Museum of Flight: Lockheed M-21 Blackbird – The CIA Spy Drone Mothership

The Lockheed A-21 Blackbird was a mighty Mach 3.2 single seat reconnaissance spy plane built for the CIA which would later be developed into the two-seat Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird operated by the USAF. The A-12 first flew in 1962 and was operated from 1963 to 1968. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning engines

Lockheed A-12 Blackbird in flight
Lockheed A-12 Blackbird (Photo Source: USAF)

A variant of the A-12 was the Lockheed M-21 Blackbird. This was special variant operated by the USAF but built for the CIA “Tagboard program, where the M-21 acted as a mothership to launch the faster Lockheed D-21 ramjet powered, Mach 3+ reconnaissance drone for intelligence gathering.

Lockheed M-21 Blackbird carrying a D-21 drone circa 1966
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird carrying a D-21 drone circa 1966 (Photo Source: Wikipedia/CIA)
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird and D-21 drone (USAF photo)
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird and D-21 drone (USAF photo)

2 M-21 aircraft were manufactured in 1963 and only 1 survives today. You can see this survivor today in the Great Gallery at Seattle’s Museum of Flight (it is on loan from the National Museum of the USAF).

The Great Gallery of the Museum of Flight in Seattle
The Lockheed M-21 Blackbird takes centre stage in the Great Gallery of the Museum of Flight in Seattle (July 2016)
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird "Mothership" Seattle Museum of Flight
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird “Mothership” with a D-21 drone at the Museum of Flight (July 2016)
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird "Mothership" Seattle Museum of Flight D-21 Drone
The Lockheed M-21 Blackbird is one mean looking aircraft! (Museum of Flight – July 2016)
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird, D-21 drone and the mighty Pratt & Whitney J-58 engine (Museum of Flight - July 2016)
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird, D-21 drone and the mighty Pratt & Whitney J58 engine (Museum of Flight – July 2016)
Lockheed M-21 Blackbird "Mothership" Seattle Museum of Flight D-21 Drone
The Lockheed M-21 Blackbird is on loan from the National Museum of the USAF in Ohio

The M-21 Blackbird had a special pylon fitted on its spine to carry and launch the D-21 drone (pictured) and had a second cockpit installed for the Launch Control Operator/Officer (LCO). This was a feature that was retained in the later SR-71A Blackbird to seat the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO).

The Lockheed M-21 Blackbird was fitted with an upper fuselage pylon to carry and launch the Lockheed D-21 drone Museum of Flight Seattle
The Lockheed M-21 Blackbird was fitted with an upper fuselage pylon to carry and launch the Lockheed D-21 drone (Museum of Flight – July 2016)
The Lockheed M-21 Blackbird was fitted with an upper fuselage pylon to carry and launch the Lockheed D-21 drone Museum of Flight Seattle
The D-21 was a very large drone and a launch from an M-21 was fraught with danger (Museum of Flight – July 2016)

Once launched the D-21 drone was autonomous and would head to its programmed path to gather intelligence. It would then fly to a designated location to release its camera module with a parachute for mid-air collection by a specially equipped Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Once the data package was ejected the D-21 would self-destruct. This was all intended to avoid an incident of getting an aircraft shot down by a SAM over enemy territory like Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 over the Soviet Union on May 1st, 1960!

Lockheed D-21 reconnaissance drone Blackbird Park
Lockheed D-21 reconnaissance drone (Blackbird Airpark January 2015 – Blackbird Airpark is an annex of the US Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards AFB in Palmdale, California)

This all sounded fine in theory but in practice the program was fraught with danger and the program was cancelled following a 1966 collision between the drone and the tail of its mothership M-21 which resulted in a crash and the sad death of the Launch Control Officer. The D-21 program continued though and saw limited success being launched underwing from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

A USAF B-52 Stratofortress carrying 2 Lockheed D-21 recon drones
A USAF B-52 Stratofortress carrying 2 Lockheed D-21 recon drones (Photo Source: USAF)

The D-21 drone / B-52 combination were operationally used on 4 occasions over China between November 1969 to March 1971 (codenamed “Senior Bowl”) but the program was cancelled in July 1971 due to a lack of operational success and the introduction of improved spy satellites. Of the 4 D-21 missions launched over China, the first did not turn around and self-destructed over Siberia in the Soviet Union; the second was successful but the parachute did not deploy properly over the recovery site and the camera module was lost at sea; the third mission was also successful but the aerial retrieval of the camera module was not successful and it was also lost at sea; finally the fourth mission failed when the drone crashed in China. 38 D-21 and D-21B drones were built with 21 launched on test and operational missions.

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5 thoughts on “Museum of Flight: Lockheed M-21 Blackbird – The CIA Spy Drone Mothership

  1. A stunning and remarkable aircraft. I wasn’t at all aware of this programme, it certainly sounded an audacious idea that sadly didn’t work. Nothing has since come close to the Blackbird and it remains a world beater today. Thanks for the pictures and a great post with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I wasn’t aware of the A-12 story. The engineering of the whole Blackbird family was simply amazing on so many levels, even down to the special fuel needed to avoid fires when they were on the ground (and leaked, by design). A testament, no doubt, to the scale of spending back then but it’s always a lament that none of it was ever extended to other aircraft. We might yet have had those hypersonic airliners that were meant to happen…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Luckily the US has done well and preserved many of the Blackbird variants. A beautiful machine. I wish I had been able to see one fly. Oh yes Melbourne or Auckland to London in a few hours would be something wouldn’t it? Bring on hypersonic airliners!

      Liked by 1 person

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