A flat black, swept-wing drone designed to spy on China during the Cold War, part of a highly classified but largely unsuccessful CIA program, has been acquired by Sonoma County?s air museum.
?There were operational flights, but for one reason or another they didn?t get any pictures back,? said John Hazlett of Healdsburg. ?But think about when it was being done. It was way ahead of its time.?
Hazlett, a retired Air Force major, was a B-52 navigator who flew test missions with the drone at the highly secretive Area 51 in the Nevada desert.
He also will play a central role in restoring the Lockheed D-21 that is sitting at the Pacific Coast Air Museum at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
The drone is on permanent loan from the Air Force to the Sonoma County collection, which has been qualified to get such aircraft by the National Museum of the United States, said Dave Pinsky, air museum director.
?We are one of only eight museums worldwide to have this drone,? said Pinsky, who oversees a museum that now has 32 aircraft, many from the Cold War era.
The Lockheed drone is 42 feet long and, when the wings are attached, will be 19 feet wide. It is made of titanium and covered with flat-black paint and radar-absorbing material.
The museum?s model was the 22nd of 38 built between 1963 and 1971 and had been stored at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.
The drone was designed to be launched from the back of an SR-21 spy plane, which was the prototype for much of its stealth shape and materials as part of a CIA program called Tagboard and later Super Bowl.
When a spy plane was destroyed and a crew member killed during a July 1966 launch, the program was revamped to use B-52 bombers and a booster rocket.
?The booster was larger than the drone ? when that lit off, it was like fireworks,? Hazlett said. ?It would drop, within seconds the booster would ignite, we could see it and then it?d be gone.?
The drone could reach a speed of more than 2,000 mph and an altitude of 90,000 feet, taking pictures as it flew over a pre-programmed path.
It would then drop the film cannister and camera, which would be snatched mid-air over a country friendly to the United States, and the drone would self-destruct.
At least that was the plan.
In four flights over China, one drone disappeared, a second cannister crashed into the ground when the parachute didn?t open, the cannister from a third flight was run over by a Navy vessel and the fourth flight ended with the drone crashing in Siberia.
The star-crossed program was also expensive ? each flight cost $5.5 million ? and it was discontinued in 1971.
?The climate of using these over China changed,? said Jim Cook, who oversees the museum?s restorations. ?It was irritating the Chinese ... they saw it flying across and couldn?t do anything about it.?
The technology was very advanced for its time.
There were no Global Positioning System satellites, so the drones had an inertial navigation system for guidance and the B-52s relied on a celestial navigation system that would lock onto 58 stars to determine a precise location.