The facts do not lie. Not when they are honestly presented.
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During the first half of the 1950s, before the introduction of the U-2, the United States and its allies sent military aircrafts on secret reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. They flew over Siberia and behind the Ural Mountains, photographed cities such as Stalingrad, Murmansk, and Vladivostok, and on occasion were engaged by Soviet interceptors. These were never rogue operations. Between 1951 and 1956, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and Prime Minister Churchill periodically and on a case-by-case basis authorized these military overflights of the U.S.S.R. and other "denied territory." The risks were great, but so were the intelligence payoffs. The latter missions, which began before 1950 and continued throughout the Cold War, were known as the Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance Program, or PARPRO.
A few words of definition are necessary here. In using the term "overflight," I mean a flight by a government aircraft that, expressly on the direction of the head of state, traverses the territory of another state in peacetime without that other state’s permission. PARPRO aircraft did not possess overflight authorization, although a few of them did stray into Soviet territory or over the Soviet Union’s territorial waters; some were shot down.
A 1951 map shows why overflights of Soviet territory were considered so necessary.
The Cold War began in 1946 - 47 with the unraveling of the World War II alliance against the Axis powers. Anxious to preserve the independence of Western Europe in the face of a perceived military threat, Western leaders sought to determine the size, composition, and disposition of Soviet forces arrayed behind the "Iron Curtain." Late in 1946 Army Air Forces aircraft began flights along the borders of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. These PARPRO missions collected electronic and photographic intelligence, but their intelligence coverage was limited to peripheral regions. Before long, commanders of the new United States Air Force (USAF), formed by the National Security Act of 1947, sought permission to conduct direct overflights of Soviet territory, especially those regions in Siberia closest to Alaska.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), however, after consulting with the director of Central Intelligence and the secretaries of defense and state, consistently denied these requests. Indeed, in 1948, after the Soviet foreign ministry vigorously protested the intrusion of American "bombers" over Soviet territorial waters, the Department of State restricted PARPRO missions approaching Soviet borders to standoff distances of no closer than forty miles. Overflights remained out of the question. In receipt of one request for such a mission from Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, in October 1950, the USAF director of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Charles P. Cabell, replied that he would have to recommend against it. But, Cabell added, "[I am] looking forward to a day when it becomes either more essential or less objectionable."
That day, in fact, was close at hand. International tensions had increased significantly in late 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear device and Communist forces swept to victory in China. But perhaps the greatest shock for Western leaders occurred in June 1950, when North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea. In November 1950, a few weeks after Cabell wrote to SAC headquarters, Chinese military forces joined the Korean War. The sequence and pace of these events caused American political and military leaders to believe that their Soviet counterparts might launch an attack against Western Europe, possibly along with a surprise aerial attack on the United States.
With United Nations forces in North Korea in full retreat, President Truman issued a proclamation of national emergency on December 16, 1950, and called numerous National Guard units to active duty. A short time later, in an unannounced decision made after a review conducted by the JCS, the president approved selected overflights of the Soviet Union to determine the status of its air forces in those regions of Siberia closest to this country, as well as in the maritime provinces closest to Korea.
The Soviet region of greatest military concern was the Chukotskiy Peninsula, directly across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Soviet Tu-4 bombers, essentially carbon copies of the B-29, equipped with nuclear weapons and massed on airfields on the peninsula, could make devastating one-way flights to attack American cities. In December 1950, Truman authorized two deep penetration overflights of this region; to accomplish them, the JCS and USAF headquarters selected for modification the fourth B47B off the Boeing assembly line. This newest of SAC bombers, an air refuelable, swept-wing aircraft powered by six jet turbine engines, would be equipped with special compasses, autopilot equipment, a high-latitude directional gyro system for flight in the Arctic, and a special pod for installation in the bomb bay that contained a number of cameras. The B-47B "Stratojet," which carried a crew of three (pilot, copilot, and bombardier-navigator), could reach a full speed of 448 knots (516 mph) and a ceiling of about 41,000 feet.
The command pilot that SAC selected for this mission was Col. Richard C. Neeley, a B-47 test pilot. Late in July 1951, Neeley and his crew flew the aircraft to Eielson AFB near Fairbanks, Alaska. On August 15, while awaiting clear weather in Siberia and authorization to proceed, Neeley was awakened from a nap in the barracks by a telephone call: His aircraft was burning on the ramp. He stepped outside to see a pillar of smoke and flame in the direction of the runway. Boeing technical representatives had been practicing a single-point fueling of the tanks over the bomb bay when a float valve stuck. Fuel rushed through an overflow vent onto a wing and swirled down onto a power cart below; an electric spark ignited the spill. While the wreckage still smoldered, orders to conduct the overflight mission arrived. Neeley notified SAC headquarters of the disaster; forty years later he still remembered the four-word return telex message: "Fix responsibility and court-martial!’ (Since a mechanical malfunction was involved, there would be no court-martial.) It would be a year before a U.S. aircrew would make an attempt to overfly the eastern U.S.S.R.
Meanwhile, Truman had initiated talks with British Labour prime minister Clement R. Atlee and his foreign minister, Ernest Bevin. Concerned that the United States might use atomic weapons in the Korean conflict, Atlee had visited Truman in Washington at the end of 1950. At that time or shortly thereafter, the two leaders had apparently agreed on a joint aerial reconnaissance program to overfly the European U.S.S.R.; it is not clear whether or not Truman made concessions on the use of atomic weapons, but it seems likely. Whether Atlee actually intended to approve any overflights is not known; in the event, he would not be around to make the decision. In October 1951, the British re-elected as prime minister their wartime leader, the Conservative Winston Churchill.
In the spring of 1951, the RAF formed a secret "Special Duty Flight" of three aircrews to fly North American Aviation RB-45C reconnaissance aircraft. Led by RAF squadron leader John Crampton and his navigator, Flight Lieutenant Rex Sanders, the British airmen flew from England to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana to begin formal flying training in the RB-45C, under the presumed disguise of British-American air refueling trials. Late in the fall of 1951, the RAF aircrews returned with four American aircraft (one acting as a spare) to Sculthorpe Royal Air Force Base in Norfolk, where a detachment of SAC RB-45Cs was already stationed. Lt. Col. Marion C. ("Hack") Mixson arrived in March 1952 to command the SAC detachment, to which Crampton’s Special Duty Flight was attached. In the weeks that followed, Mixson, Crampton, and Sanders dealt with the British Air Ministry at the highest levels. In approving the mission, Churchill took a breathtaking political risk. In the 1950s the House of Commons was divided in its attitude toward the Soviet Union; many in the Labour Party were sympathetic in varying degrees to Britain’s former ally. If any of the RB-45Cs had been brought down, the resulting outcry probably would have led to Churchill’s unseating as prime minister. But balanced against this was the need of Western intelligence to acquire radar-scope photographs of specific military installations.
After a trial nighttime flight to the east of Berlin on March 21 to measure the state of Soviet air defense, the first overflight mission was approved and briefed. On the night of April 17-18, 1952, in absolute radio silence, three RB-45Cs repainted in RAF colors took off from Sculthorpe, were air-refueled, and entered the Soviet Union simultaneously at different locations. Flying at about 35,000 feet, the planes proceeded on separate tracks. As each RB-45C crossed the border—into the Baltic states in the north, Belorussia in the center, and the Ukraine in the south (the mission Crampton and Sanders flew)—the Soviet air defense system sprang into action, and Allied intelligence listened in. For all of the fighters that scrambled into the night sky, however, none found the British in the dark, and they returned safely to base. The information they brought back was crucial. In the event of war—which in the 1950s seemed likely—SAC had to destroy the U.S.S.R’s Long Range Air Force at the outset to prevent it from striking targets in Western Europe and the United States. All three overflights photographed LRAF bases, as well as nearby air defense bases.
The Special Duty Flight disbanded shortly thereafter. But in October it was reformed at Sculthorpe. Training for a second mission began. But in early December the impending mission was cancelled. For Churchill, the risking of his political future in one covert overflight had perhaps proved enough. On December 18, John Crampton and Hack Mixon led the Special Duty Flight of four RB-45Cs back across the Atlantic Ocean, landing at Lockbourne AFB in Ohio as snow was falling. Through the gloom, base maintenance personnel who approached the aircraft stared in disbelief at the U.S. Air Force bombers still decked out in British livery.
Back in the United States, the Air Force, in collaboration with the U.S. Navy, already had begun to probe eastern Siberia’s coastal radar sites and airfields through shallow penetration overflights. Directed by the JCS in 1952, these secret missions depended on the Navy Lockheed P2V-3W, a two-engine unpressurized aircraft that possessed a top speed of 300 knots (345 mph) and a service ceiling of 32,000 feet. The novel P2V-3W, equipped with a ventrally-mounted APS-20 radar beneath the aircraft, was employed primarily as a submarine hunter-killer. This aircraft was modified with an experimental electronics suite that filled the nose: It could identify, locate, and home on radars and communications equipment over a wide range of frequencies.
Piloted by Comdr. James H. Todd with Lt. (jg) Richard A. Koch copilot, the P2V-3W flew out of the Kodiak Island, Alaska, naval base and, in March 1952, conducted test missions against radars of the Alaskan Air Command. It then began overflights of the Siberian coast, leading an Air Force RB-SO (an improved version of the B-29) that photographed the Soviet radar sites and airfields.
Between April 2 and June 16, 1952, the two planes flew eight or nine missions. They maintained the strictest secrecy, without radio communications of any kind, even on takeoff and landing. They managed to locate and photograph Soviet installations from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the south all the way north through the Bering Straits to Wrangel Island. They were, according to Koch, daytime missions, which were normally launched from Kodiak or Shemya in the Aleutian Islands. The P2V-3W flew at 15,000 feet, with its crew on oxygen, and the RB-50 followed above and behind it. Flying inland about fifteen to twenty miles from the Soviet coastline, the Navy aircraft used special direction-finding equipment to locate installations for the camera-laden RB-50.
In Alaska, only the aircrews, the admiral commanding Fleet Air Alaska, the general commanding the Alaskan Air Command, and their deputies for intelligence, knew of these missions. Recovery bases varied according to the mission. In one instance late in the evening, the Navy P2V-3W, intercepted by F-94s, landed in radio silence before nonplused personnel in the control tower at Ladd AFB, Alaska (the RB-50 had presumably gone on to its home base). Immediately surrounded by gun-wagging security police, the Navy aircrew members were forced to throw their identity tags onto the tarmac. The exhausted aviators remained under guard and confined on-board their aircraft for several hours until a "higher authority" could be found to vouch for them.
On two of these overflight missions, Soviet MiG-15s intercepted the American aircraft: once over the Bering Strait near the St. Lawrence Islands, and once over Soviet territory, when the fighters scrambled from a snow-covered runway. In each instance, Koch recalled, the MiG-15s flew alongside, inspected and photographed the U.S. planes, but did not attack. (At this time, there was apparently a tacit gentleman’s agreement between the air forces of the two nations not to initiate hostile action.) Shortly after these shallow overflight missions terminated in mid-June 1952, the Navy recalled the crew and their P2V-3W to the continental United States. The crew members neither asked nor were they told where the ‘take" from their missions went—or of any results produced.
Whatever the intelligence product of the Air Force/Navy peripheral overflights of Siberian shores in the spring, by the summer of 1952 American military and political leaders had new cause for concern. By listening in on Soviet shortwave broadcasts, signals intelligence had learned that the Soviet air force had begun staging Tu-4 bombers in large numbers at airfields at Dikson on the Kara Sea, at Mys Schmidta on the Chukchi Sea, and at Provideniya on the Chukotskiy Peninsula at the Bering Strait. Moreover, U.S. intelligence suspected that World War II airfields deep inside Siberia, used for staging American lend-lease aircraft bound for Soviet forces on the Eastern Front, might also have been upgraded to accommodate these four-engine bombers. If loaded with the nuclear weapons then believed available to them, any unusual concentration of these bombers represented a real threat.
Officials in the Department of Defense and the CIA again sought permission to photograph air bases in Siberia through deep - penetration aerial overflights. On July 5, 1952, headquarters advised SAC to modify two B-47B bombers for just such a special photo-reconnaissance mission over "unfriendly areas," in the event it was requested. On August 12, Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett delivered to President Truman memoranda from Gen. Omar N. Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Walter Be-dell Smith, director of the CIA, requesting two reconnaissance overflights of Siberia. After discussion, the president approved "northern run" between Ambarchik and the Chukotskiy Peninsula, but disapproved as too dangerous a "southern run" over Provideniya southwestward past Anadyr to Magadan, returning eastward over the Kamchatka Peninsula. His approval of a single overflight, Truman told Lovett, was contingent on the concurrence of "appropriate officials of the State Department." Secretary of State Dean Acheson must have concurred, because on August 15, USAF headquarters issued instructions for the mission.
The fear was that Soviet long-range bombers were massing for attacks which would most likely come from airfields close to Alaska or from the Murmansk area. A Navy P2V-3W made nine shallow overflights of the Siberian coastline in the spring of 1952, and two B-47B entered Soviet airspace that October One, piloted by CoL. Donald E. Hillman, flew over Siberia but found no bomber threat. The dotted line indicates where his exact route is unknown.
For this flight, SAC modified two B-47Bs from the 306th Bombardment Wing at MacDill AFB, Florida. Col. Donald E. Hillman, the deputy wing commander, was selected to plan the mission and pilot the primary aircraft. The mission was assigned the highest of security classifications; only the commander of SAC, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, and his directors of operations and intelligence knew the details. In the field, initially only Maj. Gen. Frank Armstrong, commander of the 6th Air Division at MacDill (and responsible for executing the project) and Hillman knew of it. It should be emphasized that in this instance, as in all others involving overflights, LeMay took his orders from above.
On September 28, 1952, the two modified B-47Bs, accompanied by two KC-97 tankers, flew from MacDill to Eielson AFB. Hillman remained as command pilot of the primary aircraft, with Majors Lester E. Gunter, copilot, and Edward A. Timmins, navigator. Col. Patrick D. Fleming piloted the backup aircraft, with Majors Lloyd F. Fields, copilot, and William J. Reilly, navigator. With word of good weather over Siberia, General Armstrong authorized takeoff early on October 15, 1952. After meeting the KC-97 tankers in the area of Point Barrow, Alaska, the B-47s took on full loads of fuel and the mission proceeded.
Fleming and his crew photographed and mapped Wrangel Island, located about a hundred miles from the Siberian mainland, and then flew to the communications area over the Chukchi Sea and took up station, flying a racetrack pattern. Maintaining radio silence, Hillman continued on course past Wrangel Island, then turned southwest toward the Soviet coast. Making landfall close to noontime, Timmins switched on the cameras as the aircraft swung south for a short period, and then turned eastward and flew back toward Alaska, through the heart of Siberia. The weather, which had been bright and clear throughout the flight, changed after the B-47 crossed the coast. Scattered clouds appeared, and occasional haze at the ground obscured viewing of the surface for the remainder of the flight.
By now, after burning off fuel, Hill-man’s aircraft had become light enough to be able to fly above 40,000 feet and well over normal cruising speed, at approximately 480 knots (552 mph). After two of five target areas had been covered and photographs of the forbidden landscape below had been taken, warning receivers on board told the crew that the aircraft was being tracked by Soviet radar. Gunter swiveled his seat 180 degrees to the rear to control the plane’s only defensive armament, the tailguns. A few minutes later he advised Hillman that he had Soviet fighters in sight, below and to the rear, climbing desperately to intercept them. But the fighters had scrambled too late to catch up to the B-47, and it flew eastward unopposed.
The aircraft completed photographing the remaining three areas in eastern Siberia without encountering any more fighters. It passed over Egvekinot, then over Provideniya, and turned northeast, exiting Soviet territory at the coast of the Chukotskiy Peninsula. Hiliman flew his B-47 straight back to Fairbanks, landing at Eielson well after dark. A few minutes later, Fleming’s backup B-47 touched down. Altogether, the mission spanned seven and three-quarter hours in the air; the primary B-47 had made a 3,500-mile flight and overflown some 1,000 miles of Soviet territory.
Technicians immediately developed the film. The photographs would belie the presence of massed Tu-4 bombers in Siberia. Messages intercepted soon after revealed that the Soviet regional commander had been sacked and that a second MiG regiment was to be moved into the area. As for the Americans, members of both aircrews received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
By that same fall, Communist and U.N. forces had reached a virtual military stalemate at the 38th parallel in Korea. Indeed, the Korean conflict had provided President Harry Truman the legal rationale for overflights of the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R., an unannounced co-belligerent, supported Chinese and North Korean forces with military aircraft operating from sanctuaries in the Soviet Far East. Under international law, when engaged in a United Nations peace enforcement operation, the U.S. could claim the right to overfly such sanctuaries under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. But as early as 1950, even before the outbreak of hostilities, a pair of special drop-tank and camera-equipped RF-80As began reconnaissance missions, in an effort to determine the composition of Soviet air forces in the Far East. Between March and August they periodically flew around—and later, directly over Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands and the Soviet mainland near Vladivostok.
These Far East Air Forces tactical reconnaissance aircraft operated from Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. After the outbreak of the Korean conflict, a detachment of three SAC RB-45Cs performed occasional deep penetration overflights of North Korea, the Soviet maritime provinces, and of the People’s Republic of China. One of these aircraft was apparently lost to MiG fighters over North Korea, near the Yalu River, in December, leaving only two aircraft to continue the missions. Although details are wanting, these RF-80As and RB-45Cs unquestionably penetrated Soviet territory before Col. Hillman’s B-47B overflight almost two years later.
A B-47B, above, undergoes modification at MacDill AFB in Florida, c. 1952 - 53. Before the Air Force released this photo, it blotted out the identification number on the tail, an indication that the aircraft was being prepared for a "special mission."
In October 1952, two RB-45C crews replaced their compatriots in the detachment at the Yokota air base. Led by Capt. Howard S. (Sam) Myers, Jr., they continued deep penetration overflights in the Far East. Besides missions over North Korea, other overflight missions, through few in number, focused on mainland China, Sakhalin Island, the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the Vladivostok area. For example, on the night of December 17-18, 1952, Myers and his two-man crew flew RB-45C number 8027, which was painted entirely black specifically to avoid detection by searchlights, from Yokota across the sea of Japan. They coasted inland a few miles south of Vladivostok; the Soviet city was well lit and clearly visible off the right wing tip at 35,000 feet They continued on 300 miles to target of interest in the neighborhood of Harbin, Manchuria. After collecting radar-scope photographs of airfields an other military and industrial installations in the area, they returned via South Korea. The two RB-45Cs continued to fly reconnaissance missions until April 1953.
The extreme secrecy that surrounded these flights increased, if that were possible, during 1953. It was a time of leadership change in both the Soviet Union and the United States. Stalin died, an Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman as president. The former supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during WorId War II fully appreciated the value strategic overflight reconnaissance the might alert American leaders to a potential nuclear surprise attack. (Both countries had now exploded hydrogen devices.) But if the Korean Armistice that he engineered in July ended hostilities, it also eliminated any legal justification for overflights of the Soviet Union and Communist China. Eisenhower weighed the importance strategic reconnaissance to national security and the precedent set by President Truman against the political risks of continuing overflights in peacetime in violation of international treaties which the United States was a signatory. His choice seemed clear. He determined to continue the overflights as part of the SENSINT (Sensitive Intelligence) Program.
In the Far East after July 1953, overflights of the Soviet maritime provinces launched from Japan employed new reconnaissance fighter aircraft RF-8, RF-l00s and B-57A Canberra bombers converted to photo reconnaissance aircraft. (Overflights of the People’s Republic of China largely devolved on the air force of the Republic China based on Taiwan.) Most, but all, of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) reconnaissance fighter missions between 1953 and the end of 1956 were shallow penetration overflights. One deep penetration daytime overflight, however, known to have surveilled the city of Harbin in Manchuria, in the People’s Republic of China.
Maj. Robert E. (‘Red") Morrison piloted another unusually deep penetration overflight in a reconnaissance fighter in 1955. Morrison had assumed command of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, composed of RF-86Fs stationed at the Komaki air base, just west of Nagoya. These RF-86s had had their guns removed and their weight and balance adjusted. Each one was equipped with four drop tanks (two 200-gallon and two 120-gallon) that extended their range significantly, and each mounted two aerial cameras featuring a distortionless telephoto lens that adjusted automatically to the pressure and temperature variations inherent in high-altitude photography. Mounted on either side of the pilot’s seat, the two cameras photographed the earth in a near-panoramic overlapping swath. Blisters outboard on the fuselage accommodated the film magazines. A wide-area mapping camera looked at the earth vertically from a position beneath and just forward of the pilot’s seat.
Morrison’s detachment of eight pilots received overflight orders exclusively from officers at FEAF headquarters. There, only four commanding officers and an intelligence officer knew of these missions. Morrison and his squadron conducted nine overflights between April 1954 and February 1955. Normally four aircraft would take part in daytime missions; they flew at altitudes of 45,000 to 48,000 feet, and always when atmospheric conditions precluded telltale con-trails. (Though radar tracked the American fighters, Soviet interceptors could not ‘see" them to attack. By this time, the old gentleman’s agreement had long since faded.) Airfields represented the principal reconnaissance targets, and Morrison and his compatriots overfiew Vladivostok, Sakhalin Island, and Sovetskaya Gavan, Dairen, and Shanghai.
The last, and longest, of these missions, a two-ship flight with Morrison in command, occurred on February 19, 1955. Instead of a shallow horseshoe route over a coastal target, however, it was directed well into the Soviet mainland to photograph the airfield in Habarovsk, a city located alongside the Amur River on the border of the U.S.S.R. and Manchuria. As the two aircraft climbed to altitude over the Sea of Japan, Morrison’s wingman signaled mechanical problems and turned back. The flight leader pressed on, releasing the last two of his wing tanks as he approached altitude at the Soviet coast. But one of the two tanks did not separate, and the additional weight and drag prevented the aircraft from reaching its peak altitude. To complicate matters further, the preflight weather briefing had estimated winds aloft that did not match those encountered, and, at the appointed navigational moment, Morrison looked out to find no target in sight.
This is the crew of the R-47B that flew over Wrangel Island. From left: Majors Lloyd F. Fields and William J. Reilly, and CoL. Patrick D. Fleming. At right, Col. Donald E. Hillman was photographed shortly before his Siberian exploit.
Fortunately, the Amur River could be seen, and as he flew along it Morrison homed on a broadcast from the Habarovsk radio station. With the city in view, he performed a maneuver well known to World War II tactical reconnaissance pilots: Morrison first rolled ninety degrees to port, then reversed the process and rolled in similar fashion to starboard, thereby obtaining a clear view of the earth beneath and ahead of his aircraft, permitting adjustment in the line of flight that would bring the RF-86 directly over the airfield. As he completed these maneuvers and turned on the cameras, the airplane shuddered. The last drop tank, its markings of origin carefully filed off, separated from the wing and whistled downward over Habarovsk. Though short on fuel, Morrison returned safely to the Chitose air base on Hokkaido, plunged through a break in the overcast, and landed. The airplane was so light, he recalled, he had difficulty forcing it down onto the runway. As his RF-86 turned off Chitose’s concrete ribbon and onto the asphalt apron, its fuel expired and the engine flamed out.
Back on the other side of the world in the spring of 1953, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had reconsidered strategic overflight reconnaissance after word reached Western intelligence of a formidable Soviet missile program under way at a base called Kapustin Yar, near Stalingrad. Once again, Churchill approved an overflight. This time the RAF and the USAF collaborated to squeeze a large, oblique-looking camera into the aft fuselage of a standard RAF B-2 twin-engine Canberra bomber. This bomber could not be air-refueled; but, stripped of all excess weight and with its bomb bay filled with fuel tanks, the aircraft possessed a range sufficient for it to fly at high altitude from Germany across the southern U.S.S.R., and then swing south to Iran.
The British assigned the name ‘Project ROBIN" to this effort, which consisted of two or three shallow penetration missions over the Eastern Bloc satellite states preparatory to the main event. Approved by the prime minister, the primary mission was flown in late August 1953 from Giebelstadt in West Germany, close by the East German border. The Canberra was tracked by Soviet radar almost from the moment of takeoff. Happily for an RAF aircrew flying in broad daylight, accurate radar tracking did not prevent various elements of the Soviet air defense system from performing a Keystone Kops routine for Stalin’s heirs in the Kremlin. In the face of an air defense system on full alert, the "unidentified" aircraft, operating at 46,000 to 48,000 feet altitude, remained untouched. With its 100-inch focal-length camera peering obliquely out the port side, it flew doggedly east past Kiev, Kharkov, and Stalingrad to its target, Kapustin Yar.
In spite of frantic commands and radar vectoring, Soviet fighter aircraft could not see the airplane above them and did not successfully intercept the plane until it approached Kapustin Yar. Though they managed to hit the British machine, it flew on, and the fighters lost sight of it again. Damage to the aircraft, however, introduced vibration, which adversely affected the optics performance of the camera. Pictures of Kapustin Yar subsequently furnished to the USAF and CIA were blurred and of poor quality; they apparently revealed little. The Canberra turned southeast to follow the Volga River. It escaped and managed to land safely in Iran. Its nearloss ended any further British thoughts of daytime strategic reconnaissance overflights of the western U.S.S.R.
But the flight had unexpected results. Seven years later, on August 5, 1960, the Philadelphia Inquirercarried account of the mission by a Soviet defector who had served in 1953 as an air defense radar officer: During the [Canberra] flight all sorts of unbelievable things happened. . . . In one region, the operator accidentally sent the Soviet flights west instead of east; in Kharkov, the pilots confused the planes [aloft] and found themselves firing at each other. The result was a major purge. Many generals and officers were removed from their posts. One general was demoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and committed suicide. Other personnel were sent to punishment battalions.
However discouraging the outcome of the Canberra’s daytime flight to Kapustin Yar, the British and Americans soon agreed on another group of nighttime strategic reconnaissance overflights of the western U.S.S.R. (By this time the USAF had transferred its RB-45Cs from SAC to the Tactical Air Command [TAC], and General LeMay no longer played a direct role in the missions.) At Sculthorpe RAFB, the RAF’s Special Duty Flight reformed with most of the same crews from the 1952 overflight missions; they were once again led by Squadron Leader John Crampton and Squadron Leader Rex Sanders. RAF Bomber Command’s chief scientist, "Lew" Llewelyn, worked to improve the pictures produced by the cameras that filmed images on the radar scopes. In late April, the RAF aircrews learned that the mission plan was virtually identical to the one flown in 1952, except that the third aircraft would make a deeper penetration of southern USSR.
The Special Duty Flight executed the mission on the night of April 28 - 29, 1954; The primary targets again involved bases of the Soviet Long Range Air Force. The RB-45Cs again were repainted in RAF colors, and Crampton and Sanders again took the southern run, but it did not go so easily for them this time. As their airplane approached Kiev - and while Sanders tended the radar—Crampton was startled to see a highway of bursting flak about 200 yards before him at exactly his own altitude, 36,000 feet. Briefed to return if the security of the flight were compromised, he hauled the airplane around on its starboard wing tip, until its gyro compass pointed west, and descended to 34,000 feet to avoid the flak, which was set to explode at a fixed altitude. He cut short the mission. Nonetheless, the return track took the aircraft close to many of the remaining targets, which Sanders photographed as they passed. When the RB-45C met up with its tanker over West Germany, the refueling boom refused to stay in the aircraft receptacle. Fearing that it might have been damaged by the flak over Kiev, Crampton landed near Munich to refuel. Meanwhile the other two flights flew their routes without misadventure, though numerous fighters were sent up after them. A few weeks later, in early May, the RAF Special Duty Flight disbanded for the last time.
RB-45Cs, the planes that overfiew USSR, line up at the Sculthorpe RAF base in 1952
The RB-45C, shown in a cut-away drawing, became a reconnaissance workhorse. Cameras for low-altitude missions were mounted in front; those for high altitudes, aft. Bombs were never carried in the RB-45C; instead, extra fuel occupied the bomb bag.
By now, Western leaders had been alerted to the existence of a new Soviet Mysischev-4 jet turbine powered intercontinental bomber (NATO code-named "Bison"). With the number of Bison bombers and nuclear weapons believed to be growing, the region of greatest concern in the U.S.S.R., and about which the least was known, was the Kola Peninsula in extreme northwest Soviet Union, above the Arctic Circle. Intercontinental bombers positioned here could fly foreshortened routes over the North Pole to attack targets in America—and could also easily strike targets in Great Britain. A daytime photographic mission was called for. Whether the British agreed or not, Eisenhower approved one of his own.
In mid-April 1954, SAC—on instructions from the JCS—dispatched a detachment of RB-47Es to the Fairford RAF base near Oxford. The RB-47E mounted in its nose and bomb bay the identical suite of cameras carried in the RB-45C. On May 8, three aircrews were briefed separately for a secret mission to be conducted in radio silence near the Kola Peninsula in the northern region of the U.S.S.R. Two crews were instructed to turn back at a certain coordinate; unbeknownst to them, the third crew was instructed to fly on into Soviet territory and photograph nine airfields over a 600-mile course from Murmansk south to Arkhangelsk, then southwest to Onega; at which point the aircraft would head due west to the safety of Scandinavia.
The aircrew named to fly this deep penetration overflight consisted of Capt. Harold Austin, pilot; Capt. Carl Holt, copilot; and Maj. Vance Heavilin, navigator. When these men took off from Fairford early on May 8, 1954, however, they were quite unaware that they followed by one week the nighttime flight of the three RB-45Cs over the western central Soviet Union. Soviet air defenses still reverberated from that futile exercise. After a refueling off southern Norway, and at the designated departure point about 100 miles north of Murmansk, two of the three aircraft turned back; Austin’s pressed on. Two nonplussed aircrews watched over their shoulders as a comrade receded from view toward the Soviet mainland. It is a tribute to SAC’s remarkable standards of professional training that the two aircrews did not break radio silence but, as briefed, returned to base.
This map plots the five overflights of European USSR in 1953 and 1954. In August 1953 (light green arrow), an RAF Canberra made the deepest penetration of all, when it attempted to photograph a new missile test site near Stalingrad. Soviet fighters damaged the aircraft, which managed to escape to Iran. RAF RB-45Cs made three simultaneous overflights the next April (duplicating routes taken in 1952); they checked on long-range air bases. A month later, USAF captain Harold Austin, in an RB-47E, made an epic overflight of the Soviet northern region (dark green line) and barely missed being shot down.
Austin’s aircraft coasted in over the Kola Peninsula at Murmansk, at noon, at 40,000 feet altitude, and at 440 knots (506 mph) airspeed. Heavilin turned on the radar cameras, along with the suite of cameras in the nose and bomb bay. The weather, Austin recalled, was crystal clear; it was one of those days when "you could see forever." Before they left the Murmansk area, a flight of three MiG fighters joined them, apparently confirming the identity of the intruder. As they approached airfield targets at Arkhangelsk, six more MiGs arrived, now intent on destroying the American aircraft. Cannon tracers flew above and below the RB-47E; the interceptors could not stay steady at that altitude, and their aim was poor. A running gun battle ensued as Austin finished covering his targets and turned toward Finland. As he banked the plane, a MiG stuck from above, and the aircraft took a cannon shell through the top of the port wing, knocking out the intercom. Holt had fired the tail gun, but it jammed after the first burst. Nevertheless, he kept the MiGs at a safe distance long enough to reach the Finnish border.
Austin’s RB-47E, with its cameras and film, succeeded in reaching Fairford after another refueling over the North Sea. the photographs reassured Western leaders that long-range bombers were not deployed on the Kola Peninsula. For their extraordinaryaerial feat, the aircrew members each two Distinguished Flying Crosses, though the SAC commander, general LeMay, maid it plain he would rather have decorated them only with Silver Star. That award, however required the approval of a board in Washington whose members were not cleared to know about SENSINT overflights.
If such reconnaissance overflights were to continue at a reasonable risk, another kind of airplane was required, one that operated above all known Soviet air defenses. A few months later, in November 1954, President Eisenhower approved Project Aquatone, a secret Air Force and CIA effort directed to build a jet-powered glider that could fly at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet, far above Soviet air defenses. So the U-2 was born.
Lt. CoL. "Hack" Mixson (left), the American overflight coordinator, poses with Squadron Leader John Crampton. Crampton’s companion in the 1952 "Special Duty Flight" over the Ukraine was his navigator, Flight Lieutenant Rex Sanders, right.
There was at least one further overflight of the Soviet Union launched from Great Britain. In March 1955, a nighttime USAF mission led by Maj. John Anderson followed routes and overfiew targets that were nearly identical to those of earlier RAF flights: Three RB-45Cs took off from the Sculthorpe RAF base, flew eastward at 35,000 feet, and simultaneously crossed the frontiers of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Baltic States— though this time the Ukraine track was farther to the south. The mission objective, as before, involved radar-scope photography of Soviet military installations and cities for Allied target folders. Soviet fighters again scrambled into the night sky but, even with ground radar vectoring, could not locate the reconnaissance aircraft in the darkness. All of the RB-45Cs returned safely, landing in West Germany. The crew members also received Distinguished Flying Crosses.
That reconnaissance overflight mission preceded by a few months the Four-Power Summit Conference held in Geneva, Switzerland, in July 1955. There President Eisenhower, in an unannounced disarmament proposal, would call for mutual Soviet and Western overflights, eventually called "Open Skies." At the time, the U-2 aircraft was about to begin flight trials in Nevada. Although Soviet officials rejected the "Open Skies" proposal, the president had determined to employ the U-2 in daytime missions over the western Soviet Union to assay the number of bombers in the Soviet Long Range Air Force—a number, USAF leaders insisted, that surpassed the number of such bombers in the Air Force inventory.
But the fragile U-2 was not air-refuelable. Even though its unrefueled radius of action was anticipated to be substantial, around 3,400 miles, when launched from England or West Germany it would be unable to fly much beyond the Ural Mountains and return in safety. And it was not designed to operate in the snow and ice of Arctic bases. For American intelligence, the U.S.S.R.’s vast Arctic territory, stretching 3,500 miles from the Kola Peninsula in the West to Wrangel Island in the East, remained largely terra incognita—and the U-2 appeared unable to explore it.
Capt. Howard S. Myers, Jr., and his co-pilot, Capt. Walter Yancey, made flights over the Soviet maritime provinces and Manchuria. Myers had one RB-45C painted black for night missions so that searchlights could’t spot it.
Between March 30 and May 7, 1955, shortly before the summit conference convened, the Strategic Air Command conducted Project Seashore, again on instructions from the JCS. Four RB-47Es, specially modified with the side-looking 100-inch focal-length cameras like those carried by the Canberra, teamed with four RB-47Hs to fly PARPRO missions from Lielson AFB, Alaska, along Siberia’s northern and eastern shores. The resulting intelligence of increased aerial forces in the region caused the nation’s leaders to consider overflights of Soviet Union’s entire northern slope to locate and identify air defenses as well as the disposition of aerial forces there. In early February 1956, President Eisenhower terminated Project Genetrix, the launching of high-altitude photo - reconnaissance balloons that would drift across the U.S.S.R. In the four preceding weeks, SAC had launched 516 of them from Western Europe and Turkey. Those that succeeded in crossing the U.S.S.R. released their gondolas by parachute, the gondolas being recovered in mid-air by C-119 cargo aircraft near Japan. But so many were shot down by Soviet air defenses, or were otherwise lost, that only forty-four were retrieved. At the same time, Eisenhower approved an Air Force project to fly SAC reconnaissance aircraft over and around the Soviet far north, mapping it completely - photographically and electronically.
The Strategic Air Command’s Project Homerun overflights - unknown to all but a few until now - were launched from Thule, Greenland, between March 21 and May 10, 1956. During that seven-week period, RB-47E photo reconnaissance aircraft and RB-47H electronic reconnaissance aircraft flew almost daily over the North Pole to reconnoiter the entire northern slope and interior portions of the U.S.S.R., from the Kola Peninsula to the Bering Strait. It was a 3,400-mile round trip. The special SAC detachment formed for this operation included, with spares, sixteen RB-47Es of the 10th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, five RB-47Hs from the 343rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron from Forbes AFB, Kansas, and two full squadrons of some twenty-eight KC-97 tankers. All of these aircraft shared Thule’s single 10,000-foot, snow-and-ice-covered runway; all of them took off, refueled over the North Pole, and landed in complete radio silence.
The air base, located 690 miles north of the Arctic Circle on North Star Bay, is thirty-nine miles north of the nearest human habitation, the Eskimo village of Thule. The aircrews typically deplaned in temperatures of thirty-five degrees below zero (in a day when ‘wind chill factors" were unheard of), in a region devoid of vegetation and covered in snow, at a time of the year when darkness ruled nearly twenty-four hours a day. Maintenance crews and flight crews alike were quartered in what looked like railroad refrigerator cars, even down to the levered door handles. Toilets operated via the "armstrong" flush system— hand pumped. After receiving Arctic clothing, including fur-lined parkas and mukluks, the crews spent the first week in Arctic survival training and practicing Arctic flight operations—takeoffs and landings on ice-covered runways, navigating over the pole, and air refueling in radio silence.
Planners had divided the Soviet Arctic into three basic sectors, spanning a total of 3,500 miles. The first extended eastward from the Kola Peninsula to Dikson on the Kara Sea; the second extended from Dikson to Tiksi on the Laptev Sea, and the third from Tiksi to the Bering Strait. The RB-47s normally flew in pairs, often with an E (photo reconnaissance) and H (electronic reconnaissance) model teamed, in a normal wing formation. Because one tanker was required for each bomber, the KC-97s operated in a similar fashion. Each flight of one or more reconnaissance aircraft over the North Pole to the Soviet Union, whatever the number in it, was counted as a mission. About four or five missions were flown each day, rotating aircraft and crews, with the RB-47Es and Hs always arriving over Soviet territory during daylight. The aircrews for different missions were briefed separately, and no one knew where their compatriots were going or asked what became of the film and electronic recordings turned in at the end of the day.
The Thule missions photomapped the island of Novaya Zemlya (or "Banana Island" as the aircrews referred to it) and its atomic test site. They flew in behind the Ural Mountains and down rivers, reconnoitering the timber, mining, and nickel smelting industries in the region. Siberia, they discovered, remained mostly wilderness, with few roads or towns. Most of the Thule missions, however, operated but a few miles inside Soviet territory all across the Arctic, locating, identifying, and photographing the infrequent radar stations and air bases. They confirmed that the Soviet Union’s northern regions were poorly defended against enemy aircraft: Only on three or four occasions did Soviet aircraft attempt to intercept missions, never successfully. At Thule, Brig. Gen. Hewitt T. Wheless, commander of the 80 1st Air Division, directed the operation along with Col. William J. Meng, commander of the 26th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Lockbourne, which supplied the RB-47Es. Maj. George A. Brown served with them as the project operations officer and mission planner.
A RB-47E takes off from a snowy runway with a boost from solid-fuel rockets. In the 1950s, such rocket-assisted take-offs were necessary to get airborne a plane laden with enough fuel to fly to the Soviet Union for secret reconnaissance photography.
Afew months later, on July 4, 1956, a U-2 took off from West Germany and flew a first mission over the western U.S.S.R. It, too, drew a sharp Soviet protest a few days later. Because the overflights threatened a rapprochement between the superpowers, the president had become increasingly uncomfortable approving American violations of Soviet airspace. But administration leaders, according to the president’s science adviser, James Killian, viewed the single-engine, high-flying U-2 as far less menacing than a multi-engine reconnaissance bomber. Eisenhower determined to continue U-2 overflights, especially after a mission on July 5 provided intelligence about the number of Soviet long-range aircraft that all but ended the ‘bomber gap" controversy. A newly appointed chairman of the JCS, former Air Force chief of staff Gen. Nathan Twining, nonetheless urged the president in the fall to approve another military overflight of Soviet territory with a new reconnaissance aircraft.
This aircraft was the air-refuelable Martin RB-57D-0, a single-seat photo-reconnaissance version of the RAF Canberra bomber, built under British license. The lightweight, long-winged aircraft, powered by two Pratt & Whitney J57 jet engines, possessed a combat speed of 430 knots (495 mph) and could reach an altitude of some 64,000 feet. Because it flew faster than the U-2 and almost as high, Eisenhower was persuaded that the machine would escape Soviet detection. He approved a mission to fly three RB-57Ds over separate targets in the maritime region near Vladivostok.
Three RB-57D-0s deployed to the Yokota air base in Japan in early November 1956. This detachment flew the mission on December 11, a bright, clear day. They entered the maritime region simultaneously from three different locations near Vladivostok and overflew three different targets. Contrary to Air Force hopes, the bombers were picked up on Soviet radar, and MiG-17s scrambled to intercept them; but the Americans were out of reach. In the exposed film returned to the intelligence community, the fighters were clearly visible, pirouetting in the thin air beneath the bombers. The resulting protest on December 14 left no doubt about the capabilities of Soviet air defenses to detect and identify aircraft:
On December 11, 1956, between 1307 and 1321 o’clock, Vladivostok time, three American jet planes, type B-57, coming from. . . the Sea of Japan, south of Vladivostok, violated the . . air space of the Soviet Union.. . Good weather prevailed in the area violated, with good visibility, which precluded any possibility of the loss of orientation by the fliers during their flight. ... The Government of the Soviet Union . . insists that the Government of the USA, take measures to punish the guilty parties and to prevent any future violations of the national boundaries of the U.S.S.R. by American planes.
Four days after the Soviet note was delivered, an exasperated president met with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to consider the embarrassing situation and decide on a course of action. Dulles had to say, under the circumstances, that it would he difficult for the country to deny the RB-57 overflights. But Eisenhower would not consent to such an admission. Instead, he instructed Colonel Goodpaster to relay an order to Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson, JCS chairman Gen. Nathan Twining, and CIA director Allen Dulles: "Effective immediately, there are to he no flights by U.S. [military] reconnaissance aircraft over Iron Curtain countries." With the sole exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. military overflights of the U.S.S.R. and other Iron Curtain countries ceased for the remainder of the Cold War—though CIA overflights would he periodically authorized.
When President Eisenhower ended U.S. military overflights of Iron Curtain countries, this clandestine effort disappeared entirely from view and almost entirely from memory. Though few of the and despite the passing of almost all those who shaped the policy, military overflights have an important place in the postwar evolution of strategic overhead reconnaissance.
By the time Eisenhower approved the building of the U-2 in late 1954, peacetime strategic overflight reconnaissance had become a firm US policy. The platforms from which to conduct it, meanwhile, moved to ever-higher altitudes: from military aircraft to high-altitude balloons, from the U-2 to the SR-71, a supersonic aircraft that could fly at altitudes above 80,000 feet—and, ultimately, from airspace into outer space with robotics reconnaissance satellites. After military fighters and bombers, every single one of these remarkable technical advances was evaluated, approved, and first funded for development by one American president: Dwight Eisenhower. By the time Eisenhower left office in 1961, the intelligence produced by overhead reconnaissance had eliminated the supposed "gaps" in weaponry between the superpowers. Once American leaders could meet a real rather than an imagined Soviet threat, they could hold the size of the military establishment to reasonable limits. The resulting defense savings amounted to billions of dollars.