When the D-21B flew, it was programmed to self-destruct at the end of its mission. If you see a whole, unwrecked D-21 in a museum, that means it never flew. 38 drones were built in total. 21 were launched and destroyed. This left a fleet of 17 remaining aircraft. After the program was cancelled on July 23, 1971, this particular drone, article 525, was stored with the entire surviving fleet on Norton AFB near San Bernardino, California.
In 1976, the fleet was transported to the The Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (now called the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona. This location is otherwise known as “The Boneyard”. Our drone was slated for destruction, but NASA came to the rescue. On June 1, 1994, four D-21B drones were loaded into Boeing C-17 aircraft and flown to NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (Now NASA Armstrong). There, NASA prepared these aircraft for display at civilian museums. This required the removal of engines which contain radioactive material. The engines were trucked back to the Boneyard for destruction and our D-21B #0525 has been on display at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, California since October 1994, on loan from NASA.
In 2013, Massoud Hassani came to Kickstarter with Mine Kafon, a low-cost, wind-powered, tumbleweed-like mine detonator. It came to be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection and was hailed as “an act of design justice."
Now, Hassani is back on Kickstarter with a drone designed to safely locate and detonate landmines. With the Mine Kafon Drone, he aims to eliminate all land mines around the world within the next ten years.
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 D-21 #0538. Later, I would learn that this was the final D-21 ever made. 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. This D-21 now sits outside because of museum budget cuts. She’s is up for disposal, so this may have been the last time I ever see her.
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 an MD-21 aircraft, which was built from the ground up based on the A-12, the predecessor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Once at proper altitude and speed, the drone was separated from the 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 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 had the lowest radar cross section of anything the Skunk Works developed until up until they worked on the F-117. 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.
This Friday, we’re thrilled to debut the first solo museum exhibition by artist, filmmaker, and journalist Laura Poitras. This immersive installation of new work builds on topics important to Poitras, including mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantanamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture. We’ll be posting live from the press preview on Twitter and Instagram starting at 10 am EST.
Laura Poitras (b. 1964), ANARCHIST: Power Spectrum Display of Doppler Tracks from a Satellite (Intercepted May 27, 2009), 2016. Archival pigment print on aluminum, 45 ¼ × 65 in. Courtesy the artist
On Sunday, April 17, the award-winning poet Anne Carson will present a staged reading of her full-length poem, Lecture on the History of Skywriting, at the Whitney. The reading will be followed by a conversation between Carson and Faisal bin Ali Jaber, an engineer from Yemen whose brother-in-law Salem and nephew Waleed were killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2012.
Installation view of Laura Poitras: Astro Noise (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 5—May 1, 2016). Photograph by Ronald Amstutz
Bed Down Location is a projection of the night skies over Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, countries where the U.S. military conducts “targeted killings” using unmanned aircraft. The work also includes footage from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where the military tests and flies drones. The title of the work refers to the military term denoting where a targeted person sleeps.
Installation view of Laura Poitras: Astro Noise (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 5—May 1, 2016). Photography by Ronald Amstutz
Last month, someone didn’t want to pay the admission to our weekend outdoor craft festival so they stayed outside the grounds, unseen, and flew their huge, loud, personal drone in. It hovered above us for two days, getting a private tour of the grounds through the onboard camera.
It seemed a bit like this…
Putting aside the concerns about how this was probably illegal and certainly dangerous, let’s consider the fact that this person can afford a personal drone but was too cheap to pay admission to a museum festival.