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Cold War drone calls Beale home

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings
  • 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs
Overshadowed by the SR-71 Blackbird at Heritage Park sits a lesser known piece of military history, the D-21 Drone.

The mission of the D-21 was to provide high altitude aerial reconnaissance carrying a single high-resolution camera over a pre-programmed location and eject its hatch containing the film into the ocean, where it could be retrieved.

Originally designed in the early 1960s, the drone was meant to launch from a modified A-12 Blackbird known as the M-21, which is a predecessor of the SR-71. However, the program failed to perform high altitude high speed launches from this airframe.

"This was the most dangerous maneuver we have ever been involved in, in any aero plane I have ever worked on," said Kelly Johnson, the man in charge of the "Skunk Works" team and designer of the A-12.

In late 1967 a unique Air Force unit, the 4200th Test Squadron was formed at Beale to operate modified D-21s, which were subsequently launched from B-52 Stratofortress.

The B-52H D-21 combination, code named "Senior Bowl," flew a number of operational missions before the program ended in 1971.

The D-21 could ascend to altitudes more than 90,000 feet and exceed speeds more than 2,500 miles per hour.

Today the U.S. military has a multitude of remotely piloted aircraft which are successors of the D-21 Drone, flying missions around the globe.