The A-12 Oxcart: CIA Spy Plane That was Faster, Higher & More Secret Than SR-71 Blackbird

Can you tell the difference between the two The SR-71 Blackbird and The A-12 Oxcart? Most people can’t.

Often confused with one another, CIA’s A-12 OXCART and the US Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird are actually two different aircraft.

Few are able to note the differences between the two craft at any distance, but the differences are significant.


CIA developed the highly secret A-12 OXCART as the U-2 spy plane’s successor. It became operational on November 12, 1965.

The SR-71 Blackbird was the Air Force’s two-seat follow-on version of the OXCART.

In fact, the A-12 OXCART’s unique design and characteristics became the foundation for three other versions of supersonic aircraft that Lockheed built for CIA and the Air Force: the YF-12A, the M-21, and of course, the SR-71.

In December 1962, the Air Force ordered six “reconnaissance/strike” or SR aircraft for high-speed, high-altitude flights over hostile territory: the SR-71 Blackbird.

The SR-71 got the name “Blackbird” because of the special black paint that covered the aircraft. Although the Blackbird’s stealthiness resulted from radar absorbent structures along the chines, wing edges, vertical tails, and inlet spikes, the paint helped to release some of the heat generated by air friction and to camouflage the aircraft against the dark sky at high altitudes.

As a modified version of the A-12 OXCART, the SR-71 Blackbird was about six feet long, weighed an additional 15,000 pounds fully loaded, had a more prominent nose and body chines, had a two-seat cockpit, and carried additional optical and radar imagery systems.

After an initial contract for six Blackbirds, the Air Force ordered 25 more in August 1963. The first SR-71 flew on December 22, 1964. Throughout its operational career, the SR-71’s primary operation base was also out of Kadena Air Base in Japan, although other bases also hosted Blackbird operations, including Beale AFB in California, and RAF Mildenhall, England.

The SR-71 Blackbird 0r The A-12 Oxcart – Which Is Faster?

The A-12 Oxcart:  CIA Spy Plane That was Faster, Higher & More Secret Than SR-71 Blackbird

There is lot of controversy among airplane enthusiasts as to which aircraft holds that title. There’s no simple answer.

The OXCART has a documented maximum speed and altitude of 2,208 MPH at 90,000 feet, set during a test in 1965, while the SR-71 holds the official speed record for a piloted operational jet aircraft of 2,193 MPH, set on July 28, 1976. On the same date, the Blackbird set an official world altitude record of 85,069 feet.

Unofficially, of course, pilots of both aircraft have anecdotal stories indicating the numbers of both aircraft may be higher, and some SR-71 test reports show that the aircraft surpassed the official records for speed and altitude.

Nevertheless, both the A-12 OXCART and the SR-71 Blackbird are regarded as pioneering achievements in aeronautical engineering and the pinnacle of aviation technology during the Cold War.

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