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CIA presents Silent Warrior medal to SD resident

LABOLT, S.D. — To hear him tell it, when Dennis Nordquist is at work on the new garage he is building next to the former Lutheran church he and his wife, Kathleen, call home, he experiences about the same level of bureaucratic interference he did when he and a small design team perfected the engines that powered the U.S.'s most successful Cold War-era supersonic spy planes.

Central Intelligence Agency Historian David Robarge characterized the Archangel project, code-named Oxcart, that resulted in the CIA's A-12 and subsequently the Air Force SR-71 Blackbird as: "complete trust between customer and contractor, individual responsibility and accountability, start-to-finish ownership of design, willingness to take risks, tolerance for failure, and streamlined bureaucracy with minimal staffing and paperwork."

Nordquist, 70, originally from Lake City, knows he lived through a golden age. He worked when U.S. engineers believed in their bones they could design planes to fly higher and faster than anything the Soviet Union or China could send up at them. They were given the freedom to build them, and there was the expectation the aircraft they made would provide the U.S. valuable intelligence.

"There was just an attitude 'you can do it,' " Nordquist recalls. "We were all young."

Nordquist recently was in Washington, D.C., where he and members of the Oxcart team were guests of the CIA for a reunion and were presented Silent Warrior medals by CIA Director Leon Panetta.

"That was a highlight for me, coming out of South Dakota," he says. It also was recognition of a classified project about which Nordquist and other participants had to remain silent for decades. Much of their work was declassified in 2007.

Kurt Hackemer, a University of South Dakota associate dean and military history professor, characterizes the Cold War as a time "when fears of conflict were much higher. When the stakes are really high, those intelligence activities are really critical. You need multiple sources of intelligence, and sometimes air reconnaissance will show you things nothing else will show you."

Nordquist's knows too that his role in this global drama was no small achievement for a kid from Lake City and a 1963 graduate of South Dakota State University with a mechanical engineering degree.

"I worked with all the Georgia Tech graduates and people from all the big schools around the country. I could keep up with them, no problem. The biggest thing in growing up in a small town is you learn to do things yourself."

Engineering graduates from land grant schools such as SDSU in the 1960s thought first of places such as John Deere and Caterpillar when seeking employment, Nordquist says.

"Then one company, Pratt & Whitney, crops up with their brochures of palm trees and beaches."

With a wife and young child, Nordquist set out for Florida. He was briefed on Oxcart six months after beginning work for Pratt & Whitney. They were creating engines to power a supersonic Lockheed-designed plane with first-generation stealth properties.

"You signed a document you would take this with you to your death."

Nordquist said he could not even tell his wife what he was working on. She was a typist with Pratt & Whitney and found the secrecy in character with the company.

"We were pounded about security weekly if not daily," she recalls. "We were a very secretive company in all regards. You never went to a restaurant or anywhere and talked about work."

In her own job as a typist, "we had to go into the basement and burn our typewriter ribbons every night," she says.

While he was primarily based in Florida, Nordquist also spent time at the military's secret Groom Lake test site, Area 51, "which we called Dreamland."

The A-12 was to be a successor to the U-2 spy plane even before one of those planes was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. With a ceiling of more than 90,000 feet and capable of flying faster than three times the speed of sound, the A-12 far exceeded the U-2's capabilities.

The first time Nordquist saw the A-12, his knees buckled.

"It was up there with seeing my wife for the first time on a blind date in Brookings."

The wedge-shaped A-12 with a gooselike slender neck was to be powered by a revolutionary turbo ramjet engine, the J58. Almost 50 years later, Nordquist's voice becomes animated when he talks about solving the problems created by the immense heat the engine generated flying at mach 3.2 and working with state-of-the-art metals such as titanium. Project members were exhilarated by what they were trying to accomplish.

"The question I had to ask myself when we were back in D.C. is 'God, how did we do it?' Well, we just did it.

"I closed my speech out there by saying until you spread your wings and fly, you never know how far you can fly. It's so true. You've just got to jump in. You will make mistakes. If you don't mistakes, you won't learn anything."

While A-12s supposedly never were flown over Russia, because surveillance satellites had been deployed and a treaty banning overflights by surveillance aircraft had been signed by the time the planes became operational in 1967, they were flown over North Vietnam. In 1968, an A-12 photographed a North Korean harbor to prove the captured U.S. intelligence gathering ship Pueblo was being held there.

The Air Force variant, the SR-71 Blackbird, flew missions from 1968 until 1989, when the program was deactivated. Flights resumed in 1995 for a year. The program was shut down again in 1999.

Nordquist figures his small-town upbringing prepared him well to become a groundbreaking engine designer.

His father ran a resort in Lake City. While the resort had indoor plumbing, Nordquist's own house was without it until he was 13, when he and his mother put in a bathroom because his dad was too busy working.

"My dad never held my hand," Nordquist says. "At times I wondered why. Now I understand. You learn it better when you have to do it yourself. He'd help me get started."

It's an attitude that he is proud he and his wife passed on to their four children. A daughter, Shelly, followed Nordquist into engineering.

A favorite grade school teacher, Frances Anderson, also helped convince Nordquist there was nothing he couldn't learn how to do. He visited her when he and his wife returned to South Dakota.

Going on 89, Anderson, now living in De Smet, recalls Nordquist as a sharp student. She was astounded to learn the effect she had on him.

"I just never knew it affected him that much," she says.

When Nordquist and his wife moved to South Dakota from Arizona a year ago, they had hoped to convert a barn to a home. Finding most of the barns beat up, the church in LaBolt was the next best thing.

This time in South Dakota, the Nordquists can bask in the successful career that was incubated during their first time here. His years in the secret program propelled him to high positions with corporations such as Honeywell Garrett, and when he yearned for the stripped-down bureaucracy of Oxcart, he started his own company, which he sold about 15 years ago.

That, too, is part of the Oxcart legacy.

"I got confidence in myself," Nordquist says. "That's what I learned in that program."

Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com