Two Rode West

Message posted by Peter Merlin on April 04, 2007 at 13:21:43 PST:

Edwards, Calif. (4 April 2007) - Two Lockheed D-21B drones departed NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) today for a six month stay at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif. They had been in storage at DFRC since 1998.

In early 1962 Clarence "Kelly" Johnson of Lockheed proposed designing a ramjet-powered drone aircraft capable of operating at Mach 3 speeds and altitudes as high as 90,000 feet to overfly sensitive areas. Johnson asserted that such a development was entirely feasible and suggested the drone could be launched from a modified version of the A-12. Defense secretary Robert McNamara and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles agreed to proceed with development of the drone under Project TAGBOARD. Management responsibility for the program was assigned to the CIA with additional support from the Air Force.

On February 28, 1963, Johnson received approval to produce 20 drones (Articles 501 through 520) and two launch aircraft (Article 134 and Article 135). He designated the mothership M-21, the drone became the D-21 and the mated combination was called MD-21.

On Aug. 12, 1964,the first M-21 was delivered to the Area 51 for initial checkout work. The maiden flight of the MD-21 took place on Dec. 22 and initial drone separation trials began in March 1966. On its second free flight, the drone attained a speed of Mach 3.3 and altitude of 90,000 feet. Although it demonstrated the planned performance characteristics, the D-21 suffered a few technical problems. Additionally, the launch maneuver was risky for the flight crew. On July 31, 1966, Johnsonís worst fears were realized during the fourth launch attempt when the drone collided with the M-21. Although both crewmen ejected from the stricken craft, the LCO perished before rescue forces arrived.

As a result of the tragedy, Johnson cancelled further use of the MD-21. The remaining D-21 drones were modified to the D-21B configuration and two B-5H aircraft were configured as launch platforms under Project SENIOR BOWL. A second batch of drones, Articles 522 through 538, were also built. In order to propel the D-21B to ramjet ignition speeds (around Mach 3.0), the drone required a rocket booster for the initial flight phase following launch.

Between Nov. 6, 1967, and March 20, 1971, the D-21B drones flew 12 test missions and four operational sorties. Each mission cost approximately $5.5 million and the operational missions failed to produce the expected results because the camera packages were not recovered. On July 23, 1971, the program was cancelled and all remaining drones placed in storage at Norton Air Force Base, Calif. They were transferred to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., in the summer of 1976.

Four D-21B drones (Articles 522, 525, 529 and 537) were acquired by NASA in June 1994 for possible use as research vehicles. Proposed projects included modifying the drones with AR-4 rocket boosters or a rocket-based combined-cycle engine for hypersonic research, but none of these ideas came to fruition. Article 525 is currently displayed at the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, Calif. Article 537 remains at DFRC.

Articles 522 and 529 were partially disassemblembed for transport by truck to Vandenberg. Composite chine and wing panels were removed and the titanium wing spars had to be cut so they wouldn't create a highway hazard during the drive to Lompoc. The engines had already been removed. One of the drones will be restored for display at an event commemorating the 15th anniversary of the National Reconnaissance Office's Vandenberg detachment (NROV). Eventually both vehicles will be transferred to Davis-Monthan AFB for storage and disposition. CIA and NRO headquarters have both expressed interest in displaying a D-21B.


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