Not all Blackbirds are black

Starting in the sixties, the CIA and the US Air Force operated a fleet of Lockheed Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. At first, the aircraft were top secret, but over the years a lot of information has become unclassified. They were spectacular. Even now many of their speed and altitude records remain unbroken.


The most famous Blackbird is the SR-71 and those indeed were all black, as their name implies. However, some of the SR-71’s older relatives were not black at all or only partially black. My latest model represents one of these: the sole surviving M-21. This was a version intended to launch a ramjet-powered D-21 reconnaissance drone. The model is minifig scale (roughly 1/40), can seat a pilot and launch control officer under two separate cockpit canopies, and carries a model of the D-21 on its back.

M-21 Blackbird

Most of the outside of the real jet consists of unpainted metal. I like that it is not actually black; a lot of the details are much more visible that way. The aircraft still exists and is on display at the Museum of Flight, in Seattle, where I saw it during a trip to Washington State back in 2016. I also find the history of this particular version fascinating. To me it was the obvious Blackbird to build for my own LEGO aircraft collection.

Nowadays you can find satellite photographs of just about any place on Earth on the internet. We are used to having vast quantities of information right under the tips of our fingers. However, at the height of the Cold War, back in the late fifties and early sixties, high-resolution satellite pictures were still a pipe dream. The only way the US could obtain hard information on what was going on deep inside the Soviet Union was by flying aircraft through its airspace to take pictures. The original aircraft for these dangerous missions was the U-2. A special division of Lockheed, known as the Skunk Works, built it in deepest secrecy. The overflights abruptly ended in 1960, though, when a surface-to-air missile shot down a CIA U-2 during an eight-hour mission over the Soviet Union. Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, survived. The Soviets captured him, put him on public trial and sentenced him to ten years imprisonment. This event caused massive embarrassment to the Eisenhower administration, who subsequently banned manned overflights. At the time, the Skunk Works were already hard at work designing the U-2’s replacement, under project “Oxcart”. Their new jet, called the A-12, could fly higher and faster than the U-2, which made it much harder to intercept. It was the first of the Blackbird family.

M-21 Blackbird

However, it too was banned from flying over the Soviet Union. There was a loophole, though. Manned flights were banned, but nobody said anything about unmanned flights. Again, in deepest secrecy, the Skunk Works built the D-21 drone. Its ramjet engine pushed it to even higher speeds and altitudes than the Blackbird. The D-21 lacked range, however, and its engine could only start when it was already flying at high speed. So the Skunk Works modified two of the A-12s for carrying drones. These became the M-21s. After launch from the mother ship, the drone would autonomously fly a route through hostile airspace to take pictures. Once re-emerging in international airspace it would drop a capsule with the exposed film, before self-destructing. This was a complicated scheme and, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a success.

M-21 Blackbird

The first M-21 performed a lot of tests flights with the drone attached. Because it had more powerful engines, only the second of the two M-21s could fly fast enough to launch the drone. After three successful launches over the Pacific, the fourth attempt ended in tragedy. Just after launch, the drone struck the M-21, causing it to break up in flight. Both crewmembers ejected, but unfortunately the launch control officer drowned in the ocean after his pressure suit filled up with water. This failure resulted in the project’s cancellation. The D-21s lived on, however, and reportedly flew four operational missions over China. A B-52 served as their launch aircraft and, because the B-52 couldn’t fly fast or high enough, the drones used a solid-propellant rocket to accelerate them. The A-12s flew reconnaissance missions over Vietnam and North Korea. The later and slightly larger SR-71 was operational until the nineties. The U-2, meanwhile, is still in service. The M-21 is now a beautiful museum piece and a testament to both the Skunk Works’ genius and the madness of the Cold War.

4 comments on “Not all Blackbirds are black

  1. Purple Dave

    Wait, that’s the backstory for the drone? Someone brings up the problems they’d have recovering the thing, and someone else plunks a stick of dynamite on the table in response? Did the Skunkworks hire the guy who brainstormed the Acoustic Kitty project?

    Anyways, it looks like the Blackbird name was exclusively used for the SR-71. The A-12 project, and plane, were both referred to as Oxcart by the government, but the plane got nicknamed Cygnus by the crews (kinda like how everyone ignores the official Thunderbolt II moniker for the infamous A-10 Warthog). There was a trainer version of the A-12 that had a second, offset cockpit in case the trainer needed to take control, and that was known as the Titanium Goose. The YF-12A doesn’t appear to have ever had an operational codename, and neither does the M-21.

    I remember one of my classmates had a die-cast model of what we all probably thought was the SR-71, but it had a removable drone that snapped on between the tails. And there was Cobra’s Nightraven from the first 3-3/4″ line, which was loosely based on this family of aircraft and had a _manned_ drone that had to be the most uncomfortable long-distance ride, as it required you to lay on your belly and look forward (and down) through a windshield that gave you a forward (and up) view of what you surely were about to crash into.

    I just read up on those China missions, and it looks like the most “successful” one resulted in them watching the ejected hatch containing the film sink into the ocean. Arguably the worst result is the one that’s on display in Beijing’s aviation museum.

    One two-fold benefit you’ll get out of the grey color scheme is it won’t require as much dusting, and it wont look like someone went after it with sandpaper when you do dust it. Looks like you’re finding the new “tortilla” tile useful. I’ve got a pair of curved roadplates that I might need to look into updating soon. Between that tile, the 2×2 L tile with the corner cut off, the 1×1 quarter-round tile, and possibly some new wedge plates, I might be able to make some significant improvements in the sidewalks.

  2. Mad physicist

    @Purple Dave
    Blackbird may not have been an official name for the early variants, but Paul Crickmore, who has written multiple books on the aircraft, calls the A-12 “The CIA’s Blackbird”. The Seattle Museum of Flight calls their M-21 a Blackbird too. And in his 1994 book on the Skunk Works, Ben Rich, its former director, refers to the whole family of aircraft as Blackbirds. So, who am I to argue? The book is highly recommended if you want to know more about the background of the drone project. The drone project was called Tagboard, but that doesn’t make for a title recognisable to most readers. The YF-12 was built under project Kedlock.

    I didn’t think about dusting it when building the model, but there’s this wonderful invention called a vacuum cleaner. It does a pretty good job removing dust, even from black LEGO models :-)

  3. Purple Dave

    That may just be a convenience for the public, since most people are going to look at any one of that family of planes and think it’s the SR-71. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of Oxcart before this, probably from a guy in my LUG who’s a huge Skunkworks geek (and who made his own SR-71 long ago). I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Tagboard before.

    As for vacuuming, nearly all of my MOCs spend their time packed up between shows, so the only time they collect dust, and the only time they’re easy to clean, is at display venues. Vacuums can be bulky to pack, power is not always convenient, and duster wands are far less likely to eat small parts.

  4. Mad physicist

    @Purple Dave
    Please bear in mind that I aim to pick post titles that are convenient for the public. Furthermore, as far as I know the name is actually correct. In his book Ben Rich regales suggesting painting the A-12 black to Kelly Johnson, because it is good for radiative emission of heat and would therefore help to lose some of the heat that the aircraft absorbs due to its shock wave at Mach 3. I quote:” So Kelly approved my idea of painting the airplane black and by the time our first prototype rolled out the airplane became known as the Blackbird”.

    The black paint did add weight, of course. This probably explains why the first M-21 (which wasn’t as fast as the 2nd example, due to having less powerful engines) was only painted black where it mattered the most.

    Since your comment about dusting was about my model, I was describing how I’d go about cleaning it. It currently sits on top of a bookcase in my home office and I clean the other models I keep there with a vacuum cleaner. I’ll do the same with this. At events I use a soft paint brush.

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