Select illustrations from Ladybird Book How It Works - The Aeroplane (1967).

Ladybird Book How It Works - The Aeroplane (1967), series ‘654’ by David Carey, illustrated by G Robinson.

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     -     THE CLOCK IS TICKING     -

     Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the most important Project Habu post I’ll ever make. This is D-21B Drone #0538, and she’s in danger. If we don’t do something, this member of the Blackbird family of aircraft will be destroyed and recycled into razor blades.

     -     WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?     -

     #0538 is the last D-21 of 38 drones ever made. This makes it an especially exquisite museum piece. Generally speaking, museums always want either the first or the last of a series of aircraft. This drone currently resides at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. Because of budget cuts, they are having to dispose of this piece of history, along with several other aircraft. She’s on the list to be destroyed and turned into razor blades. I’ll explain why this bothers me.

     Firstly, I must say that this is not a slight against the Museum of Aviation. Their facility is incredible. They house several unique pieces of history. Their staff and volunteers are all amazing people who work to preserve the history and legacy of aviation. I was nothing but impressed by every volunteer/staff member I came in contact with during my recent three day visit. These folks do everything they can to benefit their museum. Without people like them, there would be no Project Habu, no air museums, and I would have a huge gaping hole in my life. That being said, we must be frank.

     When I was a child, my parents took me to.the Museum of Aviation. It was my first experience with a large air museum. That trip is probably one of the reasons why I am so dedicated to Project Habu today. On that trip, I distinctly remember seeing this D-21. I saw it under the museum’s SR-71 in hangar 2, where it used to reside, until recently. I was captivated by it’s elegant look. The image burned into my mind, and decades later I learned everything I could about it. Thousands of people visit this museum every year. If the drone is destroyed, that’ll be thousands less people who will learn about this piece of history. Thousands fewer kids will have the opportunity to come in contact with this bird like I did so many years ago.

     I have a personal stake in this aircraft. My late grandfather was a head engineer, and later a member of the advisory board for the Lockheed Skunk Works. Without much of a stretch, I could speculate that he worked on this drone. I know for sure that he did a lot of work with unmanned drones. He couldn’t talk much about his job, but he did let slip that he worked in a facility next door to where the Blackbirds were being constructed, at which point he was offered a ride in one of the two-seat Blackbird training aircraft. The facility and timeline match up. He could have been working on our D-21. 

     -     WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE?     -

     All that being said, my only option was to attempt to save this D-21 drone from destruction. My immediate thought was to call the aircraft curator of a local air museum. I have yet to meet anyone who works harder to preserve the legacy of the Blackbird family of aircraft than the gentleman I contacted. His museum contains an A-12 and several other aircraft that he procured. I called this contact, informed him of the situation, and he immediately told me that he would be contacting the Museum of Aviation the following day to talk about the possibility of procuring this doomed D-12 done.

     If my contact is successful in procuring the aircraft, I would be nothing but proud to have been involved. There may be roadblocks ahead, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’ll keep this blog updated with any further development. 

     -     HOW CAN YOU HELP?     -

     At this point, we’re in a holding pattern. It’s too early in the game to know whether a road block will arise. If for some reason the drone can’t cant be rescued, monetary or political, I will post about it here, along with a proposed solution to the problem. Keep your eyes out for further development.

     -     D-21 HISTORY & GENERAL INFORMATION      -

     The often untold story of the D-21 drone begins, as so many others, with catastrophe. In 1960, U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower signed an agreement with the USSR to permanently stop all manned overflight of the enemy superpower. But this agreement never said anything about unmanned overflight. 

     Kelly Johnson, of the Lockheed Skunk Works was well under way in developing the A-12 and SR-71 spy planes. The planes were designed to overfly the USSR, but now could not. In 1962, Johnson began development of the Q-12 unmanned reconnaissance drone for the CIA and USAF. This drone used much of A-12 and SR71’s technology. The Air Force was briefly interested in using the drone as a cruise missile, but their idea never came to fruition.

     The drone would be hoisted into the air on the back of a modified A-12 aircraft, the predecessor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Once at proper altitude and speed, the drone was separated from the A-12 mother ship, and would overfly the USSR or China, taking high resolution film photography, following a pre-programmed path using an inertial navigation system. 

          In 1963, once initial tests were complete, the Q-12 was re-designated as the D-21, and the A-12 mother ship aircraft was designated the M-21. The M designation stood for Mother, and D stood for daughter. The 12 number designation was reversed to 21 to avoid confusion. When the drone was attached to the mother ship, the two aircraft would be referred to as an M/D-21. 

     The D-21 used a Marcourt XRJ 43-MA20S-4 ramjet engine, which was a heavily modified Bomarc B Interceptor Missile engine. The engine was modified for faster speeds, hotter operating temp and lower pressure. The engine used TEB (triethylborane) as it’s ignition system, just like the rest of the Blackbird family of aircraft. At the time, ramjet engines could only run for a few minutes. This engine was developed to continuously run for an hour and a half.

     Besides the F-117, this D-21 was probably most secret project that Skunk Works ever touched. It has the lowest radar cross section of anything the Skunk Works have developed. The drone would fly up to 95,000 feet, speeds of mach 3.5, with a range of 3,500 miles. 

     Before deployment, the D-21 would share it’s fuel supply with the M-21 mother ship for cooling purposes. When the M/D-21 reached sufficient speed and altitude, the D-21’s engine would light, creating 1,000 lbs additional thrust. This thrust would carry the M/D-21 do a speed of mach 3.5. The mother ship would pitch over slightly, creating a 0.9 g environment. The explosive bolts holding the two ships together would detonate, separating the D-21 from it’s mother ship. Then, the M-21 would fall away from the drone in its slight 0.9 g dive. Kelly Johnson said that the separation of the M-21 and D-21 was the “This was the most dangerous maneuver we have ever been involved in, in any airplane I have ever worked on.”

     Once the D-21 had collected it’s reconnaissance photography, it would fly into neutral airspace, drop a pod containing the camera, film and the navigation system, which was a very expensive component of the system. The pod would parachute down and be recovered mid-air by a JC-130 aircraft. If the air recovery failed, the pod would splash down into the ocean and would be recovered by a Naval Destroyer. 

     On July 30, 1966, the fourth flight of the D-21 drone occurred. Up until then, they would put the mother ship in a 0.9 g dive to allow for an easier separation. This time, they tested it with out the dive. They figured that if the craft were under enemy fire, they may not be able to perform the dive during separation. Just after separation, the D-21 hit the M-21’s sonic shock wave, suffered an unstart and collided with mother ship. Pilot Bill Park and LCO (Launch Control Officer) Ray Torick stayed with the tumbling wreckage until they reached a lower altitude, where they ejected successfully. Though, a breach in Mr. Torick’s pressure suit caused him to drown when they landed in the ocean. 

     After this first fatality of the Blackbird program, Kelly Johnson abandoned M-21. From then on, all D-21s were converted to D-21Bs, which could be launched from a B-52H mothership, accelerated to speed and altitude by a solid rocket booster. The rocket burn would last 87 seconds. The B-52H mother ship would carry two D-21B aircraft in case one malfunctioned at the last minute.

     The testing underwent many failures. The USAF flew four operational missions over China to investigate Lop Nor nuclear test facility, starting in 1969. None of the operational missions were totally successful, and the program was cancelled in 1971 by President Nixon. 

     Kelly Johnson thought that the project’s cancellation was premature, and the multiple failures were probably due to the USAF disassembling and reassembling the drone many times. One of the failures was caused by a botched Naval recovery. Given more testing time, the program probably would have operated successfully and consistently, just like most of Kelly Johnson’s ideas.

     One operational drone crashed into the Soviet Union. The wreckage was inspected by Tupolev. Typolev reverse engineered the drone and made designs for their own version called the Varon, but it was never built. Another piece of wreckage is currently displayed in the China Aviation Museum in Beijing.

     In 1977, long after the project’s cancellation, the remaining D-21B aircraft were moved to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, otherwise known as The Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona. The project was completely unknown to the public until then.


You asked for it, here it is… A background sized picture of yesterday’s “Insert Imagination Here” picture

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Pad 39 launch complex warning lights during the Apollo era, including signage for the un-built Pad C.


Unlisted artist but probably Wilf Hardy. From Space Wars Fact and Fiction, 1980 

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Unlisted artist but probably Wilf Hardy. From Space Wars Fact and Fiction, 1980 

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I love cutaway tech illustrations. As a kid I’d spend hours looking at them, like a kind of Where’s Wally for geeks. These are from the Hamlyn Encyclopedia of Space, 1981.

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Unlisted artist but probably Wilf Hardy. From Space Wars Fact and Fiction, 1980 

(via 70sscifiart)