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How 1 Error Let Russia Get Their Hands on a Cutting Edge Spy Drone

How 1 Error Let Russia Get Their Hands on a Cutting Edge Spy Drone

Michael Peck

History, Asia

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usairforce/4931483327/in/photolist-8vM9bB

The sleek D-21.

Key point: Sometimes your prized machines wander off right into the enemy’s hands.

In November 1969, the U.S. Air Force sent Russia an early Christmas gift.

It was a sleek flying machine that bore an uncanny resemblance to the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

The American generosity was purely unintentional. The aircraft was actually a cutting-edge drone dispatched on a mission to photograph Communist Chinese nuclear sites. And the drone did what it was supposed to until it failed to turn around, and kept on going north into Siberia before crashing.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Russia paid the skilled aircraft designers at Lockheed the highest compliment: they tried to copy their work.

The drone in question was the D-21. With its graceful delta wings, the D-21 resembled a miniature SR-71, which was no coincidence given that they were products of Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works, the originator of many an amazing secret project. In fact, the D-21 was originally designed to be mounted and launched from the tail of an SR-71, itself famous for its Mach 3 speed and its 85,000-feet maximum altitude.

The D-21 was conceived in the mid-1960s as a solution to the problem of spying on the Soviet Union. Soviet surface-to-air missiles, like the one that downed a U-2 over Russia in 1960, were making photo missions over Communist territory more hazardous. The SR-71 could fly high and fast enough to be safe, but why risk a manned aircraft and its pilot when a robot could do the job?

The idea was for the D-21 to be mounted atop an M-21, a specially modified two-seat SR-71, according to documents recently declassified by the National Reconnaissance Office. After completing its mission, the drone would eject its film canister, which would be snatched in mid-air by a C-130 transport. But launch problems, including an accident that crashed the launch M-21 and killed one crewman, saw the B-52H as the new launch vehicle for the improved D-21B.

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Kamala Harris cutting staff, renegotiating contracts as campaign restructures before Iowa

Kamala Harris cutting staff, renegotiating contracts as campaign restructures before Iowa Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is dramatically restructuring her presidential campaign — cutting staff, reducing pay and renegotiating contracts — in an attempt to focus limited resources on Iowa and South Carolina. “In a field … read more