In the summer of 1962, a secret department of the Lockheed Company, the now vaunted Skunk Works, began researching into a new type of weapons platform. The project was so secret that only about one hundred people inside the department knew what they were doing. The program, code-named Tagboard had its origins with the Administration of President John Kennedy and it achieved operational status under the Nixon Administration. The project was so secret that even today, little detailed information is available. The idea behind Tagboard was the development of a flying drone capable of reaching deep inside the People’s Republic of China to gather sensitive information regarding the country’s infant nuclear program. Since the downing of Gary Power’s U-2 spyplane over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, the United States armed forces began the process of developing the concept of an unmanned, remotely controlled flying vehicle capable of penetrating hostile territory in order to gather information. The concept of a drone gathered support with the loss of four Taiwanese U-2 planes. They were shot down while trying to collect information about Chinese experimentation with nuclear devices and rocket systems in remote sites around the country. One of those sites was Lop Nor. Lop Nor was located two thousand miles inland, nearly at the Chinese-Mongolian border. This facility was the main target of US intelligence collection effort during the late 1950s and all thru the 1960s. The remoteness of the location meant that U-2 pilots had to fly a high risk, deep penetrating mission over rugged terrain for a long period of time. Here’s where Tagboard came in. Skunk Works engineers would develop a drone-type system that could be deployed from a SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. The drone they envisioned would fly at speeds above Mach 3, while operating at a height of 100,000 ft. After reaching its objective site, the drone would use it’s optical and electronic sensors to gather as much data as possible, then the platform would head back toward a recovery area. After reaching a pre-determined area, the drone would drop it’s camera film and an electronic gathering canister by parachute to a waiting US Navy destroyer. After accomplishing it’s mission, the drone system would self-destruct over the sea.

The idea of Tagboard originated deep inside the Skunk Works. One of its first proponents in the unit was the legendary Ben R. Rich. Rich pitched the idea to an even more legendary aviation eminence, Kelly Johnson; who at first balked at the concept. But political and military events, specially the downing of the four U-2s, persuaded him to pursue the idea. In the summer of 1962, Kelly Johnson met with John Parangosky at the Central Intelligence Agency to pitch the concept. The CIA was not interested, Parangosky stated. Johnson received almost the same answer when he went to the Air Force with the concept. But there were a Brigadier General, Leo Geary, the director of special projects for the US Air Force; who showed interest in the project. Geary pulled some favors and appropriated half a million dollars from the secret Black Projects contingency fund. Tagboard was born. The original concept called for the installation of a six inch ground resolution camera system in a small but sturdy airframe. The camera and electronic package had a combined weight of four hundred pounds; adding to the four hundred and twenty five pounds needed for the platform avionics. The system needed to have a long range capability, thus a minimum of three thousand nautical miles operational range was incorporated into the design equation by Johnson and his team. The first design plan of the new drone called for it to have the flat triangular shape of a manta ray. It was forty feet long and weighed in at seventy thousand pounds. The airframe was built from titanium and was powered by a Bomarc engine. The Bomarc was a ram jet engine design similar to the famous Marquardt engines once used in the development of ground to air missile systems. With the Bomarc, Tagboard could cruise three times faster than the speed of sound. The new drone also possessed the lowest radar cross section signature of any airborne system available at the time. It’s internal electronic packages included a then state-of-the-art, star tracker inertial guidance system that could be constantly updated via a computer feed from the Blackbird’s I.N. platform right up to the point of launch. The system was completely automated. Drone steering was achieved by stored digital signal directed at its hydraulic servo actuators. The system was capable of handling a sophisticated flight plan. It could handle numerous turns and twist to get to the pre-programmed location, then the system would instruct the drone to repeat the process for its extradition. When the drone made it out of hostile territory, the platform would proceed to release its payload in the form of a cone-type canister assisted by parachute. Then the drone would self-destruct.

Armed with Tagboard’s impressive blue print, Kelly Johnson descended on Washington during the second week of February 1963 to pitch the idea once again to the CIA. Again he was refused. The story was different at the Air Force. Secretary Harold Brown was impressed with the concept. He took the idea further, suggesting that the proposed drone platform could expand its mission profile to include the delivery of a nuclear payload. The Air Force’s interest in the project made the CIA think twice about the drone idea and on March 20th, 1963, the Central Intelligence Agency awarded a Letter of Contract to Lockheed, thus sharing budgetary and operational responsibilities with the Air Force. With this accord, the Tagboard project became the most secret program ever developed by the famous Skunk Works, even more secret that the assembly of it’s Blackbird aircraft. The Works became the new Fort Knox. In order to get inside the facility, engineers and operators were given secret passes. Regular background checks were performed on all those involved in the program. The strict regulations and security measures made a strained situation even more so. The task of designing and developing this new weapons system was daunting. The most technically challenging situation arose when the team began developing the form in which the drone would be delivered by an aircraft flying at three times the speed of sound. The sheer magnitude of the shockwave presented the engineering team with a monumental problem. It took the Works engineering teams nearly six months to figure out a possible solution to the dilemma. After gaining the upper hand in the deployment mechanism, other problems raised. The guiding system, parachute deployment mechanism, electronic and camera packages, and finally the avionics components; all were monster-like problems that needed solutions.

After three years of around the clock working, the drone system was finally ready to be unveiled to the air force and CIA top brass. On the morning of February 27th, 1965, with test pilot William “Bill” Park at the controls, a specially modified SR-71 took off from a secret Works facility carrying Tagboard with it. When the Blackbird reached the coast of California at an altitude of 80,000 feet, Park ignited the drone engine and Tagboard was released. It flew perfectly. Speeding at Mach 3.2, the drone flew 120 miles out to the sea before it ran out of fuel and crashed. The next month, another test flight proved to be even more successful. This time Tagboard flew an amazing 1,900 miles at a speed of Mach 3.3. The test showed that the drone’s aerodynamic characteristics were sound. The next test phase was designed to evaluate the complex steering system. On June 16th, 1966, the specially configured SR-71, again with Park at the controls, took off and headed to the California coast, just north of Los Angeles, he released the drone without any inconvenience. Tagboard made a 1,600 mile flight that included eight pre-programmed turns, at the same time the drone activated it’s camera system. The test was a complete success. The collected data on these early flights indicated that the system was a success. Aerodynamics, avionics, guidance, even the camera system; performed admirably during these early flights. The program seemed to be heading for full operational deployment sooner than expected when tragedy struck. On the afternoon of July 30th, 1966, Park and his weapons operator took off and proceeded west towards California. The test called for the release of the drone at Mach 3.25. But when deployed, the drone went down immediately and struck the Blackbird’s fuselage sending the aircraft into a tailspin. Park and his operator, Torick, ejected from the doomed aircraft, and splashed down 150 miles from the coast. Unfortunately, Torick opened his helmet visor while ejecting, thus at splashdown water began to pour into his pressure suit, sending him to the bottom of the sea. This was a setback to the program. Not only the loss of a crewman, which was daunting, but the lost of the modified SR-71, pushed the program back. Without anymore specially modified Blackbirds available anytime soon, Kelly Johnson drafted in the Strategic Air Command’s backbone, the B-52, as the vehicle to carry Tagboard. After meeting with then deputy secretary of defense, Cyrus Vance, Johnson got the go ahead to proceed with the use of a B-52 as a release platform. The air force supplied Johnson and his team with two of the massive bombers. Test flights commenced again in the winter of 1968. One B-52 would carry two Tagboard drones, one under each wing. The tests where conducted on the Hawaiian Islands and the drones were to follow a coordinated flight pattern. They flew over Christmas and Midway Islands, mapping them and anything that moved in the vast Central Pacific on their way there. The so called Captain Hook test flight series met considerable success during its fourteen month duration. The Air Force was really impressed with the results and by November 1969; Tagboard achieved operational status.

The drone system’s first operational mission, the over-flight of the Lop Nor region, was planned for November 9th. A sole B-52 took off from Beale Air Force Base, carrying two Tagboard drones in case one platform failed to separate from its mother-ship. When the B-52 reached its intended launching area, beyond China’s early warning radar stations, it deployed one Tagboard. The system penetrated Chinese airspace and proceeded to its target but communication with the system was lost before it reached Lop Nor. Guidance system error was believed to be the cause of the drone’s demise. Eleven months later, another operation was performed. This time Tagboard performed as advertised. It flew to the intended area and back, but when the system released its cargo, the cone parachute failed to open and the package plummeted to the bottom of the sea. The last operational flight of Tagboard occurred in late March 1971. This time, the drone was tracked by Chinese radar for the first time, 1,900 miles deep inside China, then the system disappeared from US tracking systems. The reason was never determined. The complexity of the system that was needed to launch and recover the drone and the limited operational success doomed the program. After this flight, the complete program was cancelled by the Nixon Administration in July 1971. In a footnote to the story of this remarkable system, in July 1986, a piece of Tagboard surfaced in Washington via a CIA courier. A Soviet agent gave the piece to a CIA counterpart during a Christmas party that past winter. Engineers promptly recognized the piece as being part of the second Tagboard mission drone, codenamed D21. It was found in Siberia by a local farmer. Although the program ended before the system could be further developed to meet new standards, Tagboard achieve legendary status serving as the cornerstone of the US unmanned aerial vehicle programs for decades.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Air Power, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
Front-Line Strike Aviation at the Threshold of the Missile Age, Alexandr Medved 1978
Russian X-Planes, Alan Dawes, Key Publishing 2001

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