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.