The drone flew into China and over the Lop Nur nuclear facility but had then somehow strayed off course into Soviet Siberia, run out of fuel, and crashed. The suggestion was that the drone’s guidance system had failed on the way home, and it was never seen or heard from again. At least, not for more than twenty years. In the early 1990s, a CIA officer showed up in Ben Rich’s office at Skunk Works with a mysterious present for him. “Ben, do you recognize this?” the man asked Rich as he handed him a hunk of titanium. “Sure I do,” Rich said. What Ben Rich was holding in his hand was a piece of composite material loaded with the radar-absorbing coating that Lovick and his team had first developed for Lockheed four decades before. Asked where he got it, the CIA officer explained that it had been a gift to the CIA from a KGB agent in Moscow. The agent had gotten it from a shepherd in Siberia, who’d found it in the Siberian tundra while herding his sheep. According to Rich, “The Russians mistakenly believed that this generation-old panel signified our current stealth technology. It was, in a way, a very nice tribute to our work on Tagboard.”

Kelly Johnson expected planes to be pilotless soon, when he wrote his memoir in 1985.

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