How the U.S. Air Force Sent Russia Its Cutting Edge D-21B Drone

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Here's what to keep in mind: American generosity was unintentional. The plane was actually a state-of-the-art drone that was used on a mission to photograph Chinese Communist nuclear facilities. And the drone did what it should until it stopped turning and headed further north to Siberia before crashing.
In November 1969, the United States Air Force sent Russia an early Christmas present.
It was a slim flying machine that had an uncanny resemblance to the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
American generosity was unintentional. The plane was actually a state-of-the-art drone that was used on a mission to photograph Chinese Communist nuclear facilities. And the drone did what it should until it stopped turning and headed further north to Siberia before crashing.
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Russia has paid the greatest compliment to Lockheed's experienced aircraft designers: 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 as it was the product of Lockheed's famous Skunk Works, the creator of many amazing secret projects. In fact, the D-21 was originally designed to be mounted and launched at the rear of an SR-71, which is known for its Mach 3 speed and maximum height of 85,000 feet.
The D-21 was designed in the mid-1960s as a solution to the problem of espionage by the Soviet Union. Soviet surface-to-air missiles, launched in 1960 over Russia, made photo missions over communist territory more dangerous. The SR-71 could fly high and fast enough to be safe, but why risk a manned plane and its pilot if a robot could do the job?
The idea was to mount the D-21 on an M-21, a specially modified two-seater SR-71, as recently confirmed by documents released by the National Information Service. After completing their mission, the drone ejected its film canister, which was torn in the air by a C-130 transporter. But launch problems, including an accident that crashed the start of the M-21 and killed one crew member, saw the B-52H as a new launch vehicle for the improved D-21B.
Unfortunately, the project did not work as planned. There were four D-21B flights operated by B-52 from Guam. Their target was Communist China, especially China's nuclear test site in Lop Nor. All have failed. Of the last three, aerial restoration failed to restore film cans from two that crashed into flight to the Pacific while a drone crashed in China.
It is the fate of the first mission in November 1969 that is interesting. The D-21B crossed China - and continued to the Soviet Union, where it crashed.
"This was of great interest to the Soviet aircraft industry because it was a relatively compact machine, equipped with the latest reconnaissance equipment and designed for longer reconnaissance flights at high supersonic speeds under conditions of strong kinetic warming," writes Russian aviation historians Yefim Gordon and Vladimir Rigamant. "Many leading companies and organizations in the aircraft, electronics and defense industries have been commissioned to study the design of the D-21 along with the materials used in its construction, its production technology and its equipment."
The result was the Voron project ("Raven") to develop a strategic supersonic reconnaissance drone. The Voron would have been fired from a Tu-95 or Tu-160 bomber. After the separation, a solid fuel booster would have accelerated the drone to supersonic speed. According to Gordon and Rigamant, the jam beam would have triggered at this point. The vehicle would then follow a pre-programmed flight path using an inertial navigation system. As soon as the unmanned aircraft returned to the base, the film canister was ejected and landed on a parachute. Then the drone landed itself.
But similar to manned reconnaissance planes, the Voron idea fell victim to the advent of spy satellites that could fly over foreign territory without fear of being shot down. Another advantage is that satellites would not crash and would let the enemy recover their secrets, as happened to the D-21.
But at least nobody can accuse the Soviets of being indecent. In the mid-1980s, Lockheed engineer Ben Rich, who worked on the D-21, remembered getting a metal plate from a CIA employee. It was a piece of the D-21 that had crashed in Siberia and had been recovered by a shepherd. The piece was returned by a KGB agent.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for national interest. It can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article was first published last year.
Image: Wikipedia.
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