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In the early 1960s, Lockheed had developed the Mach 3 "A-12" spyplane that the CIA recognized as a possible mothership for an advanced reconnaissance drone. A program to launch such a drone from the A-12 took precedence after Power's U-2 was brought down in the Soviet Union. The highly secret drone was given the preliminary designation of "Q-12.".

To limit its weight and cost, the Q-12 was designed to be expendable. Its camera payload and guidance system were constructed in its nose section to be ejected and recovered after a parachute descent.

The Q-12, its name changed to D-21, was carried on the back of the A-12 launch vehicle designated as "M-21." ("M" designated "Mother" and "D" stood for "Daughter." The project now had the codename "Tagboard".

Built with titanium and various radar-absorbing plastic composites, the "D-21A", looked like a stovepipe with a cone in its inlet. Its vertical tailfin and wings running the length of the stovepipe that gave the drone something of the look of a sweptback manta ray. Forty-two feet, 10 inches, 11,000 pounds, and having a wingspan of 19 feet, the D-21 flew up to 1,700 MPH at a ceiling of 95,000 feet and 3,450 mile range.

A "Q-bay," contained the reconnaissance payload and guidance systems in a module (known as a "hatch") that plugged neatly into the bay where it could be ejected at the end of the mission to be snagged out of the air by a C-130 Hercules similar to the method used by the Air Force to recover film canisters from reconnaissance satellites.

The M-21 was a two-seat version of the A-12, with a pylon on the fuselage centerline between the tailfins to carry the drone in a nose-up attitude. A periscope allowed the back-seater, or "Launch Control Officer (LCO)", to keep an eye on the D-21. Two M-21s were built, along with an initial batch of seven D-21s for test flights.

The first (non-launch) flight of the M-21 and D-21 combination was on 22 December 1964 to study aerodynamics and other systems issues. The first launch occurred on 5 March 1966. Though deemed successful, it concerned the flight crew that the drone hovered above the back of the M-21 for several seconds.

The second successful launch took place on 27 April 1966, prompting plans to construct 15 more D-21s. A third flight on 16 June 1966 was successful, however a launch attempt on 30 July ended in disaster when the D-21 collided with the M-21 on release, destroying both aircraft. The two crewmen ejected safely and landed at sea, but one drowned when his pressure suit leaked. This accident terminated the D-21 project as far as the A-12 (M-21) was concerned. The Tagboard project became Senior Bowl and continued with a B-52 used as the mothership launch vehicle. The D-21 drone was ultimately replaced by the new KH-11 Keyhole reconnaissance satellite.

Thirty-eight D-21s were built, with 21 expended. The other 17 were put in mothballs at the Davis-Montham Air Force Base "boneyard" near Tucson, Arizona. Four of the drones were eventually transferred to the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) in the late 1990s. NASA considered using their D-21s to test a hybrid "rocket-based combined cycle (RBCC)" (ramjet) engine, however, this idea was abandoned, with NASA preferring to use a derivative of the agency's X-43A hypersonic test vehicle for the experiments. The remainder ended up in air museums.






Commander:                   Col Arden B. Curfman*

DCOP:                              LTC Edward C. Wright*

DCOT:                               LTC Marvin. R. Leitzel*

DCO                                   LTC Charles E. Simpson*

            Senior Bowl Pilots:

      ·       LTC Dick Baldwin

·       Maj. Robert E. Haynes

·       Maj. J. W. Sayer

·       Maj. John  Soper

·       Maj. Thomas J. Arnone

·       Capt. Wayne E. Hostetler

·       Capt. Robert A. Holbrook

·       Capt. James A. Fain Jr.

·       Capt. Robert J. Haley

         B-52H Navigators:

 ·       Maj. Archie G. Slaten

·       Maj. Richard J. Hamel

·       Capt. Richard F. Trowbridge

·       Capt. Kenneth O. LaVergne

·       Capt. Frank A. Koi

·       Capt. John R. Hazlett

·       Capt. Ronald H. Combs

 D-21B Launch Control Officers:

 ·       Capt. Carter S. Miller

·       Capt. William E. Klein

·       Capt. James A. Scherer

·       Capt. Thomas. R. Allocca

·       Capt. Ernest Cy Wilson

·       Capt. Grant H. Everett

·       Capt Larry A. Elliott

·       Capt John T. Fuller

 4200th Support Squadron Maintenance:

 ·       LTC  Eugene F. Keutzer - DCM

·       Capt. Glenn W. Ferebee                (B-52H)

·       Capt. G. S. Hendrick                     (B-52H)

·       Capt. William H. Smith                 (D-21B)

·       Capt. J. A. Thomas                       (D-21B)


 ·       LTC Daniel J. Paparoski – DCOP –KC-135

·       Maj. Robert  J. Circe

·       Maj. Junius H. Kershaw

·       Capt. Richard W. Dondero DCI

·       Lt. Craig Libuse - SECURITY

                     * On the B-52H pilot roster as line pilots


Links to more about the D-21 Tagboard/Senior Bowl Programs

Leland's Site


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Posted Thornton D. Barnes

By Thornton D. Barnes Publisher