He was a Cold War warrior, paid by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fly missions in a top secret aircraft that was tested in the remote southern Nevada desert at Groom Lake.
Frank Murray, 70, of Gardnerville, Nev. flew the A-12 in classified missions at the height of the Cold War over North Vietnam and North Korea in the 1960s.
Now he can talk about it.
Murray, flying at an altitude in excess of 80,000 feet, and faster than Mach 3, was one of the few who's job was to fly over and photograph denied areas, eluding radar tracking.
The A-12 program, code named OXCART was a part of Lockheed Advanced Development Projects. In April 1962, Lockheed's chief test pilot Lou Schalk took the first A-12, known as Article 121 on its maiden flight at Groom Lake. The next year, Murray, along with 10 others were selected as pilots for the OXCART program.
As an Air Force pilot, he thought he was volunteering to be a chase pilot on NASA projects.
"When I found out what it really was, I just about jumped out of my skin," he said.
"I knew I was going to have the time of my life." "It was a high caliber of personnel," he said. "We all had to go through intense psychological and physical testing, not to mention being able to stand wearing a pressure suit."
Murray was accustomed to flying F-101's and F-86's, but the OXCART program would be a whole new experience. His squadron, Detachment 1129 SAS, also known as the Roadrunners, consisted of six CIA operational pilots who were deployed out of Groom Lake to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa for overflights of North Vietnam. The squadron's first operational flight was May 31, 1967 where the A-12 photographed 70 of the known 190 SAM missile sites in North Vietnam.
A total of 29 operational sorties were flown out of Kadena. On January 26, 1968, Murray was the first to fly over and photograph North Korea to assess the seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korean gunboats.
"I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if I'd be detected," he said. "But after leveling off at 75,000 feet, I made three passes over North Korea and took lots of imagery." I photographed the entire country, he said.
While in the states, Murray went to work like most folks, only he boarded a plane that took him to Area 51.
The Squadron would live at the base Monday through Friday and come home on weekends. Stella, his wife of 48 years didn't know where he was, but she had a way to get in touch with him should the need arise.
But on June 26, 1968, Stella was among other project pilots' spouses invited to the base to witness Murray and his colleagues receive the CIA Intelligence Star for Valor-the highest intelligence honor awarded by the Agency. Shortly before that, the A-12 was officially retired. The Air Forces's SR-71's had already arrived at Kadena as the A-12's replacement.
From Groom Lake, Murray had the privilege of making the final flight in Article 131 to Palmdale, Calif. "I was honored to have that opportunity, "he said. "I hated to shut the engines down after that flight with the knowledge that those wonderful airplanes were certainly not worn out, just put to bed long before they should have been." It was a sad end to the OXCART program, he said. Murray
Following the demise of OXCART Murray returned to Air Force duty. "Along came my turn to go to the scuffle in Vietnam flying the A-1 Skyraider out of Thailand," he said. "I started my military career as an airplane and engine mechanic and was an instructor in the A&E school at Sheppard Air Force base in Texas," he said.
Murray"s pilot training started in 1952 at Columbus, Miss. and Laredo, Texas. While in training, Frank met Stella.
"My first Fighter Squadron assignment was at Chaumont, France flying F-84G's and the F-86 Sabrejet.
It was a great tour, he said. " Lovely assignment for newlyweds." In 1956 Murray returned to the states, where he flew the F-84F, the F101A, the F-94C and the F-101B fighters.
He retired as a Lt. Col. and in 1999 he moved from Flagstaff, Ariz. to Gardnerville, where he and Stella are close to their two daughters and grandchildren.
Murray is past president and now historian of Roadrunners Internationale. The group is comprised of those who worked on both the U-2 and A-12 spyplane projects, including government contractors, CIA, project pilots and crewmembers. The organization which boasts a membership of more than 300 meets biennially to catch up on each other's lives and trade war stories. At this year's reunion, the five remaining project pilots met for the first time since 1995. With Murray were Ken Collins, Denny Sullivan, Mele Vojvodich, Jack Layton along with Hugh "Slip" Slater, commander of the OXCART detachment.
Murray is very earnest in keeping the heritage alive.
He keeps a scrapbook with newspaper clippings and photos from the old days, which adds to his office full of memorabilia and medals from his Air Force and CIA careers.
With more than six thousand total flying hours, Murray, now retired, is busy with a variety of hobbies, including building and flying Radio Controlled Airplanes, restoring vintage motorcycles, talking to old friends through his Ham Radio, and reminiscing about his flying days. Behind his house sits a 1,200 square foot workshop/RV barn where he spends time enjoying his hobbies.
Murray is a member of the Gardnerville-based Sierra SageBrush Flyers, a radio-controlled model airplane club.
"I am still fairly active," he said. "I do fixed wing and helicopters as well as a bit of Hydro."
The group gets together for fly-ins and contests on a regular basis in addition to involvement in a variety of community service activities. Murray is also an avid Ham Radio operator. "I keep regular scheduled contacts with about 10 old friends from all over the country," he said. "It's a great hobby for people of all ages."
A number of remaining A-12's are on display throughout the country including the prototype # 60-6924 at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum's Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, Calif.
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