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Cold War drone calls Beale home

Static displays of a D-21 Drone (left) and a SR-71 Blackbird shine in the morning sun March 14, 2013 on Beale Air Force Base, Calif. D-21 drones were designed for high altitude aerial reconnaissance in the 1960s and were launched from modified A-12 Blackbirds known as M-21s,  predecessors of the SR-71. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings/Released)

Static displays of a D-21 Drone (left) and a SR-71 Blackbird shine in the morning sun March 14, 2013 on Beale Air Force Base, Calif. D-21 drones were designed for high altitude aerial reconnaissance in the 1960s and were launched from modified A-12 Blackbirds known as M-21s, predecessors of the SR-71. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings/Released)

Historic photo of Two D-21 Drones attched to the wings of a B-52 Stratofortress. An Air Force unit known as the 4200th Test Squadron was formed at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in the late 1960s to operate modified D-21s, which were launched from the wings of B-52s (Courtesy photo)

Historic photo of Two D-21 Drones attched to the wings of a B-52 Stratofortress. An Air Force unit known as the 4200th Test Squadron was formed at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in the late 1960s to operate modified D-21s, which were launched from the wings of B-52s (Courtesy photo)

A D-21 static display sits at Heritage Park on Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 14, 2013. The D-21 was an unmaned aerial reconnaissance vehicle, which climbed to altitudes more than 90,000 ft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings/Released)

A D-21 static display sits at Heritage Park on Beale Air Force Base, Calif., March 14, 2013. The D-21 was an unmaned aerial reconnaissance vehicle, which climbed to altitudes more than 90,000 ft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings/Released)

Attched to this M-21, a modified A-12 Blackbird, is a D-21 Drone which were used for high altitude reconnaissance in the 1960s. (Courtesy photo)

Attched to this M-21, a modified A-12 Blackbird, is a D-21 Drone which were used for high altitude reconnaissance in the 1960s. (Courtesy photo)

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE Calif. -- 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.