Monday, March 15, 2010

The Blackbird Reading List


Blackbird. Habu. Cygnus. OXCART. SENIOR CROWN. Anyone with even a passing interest in Cold War military history or aviation history knows what those names represent. This reading list will provide historians, researchers, and aviation fans with some of the best reading materials and reference sources available on these most fascinating of aircraft. All of these titles have been taken straight from the author's personal library (in other words, this is not meant to represent every single published work, just the ones that I've bought and read) and will be reviewed in brief. Titles will be divided by decade, demonstrating to an extent how they seemed to land on the market in bunches, ostensibly due to the discovery or release of new information previously unavailable.

THE 1980S

Blackbird-related titles began to arrive on the shelves in earnest in the 1980s. The aircraft had been operating for a sufficient length of time for authors to start devoting attention to Lockheed's Mach 3 legends. The addition to the USAF Museum of the surviving YF-12A in 1979 also precipitated speeches by key personnel divulging further information. The main sticking point about the 1980s was that not much was known about the CIA's Blackbirds, and details of their operational exploits were still highly clasified for the most part. The first photographs and basic details of CIA-operated Blackbirds were released in 1982, nearly 15 years after Agency operations concluded.

SR-71 Blackbird in action, Lou Drendel, 1982 My first Blackbird book! Not much more than a photo chronicle, it does provide some details on flying the Sled thanks to interviews with crewmembers, and provides the first bit of speculation on what exactly the A-12s sitting in the California sun at Palmdale were for. A very brief section also theorizes on the purpose and operation of the D-21, accompanied by the sole photo of the M-21/D-21 combination released for publication at the time.

Lockheed SR-71, Jay Miller, 1985 This Aerofax title seems to be one of the more sought-after titles on the Blackbird. Apparently tailored more towards the modeling community rather than the enthusiast community, a number of detail photographs highlight this book, showcasing such airframe bits as the nacelles, landing gear, and canopies. The text is naturally a bit sparse being that this is primarily a photographic work, but some interesting bits of data, such as a complete production list of all Blackbirds, were included.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, Paul F. Crickmore, 1986 Crickmore's first Blackbird work (as far as I know) and arguably the best book written on the subject for many years to come. I first ran across this one in the library at 2 ATAF HQ at RAF Rheindahlen in the mid 80's and was determined to find a copy. Coming in at 200 pages, it contained the most detailed look at the entire program published during the '80s. A brief paragraph even mentioned CIA operational sorties out of Kadena with the A-12.

Lockheed Blackbirds, Anthony M. Thornborough and Peter E. Davies, 1988 Not much is included in this work, which covers both the Blackbird and the U-2/TR-1 families, that isn't found in far greater detail in Crickmore's work. However, some large three-view drawings are provided which are pretty impressive, with different three views provided for the YF-12A, "M-12" (the M-21 designator hadn't been discovered yet), and SR-71, with scrap side views of the A-12, "A-12 two seater" (again, TA-12, undiscovered), and SR-71B provided as well.

By the end of the 1980s, when the Blackbird program was nearing its first official end, the reference works available provided a great deal of insight into the YF-12A and SR-71 development and operational histories. It was also becoming known that the CIA had something to do with flying single-seat Blackbirds around in the Far East, and that they were trying to do strange things with what basically amounted to the World's Fastest Biplane (thank you, I'll be here all night) as well.

THE 1990S

Three significant books on the Blackbird appeared in the 1990s, basically due to an increase in interest coinciding with the brief return to operational service of the SR-71A. By this time far more information on the A-12 program had been declassified, allowing a much clearer picture of the CIA's operation of the Blackbird to be presented for the first time.

SR-71 Blackbird, James Goodall, 1995 Aside from Crickmore's 1986 work, this became a standard reference for the Blackbird until the 21st Century. A great deal of information on the CIA's Blackbird operations was included, as well as a host of new photographs. This also marked the first time that the SR-71A Big Tail modification was detailed in a Blackbird book.

SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story, Richard H. Graham, 1996 Who else but a former Sled driver, who became a Blackbird squadron commander and later the commander of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, would be a better choice to pen a book on the SR-71? After reading Col. Graham's book, the answer is nobody. Col. Graham tells the Blackbird's story the way only an insider can, from his recruitment into the program, all the way to the politics behind the Blackbird's retirement while he was the 9th SRW's CC. This book is not a purely technical overview, with the Blackbird's family history relegated to a mere four pages, but rather a detailed accounting of the program from a pilot's perspective. Col. Graham's personal tales and anecdotes are what make this a must-read for any Cold War aviation enthusiast.

Lockheed SR-71/YF-12 Blackbirds, Dennis R. Jenkins, 1997 At first glance there doesn't appear to be much in the way of new textual information that Jim Goodall didn't cover in 1995 in this book. However, the real strength of this book was the inclusion of a great deal of technical schematics and reference drawings taken from flight manuals and other official sources. Many of these dealt with the YF-12, including schematics detailing the loading procedures for inserting AIM-47 missiles into the weapon bays.


With the turn of the century, the Blackbird again found itself out of operational service, and no longer in use by NASA. Despite the fact that no Blackbird would ever take to the air again (unless somebody wants to convice Bill Gates or Richard Branson that it'd just be really fun to restore one to flying status for the airshow circuit...anybody?), newly declassified information began to flow out of the CIA and SENIOR CROWN coffers with more regularity. This was in part due to the fact that the aircraft family was completely out to pasture, and likely in no small part due to the fact that researchers were continuing to bombard the relevant FOIA offices with requests for information!

A-12 Blackbird Declassified, Jeanette Remak and Joseph Ventolo Jr., 2001 The first Blackbird-themed book to emerge in the 21st Century was certainly one of the finest. It was also the first book to deal primarily with the A-12 program. Making through use of newly declassified information, a nearly complete operational history of the aircraft with the CIA was reconstructed, as well as numerous flight test details. Token mention of the USAF's KEDLOCK and SENIOR CROWN programs is made, as well as a brief overview of the TAGBOARD/SENIOR BOWL experimentation with the D-21 drone.

Combat Legend: SR-71 Blackbird, Paul F. Crickmore, 2002 This work was part of a series called Combat Legends published by Airlife. It reads like an abridged and updated version of Crickmore's 1986 work, and is bolstered by numerous color profiles.

Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird Family, James Goodall and Jay Miller, 2002 This is a thoroughly updated and greatly expanded edition of Jay Miller's first Aerofax title from the 1980s, and is not to be missed. This work probably made the best use of the declassified material available at the time, covering the design process of the A-12 in far greater detail than any previous work. This is one of the few Blackbird books that still stands up even today, due to the wealth of historical and technical data included. This was also the first publication to depict some of the declassified schematics for armed SR-71 iterations.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, Bill Holder, 2002 This book is nothing special, featuring minimalist text and too many poor-quality images. This one is only recommended for the serious collector, and can be overlooked by the researcher or historian. One interesting inclusion, however, is a series of photos depicting most of the Blackbirds at their display locations at the time of publication. This, of course, precipitated my own campaign to eventually photograph every surviving Blackbird myself.

SR-71 Blackbird Walk Around, James Goodall, 2003 This title is exactly what it sounds like, a photographic history of the Blackbird family. While there are a number of detail photographs like the title suggests, there are also a number of in-flight and static images as well. If there is a detail feature of the Blackbird, it is likely covered here, including the different cockpit configurations of nearly every variant. This should be regarded as the primary source for any modeler interested in creating the Blackbird.

Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions, Paul F. Crickmore, 2004 A revised edition of a Crickmore book I managed to somehow miss, this is a serious volume and should be on the shelf of every Blackbird enthusiast. At 400 pages this is easily the largest book on the Blackbird family yet published. Nearly every operational detail is covered, and the development and test histories of the aircraft programs are certainly not glossed over. The real strength of this book is in the descriptions of various operational sorties flown by Blackbird crews around the globe, as well as intercepts flown by Soviet and Russian interceptor pilots. The interview with a former MiG-31 pilot is very nearly worth the cover price alone.

Lockheed Blackbirds, Tony R. Landis and Dennis R. Jenkins, 2004 This is an expanded and far better illustrated version of Jenkins' 1997 book. Many new photographs are included from Tony Landis's collection of Blackbird images, and there are a host of new technical diagrams as well.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, Steve Pace, 2004 This was a welcome addition to the Blackbird library. Pace's work is a well written, relatively concise history of the Blackbird family, backed up by numerous data tables describing test occurrences (such as AIM-47 firings), and significant historical references (such as Kelly Johnsons's A-12 flight log, albeit in an abridged form). The most interesting section details numerous unbuilt Blackbird iterations, many of which were meant to be armed. A hypothetical F-12B intercept scenario is also included. While there isn't much "new" information when compared to earlier works, the presentation and the interesting bits mentioned above still make this an interesting and worthwhile read.

Lockheed SR-71 Operations in the Far East, Paul F. Crickmore, 2008 Crickmore returns to the Blackbird with Volume 76 of Osprey's Combat Aircraft series. This is an up-to-date reference detailing the operational service of the A-12 and SR-71 flying reconnaissance sorties over targets in the Far East. This is basically an abridged update of his last work, making use of the most up-to-date declassified information available. In this case, the history of the aircraft is only briefly detailed, as the focus is on the operational side of things.

Flying the SR-71 Blackbird: In the Cockpit on a Secret Operational Mission, Richard H. Graham, 2008 Colonel Graham, in his second Blackbird book, provides the reader with a step-by-step look at flying an operational sortie in the SR-71A. Each chapter is broken down based on the pilot's checklist steps for that particular segment of the sortie. This is a unique and insightful look at actually flying the Blackbird and includes numerous historical bits and amusing stories from Colonel Graham's Blackbird career.

From Archangel to Senior Crown: Design and Development of the Blackbird, Peter W. Merlin, 2008 For the first time, an author has decided to focus entirely on the technical and technological aspects of the Blackbird family. Merlin's work is outstanding, the only complaint being that this could have easily surpassed 500 pages! While the text is outstanding and well researched, the real treat is the included CD containing numerous flight manuals, documents, images, and videos. The information here is substantial and valuable enough to almost make the book an afterthought, but that would be to ignore the well written insight into the technology of the Blackbird family that Merlin has authored.

The Archangel and the OXCART, Jeanette Remak and Joseph Ventolo, 2008 Remak and Ventolo have provided us with a complete rehash of their 2001 work, incorporating a host of newly declassified material. The most interesting new bits and pieces deal with the ECM systems on the A-12. There are a lot of issues with the editing, but Jeanette Remak has been kind enough to explain them here. Any Blackbird enthusiast would be well advised to see past these issues and pick this up, as it represents the most detailed look at the A-12 published to date.

Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft, David Robarge, 2008 This is the printed version of the official CIA history of the A-12 published online in 2007 here. It is a concise look at the Agency's involvement in Mach 3 reconnaissance.

Lockheed SR-71 Operations in Europe and the Middle East, Paul F. Crickmore, 2009 Crickmore's most recent work is a companion piece to his 2008 volume on operations in the Far East. Primarily focused on operations out of RAF Mildenhall, sorties staged from the United States over the Middle East are also detailed. This book reads like a second volume of his 2008 book, jumping right into operations without any mention of the program's history, and that's just fine. The only potential omission is a reference to OXCART preparations for missions over Cuba, but that's more of a nitpick than a true drawback, as those missions were, after all, never flown.

From RAINBOW to GUSTO: Stealth and the Design of the Lockheed Blackbird, Paul A. Suhler, 2009 This represents the single most fascinating book yet published on the Blackbird family. Suhler takes the reader through the various designs which led to the final A-12, including competing designs from Convair and proposed successors. Most of the usual technical aspects of the programs are glossed over or simply ignored, and with very good reason. For the first time, a book has been written focusing primarily on the program's efforts to defeat Soviet radar systems. This is definitely a must-read for any Blackbird enthusiast, or anyone interested in low RCS aircraft design.

Lockheed Blackbird Family: Photo Scrapbook, Tony Landis, 2010 This is exactly what it sounds like, a 126 page picture book featuring the Blackbird family. Don't expect a rehashing of the Blackbird's development, that's not the point here, and the actual text is very sparse. There are a number of amusing anecdotes in some of the captions, but the main focus is simply the images of the Blackbirds. There are a ton of images that have not been published before, and most of the book is presented in glorious full color. The highlights are images of two A-12s in formation flight, and a D-21 RCS model depicting a very early shape far removed from what was actually built. Most of the images depict the actual aircraft, with very few detail shots, although there are numerous new drawings of sensor systems and other items included as well. This book serves as an ideal, updated complement to Jim Goodall's SR-71 Blackbird Walk Around from 2003.


There are, of course, other excellent Blackbird references to consider apart from books. Wings/Airpower magazine did a four-part piece, each focusing on a different Blackbird variant, a few years ago that was a great source of photographs and interesting bits of information. The Red Star volume on Soviet and Russian UAVs features a section on the Soviet D-21 clone, the Tupolev Voron, which makes for very interesting reading. And there is always the CIA's FOIA internet page, to see what the latest round of declassified documents brings to the OXCART historical knowledge base.


Two errors seem to propagate themselves among Blackbird books with relative regularity. These are not merely examples of honest educated guesswork refuted by the declassification of information, but rather more blatant errors that have apparently stuck around thanks to their persistence over time often despite the declassification of accurate information. Firstly, the AIM-47 missile carried by the F-12 was not armed with a nuclear warhead. A 0.25 kiloton warhead was investigated early on, but dropped when more accurate homing systems made the need for a nuclear warhead unnecessary. The history of the AIM-47 can be found in brief here (hey, who wrote that?). Secondly, the probes extending forward from the leading edges of the D-21's wings were not associated with the D-21B modification. While captive carry articles seen on M-21 60-6940 did not feature these probes, at least one D-21 launched from the back of M-21 60-6941 did feature them. This can be seen in a video depicting M-21 launch operations, including the fatal accident which destroyed 60-6941. The video is available online here. Look at screenshot M21_009 and the leading edge probes are clearly visible.


Books are great, but a serious Blackbird fan can branch out into all sorts of fun territory. Many people like to collect patches, squadron and aircraft memorabilia, and the like. This is all well and good, and certainly enjoyable, but there are two items which are seriously recommended.

The first is a Century Wings diecast display model of the SR-71A, depicting the famous Ichi Ban Blackbird. Details and photos of this very large and very well detailed model can be seen here. It is over a foot in length, and looks very serious sitting on display among a diecast aircraft collection. Good luck, though, as they have sold out from the manufacturer and can only be obtained through a retailer who has them in stock!

The second item is another diecast aircraft. This one isn't as massive or detailed as the Century Wings Blackbird, but I personally find it to be far more amusing. Plus, and you all should appreciate this after my last example, you can usually find one for just a few dollars. Back in the early 80's you could find the Dyna Flites diecast airplane toys in stores. Pretty simple, usually around four inches long, little metal wheels for undercarriage. Well, check out the image below:
Cut-back chines, short tail...that's a YF-12A! If you can find one of these (I've got three...two from decades ago and a third from EBay), they are pretty unique and well worth it.

Of course, if you're seriously hardcore, you can always buy a piece of certified Blackbird titanium!


The source material available on the Blackbird family is increasing with each passing year, and it is fascinating to note how each new publication seems to shed new light on a previously unknown aspect of the aircraft's development or operational use. Until the OXCART, KEDLOCK, TAGBOARD, and SENIOR CROWN files are totally declassified, we likely will not know the complete history of an aviation icon. But it sure is fun to wade through the knowledge that the aforementioned authors have already pieced together for our benefit.

If you want to know where these aircraft are currently located so you can view one for yourself, check out the article here.


Anonymous said...

on a further note, I really liked Kelly Johnson autobio "KELLY, MORE THAN MY SHARE OT IT."published in 1985

Peter said...

Here's a video clip of an RC model:

Anonymous said...

"Kinetic Solution" will NOT help.

Russian Nuclear Forces will override any "kinetic solutions".


max said...

I think you might have missed
"Sled Driver" which maybe
among the most omprehensive
accounts of the program.

Otherwize excellent material,
well done, nicely written,
presented, and appreciated.