Lockheed Paparazzi: Aerial Recon, the P-38 and the SR-71

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
I was reading and enjoying some comments this past couple of weeks about the SR-71.

It’s amazing how this magnificent plane still carries a shroud of secrecy around its existence, even though you can now walk up to many on display (notably at Palmdale’s Blackbird Airpark) and take pictures to your heart’s content. Many SR-71 pilots will happily share previously untold stories of sitting “in the tip of the sword.”

With all the gloss and storytelling around the hangar, one aspect of the SR-71/U-2 project and its history is always overlooked. An important piece of the Lockheed legacy when it comes to aircraft with cameras is lost in high Mach numbers and classified documents that keep the fans wanting more. Being a history guy who likes to rewind the clock way back, I felt it was time to pay tribute to the real trailblazers and pioneering aircraft that made Lockheed Skunk works projects a reality in later years.

The plane that put Lockheed in the business of long range reconnaissance aircraft and the father of the U-2 and SR-71, the Lockheed F-4/5 Lightning. (Courtesy photograph)

Reconnaissance in war is considered by many the most important aspect of warfare, as knowing what your enemies are up to is the key to winning or holding the line in combat. Starting as far back as the Civil War a view above the battlefield was the most desired way of getting that intelligence. In World War I, with the advent of the airplane, many a brave soul took to the air to get a personal account of what was going on and report his findings back to headquarters. It didn’t take long for combatants to figure out that, of all the planes to be dispatched to the air, the intelligence gathering aircraft were the highest priority and needed to be shot down.

So it was no big surprise when in 1936, with war clouds raising around the world, the Army Air Corps determined that it needed a high-speed fighter. They found it with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a fast (350 mph plus) and maneuverable fighter with long range. It was this design and this design alone that began the military’s long-term relationship with Kelly Johnson, which led to Lockheed’s involvement in aerial reconnaissance and the development of the U-2 and SR-71 programs.

The story of the Grand Dad of modern-day reconnaissance aircraft went into full production in World War II, as the Air Corps needed that long range and high speed to carry out missions deep into enemy territory. Photographic information was needed on enemy industrial, military and political complexes outside of the range of single-engine tactical photo aircraft. Kelly Johnson accomplished this by adding four K-17 cameras in the nose of a P-38 and performing tests. When the experiments were declared a success, Lockheed got its first order for strategic reconnaissance aircraft that would be produced as the F-4 and F-5 Lightning photo reconnaissance variants of the P-38. They would become the standard United States Army Air Forces photo aircraft in Europe and the Pacific.

Lt. Marshall Edward “Moon” Mullens of the 28th photo Reconnaissance Squadron, 7th Army Air Force 318th Fighter Group. (Courtesy photograph)

The next step for Lockheed was the advent of the P-80 jet aircraft before the end of World War II. It wasn’t long before the F-4 camera system made its way into the gun bay of an YP-80A. The conversion was successful and the USAAF ordered the aircraft into production under the designation F-14A — later changed to RP-80A/RF-80A.  

Thinking back to this time period, it’s easy to forget all the pilots that were in the cockpits of all those pioneering Lockheed photo recon planes. They never got the headlines like their modern-day counterparts who piloted those sleek black project planes into the imaginations of every American that loves fast planes and records surrounded by secrecy. The reality was those early pilots in those first precursors of Lockheed’s high-altitude fliers and Mach busters were doing the majority of their work on the deck at breakneck speeds, with a lot of luck flying co-pilot.

Flying a record run between Los Angeles and London is a sure way to get a fanbase going, but thinking back to guys like longtime Lancaster resident Marshall Mullins and his reconnaissance runs in the year of flying mission off of Saipan in World War II, I will just say they deserve as much recognition as their modern day counterparts and credit for helping to develop the current tactics for modern day combat intelligence (including drones and those troops that remote-pilot them from long distance.)  Lt. Mullins flew 64 combat missions and never had an aircraft that was armed. He did that at treetop level, with enemy gunfire from other aircraft and ground troops that did all they could to knock his Lockheed F-5 Lightning out of the sky. During World War II’s island-hopping campaign in the South Pacific, it was the Photo Joes who did their best to keep the soldiers on the beaches informed of enemy troop movements and placements. As bad as that brutal fighting was on those islands, it could have been a lot worse if not for the young men like Lt. Marshall Mullins and their Lockheed reconnaissance planes. 

Lt. Marshall Mullins, one of a long chain of pilots that took part in the missions that would end up in the cockpits of future reconnaissance aircraft built by Lockheed. Mullins would call the Antelope Valley home for many years and would spend 28 years working at Edwards AFB as a flight test engineer. (Courtesy photograph)

So here we are now, thinking about that long line of famous Lockheed super-sexy and stealthy Skunk Works projects that became legends. They had us lining up to watch in awe, seeking out those special individuals who were the hands-on participants in the greatest run of reconnaissance aircraft ever produced. Looking at an SR-71 on the ground, it still looks like it’s going Mach 3-plus just sitting there! But to these old eyes of mine and in my heart, I see past the sleek Blackbird and envision its predecessor, with those twin tails and twin engines all wrapped around a center nacelle. I think back to an old design from a company that was hatched in an old distillery that stunk like a skunk. The legendary Kelly Johnson took that Army Air Corps requirement for a top speed of 367 miles per hour and ended up on the edge of space, flying a classified speed that tops Mach 3. Well done, men and women of Lockheed — and well done to all those that strapped into a plane and flew the vision of the designers to its ultimate conclusion, making the world a safer place from those that would seek to do us harm no matter the generation.

Until next time, Bob out …

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