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OXCART DRIVER

By: Chip Dobson


It was 4 June 1968, and dawn was breaking a brilliant gold over the eastern horizon. Streaks of amber and azure chased away the indigo of night. In a restricted area of Kadena Airbase Okinawa, a section apart from the other locales on base, the A-12 Oxcart, Article 129, as it is officially designated, sat in its hanger undergoing a preflight check for a scheduled engine check flight. A complaint from another Oxcart driver had prompted replacement of one of its fuel thirsty Pratt & Whitney J-58 engines. This would be a routine test hop probably not unlike slow timing a new Wright Cyclone on a four engine bomber twenty-five odd years earlier. With one notable exception; this check flight would be performed at Mach 3+. The sleek black bird has been moved out of the hanger with a half load of fuel, enough to take off and climb to rendezvous with a KC-135 tanker. As a matter of fact, the A-12’s successor would come to be known as just that, Blackbird. She is dripping fuel, less than sixty drops per minute, which is acceptable. That really is an odd quirk for an aircraft so technologically advanced that every type of synthetic lubricant, hydraulic fluid, plastic, paint, insulation, and fuel, just to mention a few, had to be invented after the aircraft was designed. The temperatures of the revolutionary carbon composite skin will be so high during flight that the fuel tanks will actually expand and the seals will stop leaking. The aircraft will in fact grow an inch or so in size during its high speed flight. By late morning the crew chief and his men have completed the extensive, tedious process of preflighting the speedy steed for its jaunt. She is now mated with her driver, Jack Weeks, for the scheduled flight. Jack has drawn the duty for today, not having flown in the past few days. Final planning and preparations are completed by early afternoon and Jack lights the fires in the big J-58 jets. Each engine will produce 32,500 pounds of thrust to push the Oxcart up to operating speed and altitude today. And when this routine check flight is completed the A-12 will be ready to fly home to Area-51 in the Nevada desert. Weeks taxies the sleek speedster out to the runway, receives his clearance for take-off and pushes the throttles toward the firewall. The deafening roar of the unleashed power is hardly perceptible to Weeks as the G-forces build and the mighty black bird leaps into the sky on its appointment with destiny. Jack sets course for his refueling hook-up and replenishes his thirsty mount’s provision. Fully loaded, the A-12 will carry 11,000 gallons (68,000 pounds) of the specially developed JP-7 jet fuel. Decoupled from the fuel boom, Weeks points the Oxcart to the south and begins performing the predetermined engine checks. As the speed increases the temperature outside the cockpit rises. Air temp is probably 70 degrees below zero but friction of the air against plane at high Mach speeds causes temperature of the titanium and composite fiber skin to reach as high as 1000 degrees Fahrenheit at some areas around the engines. The temperature radiating from the canopy and windscreen is above 600 degrees. But Weeks is comfortable in the cramped cockpit due to his custom-made S-901 aluminized high altitude pressure suit. This flying suit is based on the type of suit developed for pilots of the X-15 rocket aircraft, and costs an incredible $30,000. Weeks surveys the array of gauges, dials and switches on the instrument panel. A highly trained test pilot with years of experience in this ultra high performance jet, Jack Weeks puts his craft through its paces checking all aspects of engine performance. It was just another day at the office, albeit, a very fast “office”.

Jack Weeks has been flying these top secret, supersonic aircraft for several years. Recruited for this assignment by the CIA in 1961, Jack Weeks was one of eleven Air Force pilots who resigned their commissions to work for the Agency on this highly classified project. After batteries of psychological testing and evaluations, which even included interviews and evaluations of spouses, Weeks and the other selectees got their orders. Receiving tremendous amounts of highly detailed information and exhaustive training by Lockheed engineers and project pilots, Weeks and the others began testing and operating the new A-12 aircraft in April 1962, pushing the envelope in this “Wild Stallion”, as one driver called it. The development of the aircraft was code named Project OXCART and was a classified program of the Lockheed “Skunk Works”. The plane was to replace the Lockheed U-2 Reconnaissance airplane then operating with the Central Intelligence Agency. The U-2, flying at high altitudes and subsonic speeds had become vulnerable to shoot-down, as happened to Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union on 1 May 1960. A new, faster flying, higher altitude reconnaissance platform was needed that would operate far out of reach of our adversaries. Chief Lockheed Engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was head of the project. Development began in April 1958 and various configurations were studied and assigned code names “Archangel-1”, “Archangel-2”, etc. During development the nomenclature soon became simply “A-1”, “A-2”, etc. Hence, the final aircraft designation became “A-12”. The research and development proceeded under the randomly selected codename OXCART and eventually the aircraft assumed that moniker also. The R&D work took place in the Company’s facility in Burbank California and as preliminary production began, it was soon realized that normal aircraft construction materials were not sufficient for the new aircraft’s specifications. Titanium was needed for the major airframe components. All new tooling and manufacturing equipment had to be developed to work the new medium. So much of this scarce new material was needed that, ironically, supplies had to be clandestinely procured from the Soviet Union; the Cold War enemy the new airplane was designed to spy on! As Lockheed proceeded with their work, engineers had to re-invent the wheel. Besides needing new metal for the plane, all new materials were necessary to withstand the tremendous heat generated by Mach 3 flight. As was previously mentioned new fuel, fluids, lubricants, paint and composite skin materials had to be invented. Not to mention new extremely high resolution cameras had to be developed to operate at unprecedented altitude and under intense heat conditions. None of these products existed when the A-12 was first envisioned. The obstacles and technical difficulties facing Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works research engineers were nearly insurmountable. But the airplane finally became a reality, and a total of 15 “Articles”, as they were called, were eventually delivered to the CIA. Security was so stringent that the new aircraft could not be flown from the California base. A completely new isolated test site had to be found. A remote, inaccessible area in the Nevada desert near Groom Lake was selected and identified as Area-51. When the base was completed more than a year later, Jack Weeks and the other pilots reported there to continue their work with the CIA. Flying and training was carried out in ultimate secrecy for several years before the aircraft were considered ready for operational flights. But not without mishap. Three aircraft were lost in training accidents; Article 123 in May of 1963, Article 133 in July 1964 and Article 126 in December 1965. (In the end a total of six A-12’s and two pilots would be lost in crashes.) All the while, family and friends did not know the true nature of their jobs. Weeks was given the cover story of working for Hughes Aircraft Company. And that is what his family believed, even when he deployed overseas.

Since over flights of the Soviet Union had been forbidden by Presidential order, a new mission had to be found for the hot new airplane. Far too much money had been invested in Project OXCART for it to languish on the sidelines. So its mission was defined and Operation Black Shield became operational. The support unit, over 250 members of the 1129th US Air Force Special Activities Squadron, (SAS) as it had been designated at its inception, was airlifted to Kadena Airbase, Okinawa. Three aircraft and three pilots were deployed. The “Articles” (numbered 127, 129 and 131), painted black and having no markings other than red tail numbers that were changed after each mission, were flown over the Pacific by Jack Weeks and two other drivers. Also deployed was the specially trained and equipped 903rd Aerial Refueling Squadron from Beal Air Force Base with their massive KC-135 tankers. These flying gas stations were a critical element in all Oxcart operations. Surveillance flights over North Vietnam began in May of 1967 and continued until March of 1968. Missions were flown on a regular basis and much important intelligence was gathered on the North Vietnamese enemy. These CIA operations remained highly classified until just recently. These new revelations alluded to several missions where SAM missiles were fired on the A-12’s and slight damage was sustained by one aircraft on a mission over Hanoi-Haiphong. In October 1967, six missiles were launched at Article 131 and three detonated, one within 200 yards of the Oxcart. The missiles and contrails clearly appeared in the mission photographs. A piece of shrapnel was recovered from the lower right wing near the fuel tank. Several subsequent flights were also fired upon but no further damage occurred.

While surveillance of North Vietnam was going on in 1967 and 1968, another incident took place involving Communist North Korea. The USS Pueblo was in international waters off the coast of North Korea on a signal intelligence mission. On 23 January 1968 the Pueblo was boarded and seized by North Korean forces, claiming the ship was inside their territorial waters. The ship was transported to a secret location for examination. CIA officials, with approval of the President decided to authorize a mission over North Korea to find the ship and determine if the North was mobilizing for further hostilities against the South. On the morning of 26 January, Jack Weeks took off in Article 131 and made three passes over the peninsula north of the DMZ at Mach 3.1 at 90,000 feet. Photo interpreters and analysts found the ship clearly pictured in a small bay north of Wonsan. The photos proved the ship was there and the Koreans could not deny the obvious. Armed with this evidence, it still took nearly a year of diplomatic wrangling to obtain the release of the surviving crewmembers. Several more missions were flown over both North Korea and North Vietnam between January and May 1968 before political considerations required the cessation of Operation Black Shield. With the orders cut, the personnel prepared to return home to the Nevada desert. One aircraft, however, exhibited a problem in one engine and it required replacement. With the task completed, Jack Weeks was assigned to perform an engine check flight on the morning of 4 June 1968.

This brings us back to Article 129 cruising at 2,150 miles per hour, nearly 17 miles above the Pacific Ocean south of Okinawa. About one half hour into the flight, Jack has performed nearly all the required checks for the engine test and will be returning to Kadena. By this time, Jack Weeks, call sign “Dutch 29”, is 520 miles east of Manila, Philippine Islands. All systems meet performance parameters. It is time to take his Oxcart back to the barn. But then, suddenly, something out of the ordinary, maybe a gauge reading in the red. Perhaps a dial showing high engine temperature. Maybe a loss of hydraulic pressure. What ever it was, it was not normal. In a split second the years of training for just such a contingency takes over. Procedures to perform to counter the problem. Got to act fast. At this speed Jack’s plane is flying faster than a rifle bullet. No time to lose. Maybe the plane starts to vibrate, buffeting severely. If there is engine trouble, is it the same engine that was replaced? What is going wrong? Possibly the plane yaws badly due to reduced thrust from the troubled power plant. If so, maybe Weeks chops the throttle to compensate. Working at a frantic pace, Jack moves by instinct, checking gauges, flipping switches, not having to think, only to act, and then react to the next gauge showing a malfunction. This bird is not designed to perform at high G-loads. Jack knows normal operation is a maximum of 2-G’s. That is why it takes an arc of 85 miles to do a 180 and reverse direction. He can’t horse this wild stallion around in the sky. The plane is in severe trouble and he may have to punch out. When? Now? Possibly Weeks wonders if he can even survive ejecting at this speed. Then in less time than it takes to think it, let alone say it, it is all over. Traveling at that speed, the occurrence just speculated by this writer probably happened in a flash. The onboard monitoring system, called BIRDWATCHER, sending telemetry back to Kadena indicated engine trouble and catastrophic engine failure was the most probable cause. Disintegration of the aircraft was probably total, complete, and instantaneous. No trace of the aircraft was ever found and the investigation turned up no further evidence about the cause of the crash.

Thus ended the life and career of a true hero, a highly trained pilot, close friend of many and a devoted husband and father. It was only after his death that his widow, Sharlene Weeks, learned the true nature of his work over the past seven years. Jack Weeks was posthumously awarded the CIA Intelligence Star for Valor, along with the other five operational pilots. At the end of his affiliation with the CIA, Jack Weeks would have returned to his Air Force career. The Birmingham, Alabama native, 1955 graduate of the University of Alabama would have adjusted to flying airplanes much slower than the Oxcart, and not been able to tell a living soul what he had been doing. However, he would have been justifiably proud of those quiet accomplishments. And he would have come home and been able to watch his kids and later his grandkids grow up in the bosom of a loving family. But, no! Duty called and Jack Weeks answered.

On 4 June 2008, the fortieth anniversary of his tragic and untimely death, Jack Weeks was honored at a ceremony at Battleship Park in Mobile, Alabama. This tribute to a brave and dedicated Cold Warrior was attended by his widow, Sharlene Weeks, and his children and grand children. Also attending were former associates from the CIA, pilots, engineers, support personnel and many other contractors that contributed to the development and operation of the Oxcart aircraft and its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird. A special art work was commissioned and unveiled at the event depicting the mission that Weeks flew to locate the USS Pueblo. Dignitaries, guests and aviation buffs alike attended the Jack Weeks Tribute. The following day a symposium was hosted at the Battleship Aircraft Pavilion that seated ten members of The Roadrunners Internationale, the group of former CIA pilots, engineers, and support personnel who worked on Project OXCART. This illustrious group holds annual reunions to get together, share experiences and remember their contributions to the operation of the fastest most advanced jet aircraft ever flown. And it was this writer's good fortune to meet and be in the company of those Victors of the Cold War.

Respectfully Submitted,


Chip Dobson
Secretary South Alabama Wing
8th Air Force Historical Society

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