What’s on top of my SR-71 Blackbird?
Attached to the SR-71 spyplane is a secret weapon…that we use TODAY.
Leave it to Lockheed’s secret development team “Skunk Works”. Back in 1960, following the shooting down of our U-2 Spy plane, the CIA wanted a reconnaissance aircraft that was fast.
This is the story of the D-21/Q-12 concept, a.k.a. “Project Tagboard”.
The D-21 was launched from the back of a variant of the an SR-71 Blackbird. The variant of the Blackbird is called the “M-12” (D- for “daughter” and M- for “mother”).
The D-21 was launched from a variant of the an SR-71 Blackbird called the “M-12” (D- for “daughter” and M- for “mother”).
(ABOVE normal SR-71 Blackbird and BELOW is “M” version with platform for D-21 to launch from)
Simple enough design…moving on.
What was the mission of the D-21?
The D-21 is a spy plane…that was launched from the World’s fastest spy plane….with the capability of flying HIGHER and FASTER than the Blackbird.
D-21concept had a max altitude 95,000-ft. while sustaining an operational speed over Mach 3.35 (as in, 22,256+ miles per hour).
MORE impressive, considering the concept began in 1962, the D-21 is not piloted…it’s a DRONE.
Nearly 6 decades ago, we built a spy drone and USED it to spy.
Four operational missions with the D-21B took place under the codename of “Senior Bowl”.
These recon missions were conducted over China for about 2 years.
Secrets oh sweet Secrets.
Yep, way above the People’s Republic of China from 1969 to ’71, America released the secret spy drone to look down on the secret “Lop Nor” nuclear test site.
Before going on remember, the Chinese military never spotted the D-21B.
However, ultra advanced tech does NOT always work-out as planned…
…this is what we learned from the D-21 missions over China.
The first one failed to turn around and continued straight on, crashing somewhere in the Soviet Union.
Another test flight was conducted on 20 February 1970 in a successful attempt to correct any problems. The second operational mission, however, was not until December of 1970.
The D-21B reached Lop Nor and back to the recovery point, but the hatch had a partial parachute failure and was lost at sea with its photographs.
Following a fatal accident when launched from an M-21 Blackbird during testing, the D-21 was modified to be launched from a B-52 Stratofortress.
The B-52 traditionally carried/dropped bombs but it was also used for testing future MACH (sound barrier breaking) aircraft designs.
During the third operational mission, on 4 March 1971, the D-21B flew to Lop Nor and returned and released the hatch. This time its parachute deployed but the mid-air recovery team failed to reach the photos before they sank again.
The fourth, and last, operational flight of the D-21B was on 20 March 1971…
…The drone’s gotta get some photos this time, right?
Forth and final mission results:
It was lost over China on the final segment of the route over China’s Yunnan province.
Unfortunately the wreckage was found by local authorities.
In 2010, after being in the junkyard of China Aviation Museum for years, the wreckage was moved to the exhibition area.
The following museum photos are from the Museum of the Flight in Seattle, WA. (Not the display in China)
On July 23, 1971 the D-21B program was canceled “officially” due to its poor success rate.
Real reason was, America developed a new generation of photo reconnaissance (spy) SATELLITES.
Was the D-21 concept a FAILURE?
On the surface “kind of YES”.
However, satellites don’t have a steering-wheel.
Meaning it’s tough to get object orbiting in space, directly above targets on Earth.
Ding-ding, Drones can quickly get from point A to point B.
Lessons learned from this late 1960s un-manned concept was used to develop the U.S. Air Force/Navy modern drones.
You could even argue that the most important lesson was to simplify the tech…our modern drones do NOT rely on SPEED.
Stealth and electronic jamming became the goal of our modern drones.
And “yes”, silently we are adding Hyper-sonic speed (Mach 6+) to next generation un-manned spy/attack drones.
It all comes full circle.
America built a concept. Brilliant designers don’t get much credit for their achievement…they created an un-manned aircraft that attempted to spy over enemy air-space.
“No, you nor I could ever pull this off.”
That’s the story of the D-21 drone along with answer to:
What’s that, attached to the SR-71 Blackbird.
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