Sunday, May 25, 2008
FROM SHEPARD'S Pi
FACT: Today’s Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News has a great elegy for a pilot who died forty years ago: “Jack Weeks, University of Alabama graduate and Birmingham native, died in service to his country [on June 4, 1968]. Reports from his most famous mission wound up on the president’s desk during one of the flashpoints of the Cold War. His widow accepted his medal for valor shortly after his death. But for 40 years, nobody knew what he’d done. Only his wife knew he was a hero…. Weeks was a pilot in the Central Intelligence Agency flying the super-secret A-12 high-level surveillance aircraft from 1963 until his death in 1968. A couple of weeks before his death, he became the pilot who located the USS Pueblo, the American intelligence-gathering ship, after it was captured by North Korean patrol boats…. Next month, Weeks will finally get the public recognition he was denied for so long. Battleship Park, home of the USS Alabama, will commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death on June 4 with a ceremony that will include an Alabama Air National Guard fly-over.”
ANALYSIS: Friday I was over at CIA headquarters at Langley meeting with a friend, and once inside the compound I parked by the Agency’s newest historical exhibit. Situated on a new traffic island between two parking lots behind the original headquarters building, looming over rows of parked cars, is a massive, gorgeous, sleek black aircraft perched on shiny steel struts as if in flight, twenty feet off the ground.
Official CIA photo via US News & World ReportIt is an A-12 Blackbird, from the CIA’s once highly-classified OXCART program, the forerunner of the SR-71. I have an amateur interest in that category of aircraft, or spacecraft if you want to get all sexy, partly because my brother flew the legendary Stealth Fighter (F-117) for years in the Air Force; all three planes were built in Lockheed’s heralded Skunk Works program and tested at Area 51. (By the way, I just saw the new Indiana Jones movie and there’s a funny scene at Area 51, all fictional of course). My wife the Air Force brat and I have visited the SR-71 on display over at the Udvar-Hazy wing of the National Air & Space Museum by Dulles Airport. These are the coolest dragsters of all planes, to my mind (the lovely bride disagrees, having a warm place in her heart for the T-38 hotrod).
So there in the CIA parking lot, I thought to myself, “I’d like to snap a photo of the legendary A-12 for my brother when I get back from my meeting.” The meeting went long, and I wound up staying for lunch, and then dawdling in the CIA gift shop. Turns out they’re selling A-12 OXCART t-shirts, so I bought a couple.
Unfortunately, it’s not legal to take photos anywhere on the CIA headquarters compound, so I wasn’t able to take photographs myself back in the parking lot - shame, since it was a beautiful day. As I drove back out the gates, I thought to myself, “Given the tight security here at Langley, I’m sure they didn’t have a civilian-friendly ceremony when the A-12 was installed, and didn’t invite reporters and non-Agency employees to attend, and certainly didn’t allow any photos of it in place - that would be against the tight security policy. But I’ll do a Live Search on the web just in case…”
Sure enough, from several months ago, here’s the official CIA public account of just such a ceremony, recounting the OXCART program in detail; here’s a US News story about the ceremony with a nice photograph (used above - taken before the plane was hoisted onto its memorial stand); and here’s an Agence France Presse story, “CIA Unveils Cold War Spy Plane” - they even let foreign media in. Photo from www.Roadrunnersinternationale.com/And looky to the left: a photo from the dedication ceremony, with the Agency’s director standing in front of the very plane. More photos can be seen here - and goodness gracious there’s even a CNN news video here showing the plane during the ceremony.
The photo at left (and CNN video) are from a great website dedicated to information about the A-12 and its sister spy planes. The website has an exhaustive set of information about the A-12 program and history.
The Agency itself has declassified voluminous papers about OXCART and put them on a special website for public access. But for goodness sakes, don’t let anyone take a photo of the declassified plane out there in the parking lot, where God and Google Earth can see it….