Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Blackbird Reading


One of the most interesting and researched topics in aviation history is the Lockheed Blackbird family of aircraft. Recently, three new books have been released, taking advantage of newly declassified information to shed new light on some of the more sinister aspects of these aircraft. A fourth book, a technical history of the program, has also been released, but has not yet arrived and will not be included in this review.


Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft - David Robarge
Written by the CIA's chief historian in 2007 and published for public release in 2008, this is an interesting reference on CIA OXCART operations. Available online here, Robarge does a credible job providing a concise look at the aircraft, the technology involved, and the operational history of the BLACK SHIELD program. The only thing lost in transferring Robarge's work to print is, amusingly, photographic resolution: the full color images found on the CIA website are reproduced in black and white in the printed work. Given that none of the images are previously unreleased, this is not a significant drawback. Where the printed work scores is in its inclusion of a number of declassified documents in its appendices. Kelly Johnson's OXCART history of 1968 is included, as well as a declassified OXCART Fact Sheet shedding light on numerous ECM systems carried by the aircraft. A reference list of every OXCART-related document held in the CIA's FOIO archives is also provided to make any researcher's job that much easier. While the two aforementioned documents are available at the CIA's FOIA archives, and the bulk of the text at the link provided above, Robarge's work is still an interesting reference work on one of the CIA's most advanced projects. Plus, how funny is it that he had to write the history without using the words "Groom Lake" or "Area 51"? Whether in print or online, this is a great read for Blackbird enthusiasts.

The Archangel and the OXCART - Jeanette Remak and Joseph Ventolo
Remak and Ventolo have teamed up in the past with 2002's A-12 Blackbird Declassified, at the time the most complete reference source for the CIA's OXCART program. Their current OXCART book is basically a thoroughly updated rehash of the older work, which given the amount of newly declassified reference material available in the intervening six years between publications is definitely a good thing. There is a wealth of interesting data to be mined from the book's 284 pages, more than double the pagecount of the previous "edition", including data on subjects such as anti-radar systems, ECM gear, and various support efforts aiding the OXCART test program. The problem here is in the execution. The book has been very poorly edited, and is full of typographical errors, particularly in the later chapters. Any serious Blackbird enthusiast would do well to still give this work a chance, however, as the value of the new material included outweighs the negative aspects of the book's formatting errors.

Lockheed SR-71 Operations in the Far East - Paul F. Crickmore
Paul F. Crickmore has made a name for himself among Blackbird enthusiasts for being one of the busiest authors, publishing numerous works on the aircraft since the 1980s. Every time a new wealth of information is uncovered or declassified, you can bet that Crickmore will have something new on the shelves in short order. In this case, he has written a volume in the Osprey Publishing Combat Aircraft series, this being number 76. This book basically details half of the Blackbird's operational career, covering OXCART and SR-71 operations out of Kadena AB in Japan, with a forthcoming volume slated to detail SR-71 operations out of RAF Mildenhall and the United States. It is important to note that this book is not an aircraft history, but rather focuses on the actual operational sorties themselves: the targets, the routes flown, and the interesting occurrences that took place on operational reconnaissance missions. While not as expansive as his last major Blackbird work, Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (2004), this is a must-read for anyone interested in Cold War era reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. As an added bonus, the obligatory color photographs, line drawings, and color profiles that are typical of Combat Aircraft series volumes are also included.


The Lockheed Blackbird family has fascinated aviation buffs for more than forty years, ever since LBJ revealed the USAF's YF-12A to the public under the "A-11" moniker. These three reference works indicate that the complete story of this remarkable family of aircraft may not be written for some time, as more and more information is declassified with the passage of time. Until the complete story is written, we can only rely on authors such as those listed above to piece together one of the most interesting stories of aviation history.


habujeanne said...

RE The Archangel and the OXCART.

Hi, First I would like to thank the author of the comments on my book The Archangel and the OXCART for his very kind review. I would also like to use this opportunity to explain just what happened with the format/typos etc. We had the gross misfortune of having to self publish this book. The basic reason is no publishing house was interested. The reasons for that as explained to me by three different publishing houses is:
" There is not enough of a market.Since we already had the only A-12 book out there, we would be competing against ourselves." Such is the logic of the publishing world.

So, we were left to self publish this book at our own expense. If anyone gets anything out of this little statement PLEASE be careful about whom you self publish with. We had the bad luck to meet up with Trafford Publishing. The first thing we found out is that they are NOT a publisher, they are a Canadian based print shop. Trafford had so many problems internally that they were just passing it onto all of their customers. It was a nightmare. I could go on but I won't bore you with it. Suffice to say, TRAFFORD's lack of professionalism cost us plenty of money and NO we didn't get what we paid for. Our efforts to turn out a really professional book was destroyed by their ineptitude. We sincerely apologize to all our book readers out there for the poor quality. We tried our best, we were pinned behind a deadline that wouldn't give even a centimeter. We hope in future to correct this problem and reissue a perfect edition VERY SOON.

As to the material in the book, we worked hard. It took almost 5 additional years of fighting with CIA to get the material on OXCART out into the daylight, it was a long, brutal, nervewracking fight, but it did get done. Along with that we were able to give pilot Jack Weeks his acknowlegment as the pilot who flew over North Korea. That in itself took a great deal of wheeling and dealing to crack the file open and get the truth. There are many things in Archangel and OXCART that are being seen for the first time anywhere and finally puuting OXCART in its proper place in Cold War History.

We, Joe and myself thank you for taking that trip with us.

Best wishes,

Jeannette Remak

Anonymous said...

RE The Archangel and the OXCART, I know someone else who had a bad experience with Trafford, so I sympathize with the authors from that point of view. However, from the standpoint of a reader, I have to say that the grammar and spelling was so bad in this book, and there were so many factual errors, that I returned it to amazon in disgust and got my money back. I could not recommend this book to anyone, I'm sad to say.

habujeanne said...

I agree on the editing but factual This has been vetted by the Roadrunners themselves.

Sean O'Connor said...

I'm curious to know what "factual errors" are being referred to. People, the reason newer books say different things is because new information is declassified. Or are we all supposed to still remain ignorant and believe that the "A-11s" were prototypes for the Blackbird that did nothing but fly test missions?