Airborne Awesomosity, Technostalgia



MD-21 #6940 in flight.

When the A-12 design had been completed in 1960, the CIA had the idea that the aircraft might make a good platform for launching high-speed unmanned surveillance drones to be used for mission over hostile countries. Not long after the CIA ordered its first batch of A-12 reconnaissance aircraft to supplement the work being done by the U-2, Major1 Gary Powers was shot down in a U-2 by the USSR over Soviet territory, and the CIA put the drone project into high gear.

The drone was initially given the designation “Q-12” and was designed to be expendable to keep costs down. It would have an ejectable capsule in its nose containing its camera and guidance system that would be retrieved mid-air by a C-130, while the main body of the drone would self-destruct after it had lost enough altitude to trigger the onboard explosives and barometric detonator. The drone was nearly 43 feet long, ~20 feet wide and ~7 feet high, weighed 5 ½ tons and looked like a length of stovepipe with an inlet spike and wings. It was built using the same titanium and composite materials as the A-12 with its stealthy design and used a modified version of the ramjet engine used in the Boeing CIM-10 Bomarc long-range surface-to-air missile to reach speeds of mach 3.3.


D-21 drone

The A-12 was a single-seat aircraft and needed to be modified to carry the Q-12 as well as a launch control officer (LCO) that would handle the launch and monitoring of the drone. The A-12 had a payload bay behind the pilot (the Q bay) that normally housed one of three types of camera systems, and this area was used to install the LCO cockpit. A periscope was installed in the second cockpit for the LCO to monitor the drone. A pylon was installed between the two tailfins that would carry the Q-12 in a nose-up position. Two of these modified A-12s were built, along with 7 Q-12s for test flights.


D-21 mounted on an M-21.

While all of the design and testing of the Q-12 was going on, the CIA found itself more and more occupied with U-2 missions, getting the A-12 program running on schedule, and regular covert operations around the world. Because their plate was overflowing, they became less interested in the Q-12 program. The Air Force was interested in the program however, and after much finagling2, the CIA decided to work with the USAF on the drone project. In early 1963 Lockheed was awarded a contract for full scale development of the Q-12. The project was given the designation TAGBOARD and the Q-12 was renamed the D-21, and the A-12 mothership was given the designation M-21.


The first flight of the M-21 and D-21 combination, later referred to as the MD-21, took place on the 22nd of December 1964, and was a test flight to study aerodynamics and other issues3. The first launch of the D-21 took place on March 5th 1966, and was considered to be successful. The drone released successfully, but hovered closely over the back of the M-21 for several seconds, which was a cause of concern for the flight crew4. A second successful launch took place on April 27th 1966, prompting plans to construct 15 more D-21s, and a third flight on June 16th 1966 was also successful.

The fourth attempted launch on July 30th 1966 did not go so well. The D-21 hovered over the back of the M-21 as usual, but then went out of control for an unknown reason and collided with the M-21, destroying both aircraft. The crew ejected successfully and landed at sea. The pilot, Bill Park, survived, but the Launch Control Officer, Ray Torick, drowned due to a leak in his pressure suit.

The following video shows a portion of the footage taken of the accident by the chase plane. The YouTube video is pretty much crap, and the guy who spliced it together apparently didn’t know the difference between an A-12 and an SR-71. It is, however, embeddable:

[youtube width=”425″ height=”344″][/youtube]
An un-adulterated video of the accident along with a gallery of still pictures is available at the website.

Following the accident, Johnson suggested launching the D-21 from a larger aircraft, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, and adding a solid rocket booster to get it up to speed.[12] The drone was modified by adding attachment points on its spine to mate with the carrying pylon on the B-52 and its belly attachment points were adapted to accommodate the rocket booster necessary to increase its speed and allow its ramjet to operate. Its vertical stabilizer was increased in size by approximately 20%. The modified drone version was designated D-21B, although there was no -21A version.”[Wiki]5

The project using the B-52 as the launch platform was designated ‘SENIOR BOWL’, and four operational missions were undertaken, all of which were failures.


D-21 mounted on a B-52 wing pylon. Note the solid rocket booster underneath the drone.


B-52 in flight with a D-21.

In total, 38 D-21 drones were manufactured with 21 being used. The remaining 17 were mothballed at Davis-Montham Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona. NASA acquired 4 of the D-21s to use as test vehicles for their RBCC (rocket-based combined cycle) engine which operates as a ramjet or a rocket depending upon its flight regime, but that idea was abandoned and NASA ended up using a derivative of their X-43A hypersonic test vehicle instead. The rest of the D-21s ended up in museums across the country.

The remaining M-21 aircraft, tail number 6940, is currently on display at the Boeing Museum of Flight with a D-21 drone mounted.


The last MD-21, on display at Boeing Field. Photo by Will Campbell.

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  1. Gary Powers retired from the USAF with the rank of Captain and joined the CIA as a GS-12, which is the equivalent to an O-4 in the AF, which would have made him a Major. So I called him a Major. Would ‘pilot’ have been better?
  2. When has any inter-service or inter-agency program transfer of any sort not been accompanied by much wailing, gnashing of teeth and finagling?
  3. I’ll wager that the aircraft handled like a pig with the D-21 mounted.
  4. Yes, I imagine that they were concerned. “It seemed like two hours” reported the crew.
  5. Some articles state that Kelly Johnson killed the program after the accident, which I find rather ludicrous. Since when can a civilian contractor kill a government program?

Photo credits: All photos of #6940 at the Boeing Museum of Flight are by Will Campbell. All other photos are by Lockheed and supplied to me by Will Campbell.


SR-71 Blackbirds website

Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles website

Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame website

Central Intelligence Agency website


Lockheed A-12

Lockheed D-21

  • Here's a D-21 on display/sitting outside waiting to be put on display at the Museum of Aviation at Warner Robbins AFB.
    <img src="; width="500" height="334" alt="DSC08955">

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    The Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville Oregon has a D21 drone and an SR71A on display, along with the Spruce Goose.

  • Number_Six

    So was it not worth putting that special iron coating on the aircraft?

    • The Professor

      A lot of the A-12s didn't have the iron ball paint at first, and the only thing that I can think of is that it hadn't been developed yet.
      I actually prefer the bare titanium and flat black color scheme of the early A-12s. It looks cool, but not stealthy.

      • CaptianNemo2001

        See the section on Paint.

        There are several variations of the "Iron Ball Paint" coating idea usually it involves the size of the granules. The most modern stuff from what I can find has done away with the Iron part but the concept of how it works remains the same.

        • The Professor

          That was interesting, thanks for the link.
          Well then, maybe the CIA and USAF just didn't feel like painting them for a while…

  • Jeb Hoge

    I love that Hasbro co-opted this concept with the bit Cobra jet that looked like a cross between a Blackbird and Firefox. Except its piggyback was a separate mini-fighter with cannon. AWESOOOOOME.