Cover image for Shadow flights : America's secret air war against the Soviet Union
Shadow flights : America's secret air war against the Soviet Union
Peebles, Curtis.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Novato, CA : Presidio, [2000]

Physical Description:
vi, 322 pages, 18 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1170 Lexile.
Format :


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E183.8.S65 P44 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Historian Peebles draws on previously top secret documents from both countries and the recollections of participants on both sides to recount the US spy plane program against the Soviet Union after World War II. The lid was blown off and the program ended with the downing of Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 spyplane. Annotation copyrighted by Book News Inc., Portland, OR

Author Notes

Veteran freelance writer & historian Curtis Peebles ("Dark Eagles," "Watch the Skies!," "The Corona Project," & "Guardians") lives on Palomar Mountain, California. He graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1985 with a BA in history. A writer specializing in satellites, space flight, & military aviation, Mr. Peebles is also a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society & a frequent contributor to its journal, as well as "Space Education Magazine" & "Spaceflight Magazine."

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Peebles recounts in eye-opening detail the history of secret reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union in the 1950s--a breach of international law exposed by the U-2 incident of May 1960 and a potentially deadly chapter of the cold war. Such was the fear of a nuclear Pearl Harbor that Truman and Eisenhower both deemed those brazen violations of secrecy-shrouded Soviet territory a dire necessity. They began in earnest, Peebles states, in late 1952 with overflights of bomber bases in Siberia. The type of plane initially used was proven vulnerable to air defense after being shot up in a 1954 air battle, and so began development of the high-flying eye-in-the-sky that was code lettered "U" for "utility plane." The letter didn't fool the Soviets, however, and they tracked most of the U-2 missions. The advent of satellite photography obviated airplane-borne and balloon-borne cameras, but hardly the interest of military-aviation buffs, who will greatly appreciate the particulars Peebles reveals in this fully researched, dramatic, now-it-can-be-told tome. --Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

It has been over 40 years since the Lockheed U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile while flying though Soviet airspace. This new book recounts the secret efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom to fly over the USSR and China from 1949 to 1960, when these risky reconnaissance flights were ended because of the international scandal this incident caused. Aerospace historian Peebles (The Moby Dick Project: Reconnaissance Balloons Over Russia) addresses the vital behind-the-scenes technical development of aircraft and photographic equipment as well as the bureaucratic negotiations. The book also touches on the immediate post-World War II efforts to collect information on the Communist bloc, a topic ripe for further exploration. There are a lot of details regarding each individual flight, the aircraft and pilot used, its targets, and the results. These were long, difficult, and dangerous missions, but the West needed reliable intelligence on what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. For public, academic, and special collections.DDaniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Early Covert Overflights From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent . --Winston S. Churchill, March 5, 1946 The beginnings of the early covert overflights of the USSR date to the period immediately following the end of World War II. Among many U.S. military leaders, there was a realization that the A-bomb had fundamentally changed the nature of warfare. These included the Army Air Forces (AAF) commander, General of the Army H. H. "Hap" Arnold. In November 1945, he warned Secretary of War Robert Patterson that in the future, U.S. leaders would require "continuous knowledge of potential enemies," including all aspects of their "political, social, industrial, scientific and military life," if the United States were to have advanced "warning of impending danger." General Arnold advised that this could not be acquired using traditional methods, such as air attachés. How this might be done, however, he did not say. Richard S. Leghorn and the Birth of Cold War Reconnaissance The first to articulate a vision of how the intelligence demands of this new postwar era might be met was Richard S. Leghorn. He had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1939 with a degree in physics and a reserve commission as an army second lieutenant. In late 1940, Leghorn accepted an active-duty assignment at the Aeronautical Photographic Laboratory at Wright Field. Arriving in March 1941, Leghorn began working with such optical scientists and engineers as James G. Baker, Amrom Katz, Richard Philbrick, and Duncan Macdonald. Leghorn remained at the Aeronautical Photographic Laboratory until late 1942, when he received orders to report for pilot training.     In April 1943, Leghorn was assigned as commander of the 30th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. He and the unit arrived in England in January 1944 and began flying missions over northern France, photographing German forces, transport networks, and communications facilities, in preparation for the D-day invasion. After the landings on June 6, 1944, Leghorn's unit flew in support of the U.S. First Army as it advanced through France, during the Battle of the Bulge at year's end, and finally for its drive into Germany during the spring of 1945.     In the fall of 1945, Leghorn, now a reserve lieutenant colonel, was offered the position of deputy commander of Task Unit 1.52, which was assigned to photograph the Crossroads A-bomb tests. Leghorn returned to active duty and was again working with his former colleagues from the Aeronautical Photographic Laboratory days. During the long trip from the staging base at Roswell Army Air Field to Kwajalein, Leghorn read a copy of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (Europe) , which examined the results and lessons of the air campaign against Nazi Germany.     Leghorn was struck by the conclusions reached by the study's authors. They noted, for example, that "in the field of strategic intelligence, there was an important need for further and more accurate information, especially before and during the early phases of the war." The report's conclusions ended with a look to a dark future: "The combination of the atomic bomb with remote-control projectiles of ocean-spanning range stands as a possibility which is awesome and frightful to contemplate."     Leghorn continued to mull over the report, as well as his own experiences with photoreconnaissance, after reaching Kwajalein. The missions that he and his squadron had flown before D day had been able to monitor the activities of German forces, and Leghorn became convinced that high-altitude reconnaissance could detect in advance any threatening moves by a foreign power. Leghorn saw the power of the A-bomb during the Crossroads tests. Capital ships were sunk or were reduced to "radioactive ovens." Leghorn's ideas about what he now called "pre-D-day photography" were crystallized in conversations with the other optical scientists that lasted long into the evening.     What would be required was a whole new philosophy of reconnaissance that would look for warning indicators, force levels, and an enemy's capability to launch an attack rather than traditional targeting and damage assessment. In the nightly discussions in the makeshift officers' club, Leghorn argued that this was the only way to protect the United States against an atomic Pearl Harbor. One of the earliest converts to Leghorn's ideas was Dr. Duncan Macdonald, who had been named head of the new Boston University Optical Research Laboratory (BUORL). It was also Macdonald who gave Leghorn the chance to present his ideas to an influential audience as keynote speaker at the December 13, 1946, dedication of BUORL.     Before representatives from the major film and camera companies, as well as senior AAF officers, Leghorn described his vision of pre-D-day photography. He began by saying that although efforts were under way to create an international political structure to ensure peace, "should an adequate political structure not be established, or if a suitable one is formed which should break down at any time in the future, then military intelligence becomes the most important guardian of our national security."     Having seen the Crossroads tests, Leghorn understood how the power of atomic weapons had changed the ways in which wars would be fought. He continued: "The nature of atomic warfare is such that once attacks are launched against us, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover from them and counterattack successfully. Therefore, it obviously becomes essential that we have prior knowledge of the possibility of an attack, for defensive actions against it must be taken before it is launched. Military intelligence is the agency for providing this information, and our national security rests upon its effectiveness, next to a sound international political structure."     Leghorn then noted: "Aerial reconnaissance, as one of the principal information collecting agencies of military intelligence, can play an exceedingly important role in this period prior to the outbreak of hostilities. This situation is particularly true in the case of potential enemies of a totalitarian, police-state nature where the acquisition of information by the older means of military intelligence is more successfully blocked." These nations were unlikely to give permission for an overflight, however, and without this authorization such a flight "would be considered an act of military aggression." Leghorn found it unfortunate that although "peacetime spying is considered a normal function between nation-states, military aerial reconnaissance--which is simply another method of spying--is given more weight as an act of military aggression."     Because any peacetime overflights of police states would have to be done covertly, Leghorn added: "It is extraordinarily important that means of long-range aerial reconnaissance be devised which cannot be detected.... The accomplishment of this objective is not as technically difficult as it might at first appear. Extremely long-range aircraft, capable of flying at very high altitudes, are currently on the drawing boards. ... Effective means of camouflaging them at high altitudes against visual observations are well known. It is not inconceivable to think that means of preventing telltale reflections of other electro-magnetic wavelengths, particularly of radar frequency, can be developed. With such a tool at hand, information can be secured of a potential enemy's mining of radioactive materials and his plants--necessarily large--for the production of fissionable products, as well as a variety of other essential data...."     In his one-hour speech, Leghorn outlined the future basis of Cold War reconnaissance: the regular monitoring of an adversary's military forces to detect any threat of attack. These missions were to be made as an act of national policy, by a specially designed, very-high-altitude aircraft able to escape detection. But his vision was ahead of its time.     As the Cold War was beginning, there was little time or money for Leghorn's vision of a new kind of reconnaissance. The most pressing intelligence requirement at the time was to assemble target lists for the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The primary source of this information was the Library of Congress. The Air Force Directorate of Intelligence realized that the library contained "open source material" on Soviet cities, industry, and terrain, and Project Treasure Island was begun in 1948 to make use of these resources. Western companies that had built industrial complexes in the USSR during the 1930s were another source of information on the precise locations, layout, and production capability for the original plants.     This open information was combined with captured Nazi intelligence reports and the archive of German aerial photos of the western USSR. Dubbed the "GX" photos, they provided coverage of Soviet cities, industrial areas, shipyards, and military bases. For Soviet Central Asia and Siberia, the air force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) relied on maps prepared by Mil-Geo, the geographic section of the German Wehrmacht. These maps, which showed rail lines, cities, and natural features such as rivers, were the most accurate then available.     A window into postwar Soviet activities came from interviews of German ex-prisoners of war (POWs) who had been held in the USSR, then returned to occupied Germany. Captured German soldiers had been used as forced labor in the USSR for years after the end of the war. The POWs had worked on repairing damage and on new construction projects such as dams and factories. Despite Soviet security precautions, some POWs were misassigned to work on sensitive projects. The Soviet atomic facilities, for example, were all built by forced labor. As the POWs were moved around the USSR to work on different projects, they picked up information on Soviet industry, power and communications, urban areas, military bases, and military activities such as missile and aircraft development. This material was combined to produce the Industrial Register, a listing of all known facilities in the Soviet Union.     The situation in Europe and the Far East was becoming increasingly dangerous during this period. The economic collapse of Western Europe in early 1947 caused the United States to propose the Marshall Plan. The Soviets saw this as posing the threat of a unified Western Europe and endangering what they saw as their fragile control of Eastern Europe. In early July 1947, the USSR rejected the Marshall Plan and, over the next few months, imposed one-party Stalinist police states on the nations of Eastern Europe. By the spring of 1948, the Soviets were deeply concerned about Western policy over occupied Germany. In an effort to prevent the Western powers from establishing a West German state, the Soviet cut off all road, rail, and canal traffic on June 23, 1948, between the Western occupation zones and the divided city of Berlin, which was deep inside the Soviet-controlled zone. In response to this Berlin Blockade, an airlift began into the city. With the threat of World War III now hanging over Berlin, the first U.S. covert overflights were begun. Initial Postwar Covert Overflights The U.S. Far East Air Forces (FEAF) was the first to undertake postwar covert overflights. They started in the spring of 1949, at the direction of the FEAF commander, in response to the Berlin Blockade. Two lieutenants with the 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron stationed at Yokota, Japan, were selected to make "carefully controlled, highly classified reconnaissance flights" to monitor the Soviet Air Force in the Far East. One of the pilots was 1st Lt. Bryce Poe II. The RF-80As used for the flights were modified with special long-range tip tanks, which added weight and drag. The missions were initially flown against the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin, then later against the Soviet mainland.     Poe and the other pilot were instructed that if the coast was clear (literally), they would dart into Soviet airspace, cover their targets, then run for home. Poe made his first overflight on May 10, 1949, taking off from Misawa, Japan, and overflying the Kurile Islands. His first overflight of the Soviet mainland was carried out on March 10, 1950, and covered Vladivostok.     Poe recalled later that "all Soviet target areas had many military airfields with numerous aircraft." A few of the airfields were covered with stored P-39s and P-63s--parked nose to tail--which had been supplied under Lend Lease during World War II. Poe noted, however, that there were still plenty of the later-model Soviet La-9 and La-11 fighters.     Although the RF-80As had the advantage of surprise, they were frequently chased by these Soviet fighters. Poe recalled: "Although piston-engined, the La-11 had more than enough performance to catch our attention when they attempted interception and we had clumsy extra long range tip tanks on our RF-80As." The results of the flights were sometimes unexpected. In one case, an intelligence source reported a missile standing vertically on a launch pad. An RF-80A mission was flown to photograph the suspected missile site. When the film was developed, the "missile" proved to be a large statue of Lenin.     These overflights were accomplished in the face of major technical and logistical shortcomings. The cameras, which were originally designed for use in piston-engine reconnaissance aircraft, could not provide the overlap needed for stereo images at the RF-80A's higher speeds. Spare parts were in short supply, so cannibalization of air and ground equipment was commonplace, as was "moonlight requisition" among units. Because of the shortages and disruptions, it was difficult to estimate unit readiness or make schedules. For military personnel and their families, strikes by U.S. longshoremen meant that food was in short supply. They had to get by on Australian bully beef, Japanese white fish, and "withered boxes of wartime rations."     During this period, U.S.-Soviet relations, as well as the political and military situation in Europe and the Far East, continued a downward spiral. The Soviet effort to force the West to accept its conditions for a settlement of German issues had failed. The Berlin Blockade was lifted on May 11, 1949, with the Soviet efforts ending in complete failure. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established, and the Federal Republic of Germany was formally established. The Soviets responded by creating the German Democratic Republic in their occupation zone. The division of Berlin, of Germany, and of Europe itself was now formalized.     By this time, the military situation had also changed. On September 23, a brief statement was issued by the White House: "We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR." The arms race was now joined. Fallout from the "Joe-1" test, which was collected by U.S. Air Force and British Royal Air Force (RAF) weather planes, indicated that the Soviet A-bomb was a copy of the U.S. design. The shock wave from the test was detected. This sonic data indicated that the test had taken place near Semipalatinsk, in Soviet Central Asia. On October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed by Mao Tse-tung. Mainland China had fallen to the communists, and the remaining Nationalist Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek had fled to Taiwan. Stalin was now more confident of Soviet power and less fearful of any Western response to Soviet military actions. He decided to take action in Korea.     On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army, backed by tanks provided by the USSR, attacked South Korea. The attack, which came as a complete surprise, drove the poorly equipped South Korean Army, as well as U.S. units sent from Japan, into a headlong retreat. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, U.S. reconnaissance pilots were warned to stay well clear of Soviet or Chinese airspace. Poe and the other pilot found themselves operating under two sets of rules. Coverage of the Yalu River bridges had to be flown at a right angle to the Chinese border. To photograph the Antung airfield, an RF-80A pilot had to raise the airplane's wing, fly at slow speed, and aim the camera at an oblique angle across the Chinese border.     In August 1950, Poe was recalled to Yokota for ten days to fly the special missions against Soviet airfields. He said that his orders "seemed diametrically opposed to the importance of what I was charged to do. I could go for broke on relatively benign non-combat intelligence gathering missions, but on combat sorties in war was forced to do things that reduced success and increased risk." Poe flew out of Misawa against targets in the Kuriles, Sakhalin, and the Vladivostok area. He recalled later: "With the exception of one new airfield, I found little change in either the numbers and types or dispersal of threat aircraft. Intercept attempts were a bit more aggressive, but not difficult to avoid." The missions completed, Poe returned to his squadron and "reverted to the more difficult efforts to stay legal and still get useful photographs."     The initial defeats suffered by the United States and South Korea sparked fears of a wider war. As a result, U.S. covert overflights were expanded. On July 28, 1950, a month after the North Korean attack began, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) sent a memo to Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson requesting permission to cover areas of the Chinese coast. The memo noted: "It is considered vital that we obtain advance knowledge of Communist intentions to launch an amphibious assault against Taiwan. Existing sources of information do not ensure that we will obtain the advance knowledge required to defeat such an attack.... It is doubtful, however, that information of an imminent attack may be obtained except through photographic reconnaissance." The memo concluded: "It is recommended that the necessary political clearance be obtained and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff be authorized to direct the Commander in Chief, Far East, to conduct periodic photographic reconnaissance flights over the coastal areas of China south of the 32nd parallel of latitude ..."     President Truman submitted the request to the National Security Council (NSC) for consideration. By August 2, representatives of the Defense and State Departments had reached agreement on the overflight proposal. Secretary of State Dean Acheson asked that the JCS require the Commander in Chief, Far East, to conduct the reconnaissance missions "to the maximum extent possible" outside Chinese territorial waters, even though Acheson said that he realized "that this limitation will be difficult to apply." He continued: "It is important, however, to avoid giving the authorities on the mainland any impression that the United States is making a serious attempt to penetrate the mainland by U.S. military aircraft."     To avoid this misimpression, Acheson recommended that the overflights be restricted to coastal areas and not include targets deep inland, "where there would be no doubt about a serious infringement." He noted that it would be "desirable" that the overflights be made "by fast single planes which, while authorized to defend themselves, would attempt to evade attack whenever possible." Reconnaissance by formations of aircraft over the mainland "would create most serious political problems" and subject the U.S. government "to charges which it would be exceedingly difficult to meet."     The NSC met to discuss the proposed missions on August 3, and its members gave their approval. The missions against China were flown within a matter of weeks. President Truman's August 25 intelligence briefing noted: "Aerial reconnaissance has not detected any significantly large concentrations of landing vessels in ports opposite Taiwan." This one sentence indicated that the Chinese were not planning a seaborne attack and showed the potential of covert aerial reconnaissance.     The air force was also looking toward future overflights. In the fall of 1950, Col. William A. Adams, director of intelligence at SAC headquarters, sent a draft study to Maj. Gen. C. P. Cabell, director of air force intelligence, on possible overflight routes of the USSR. The study envisioned four flights by RB-45C reconnaissance aircraft. The first three would be made from West Germany and cover the Murmansk area in the northwest USSR--which was the closest point to the U.S. East Coast--as well as the Leningrad-Moscow areas. The fourth overflight would take off from Japan and cover the Chukotski Peninsula, opposite Alaska.     A review of the study noted that there was no question about the need for the information, the availability of the means for undertaking the missions, or the value of the flights. The three missions out of West Germany would update the GX photos and provide new target information as well as data on Soviet air defenses. The fourth mission was considered even more valuable, because there was no existing coverage of this area. The review noted, however, that the missions could not be made without detection and risk of the loss of the aircraft and crew.     The review also noted the political problems that the flights would entail: "Because of the political implications that are bound to result, the Air Force is not in a position to authorize such missions without reference to the Secretaries of Defense and State. If our past experience with the Department of State on matters of this type still is a criterion, our chances of getting approval on this plan at this time are believed to be zero. It is therefore recommended that no action be taken on the attached proposal for RB-45 reconnaissance over the USSR until there is more favorable political thinking towards such proposals."     General Cabell made an informal reply to Colonel Adams's study on October 5, 1950: "My forecast is that it would not get by either the A.F. front office, the JCS, Defense, or State." Cabell did not feel like going on record as urging its accomplishment. He continued: "If SAC wants formally to request it anyhow, I would recommend against it, and unless SAC specifically requested otherwise, I would not forward it." He ended by noting: "All this is entirely aside from the desirability for SAC Recon to perfect the capability, [ sic ] looking forward to a day when it becomes either more essential or less objectionable."     Despite General Cabell's rejection of the RB-45 study, air force intelligence continued to look at ways of making deep overflights without the political entanglements that manned aircraft involved. This could be done using unmanned vehicles, but the problems then became technical and involved the time required to overcome them. The Snark cruise missile could be fitted with cameras and an inertial guidance system, but it would not be ready until 1953. A reconnaissance satellite was considered an even longer-term prospect. The only near-term possibility seemed to be camera-carrying balloons that could drift across the USSR, then be recovered once they reached friendly airspace.     Balloon reconnaissance had originally been considered in the fall of 1949 but was abandoned due to lack of funds and doubts about the idea's feasibility. In July 1950, however, C. B. Moore of General Mills had made four test flights of camera-carrying balloons; the flights had proven highly successful. By September, the concept gained the backing of both the Panel of Strategic Air Committee and the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. They believed that the hardware was available, and only minor modifications were now required. The panels estimated that the reconnaissance balloons could be operational in late 1951.     On October 9, only four days after he had rejected the SAC study of RB-45C overflights of the USSR, General Cabell requested that Maj. Gen. Donald L. Putt, director of research and development, start a project to develop the necessary balloons and camera systems. The approval was given on November 6. The initial test program was given the code name Gopher, and fabrication of the test vehicles was given the highest possible national priority rating--1-A.     By late 1950, U.S. and South Korean forces had reversed the tide of war; they had destroyed the North Korean Army, driven north of the thirty-eighth parallel, which had been the dividing line, and were close to the Chinese border. Poe was once more ordered to Japan for special missions. The other pilot had been killed in action, and there was no one else who was cleared to know about the missions. Poe did all of the flight planning. He was told what information was needed, then he selected the targets and worked out the flight routes, the camera equipment used, and the altitudes and times. He flew the missions, going right down the Soviet runways. He found that, despite the continuing war in Korea, the only change was a further step-up in the reaction of Soviet air defenses. As a precaution, an F-80C fighter met the RF-80A about halfway home to "scrape off' any persistent La-11 that might try to follow the reconnaissance airplane. "The escort was never needed," Poe recalled, "but it was nice to have it appear on the horizon."     After the RF-80A landed, a warrant officer developed the film. Poe interpreted the photos, then hand-carried the photo materials to the three other people authorized to know about the overflights: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the FEAF commander, and his deputy for operations (DO). Until Poe briefed them, even they did not know what targets the special missions had covered. It was an extraordinary degree of responsibility for a junior officer. When Poe thanked the DO for giving him this latitude, the DO quoted Gen. George S. Patton: "Don't tell people what to do, tell them what you want done and let them amaze you with their ingenuity." As Poe's tour neared its end, his squadron commander began flying some of the USSR overflights. After Poe rotated home in January 1951, the commander and others continued the missions.     The RF-80A was short on both speed and range, but the more advanced RF-84F Thunderflash reconnaissance aircraft was still more than a year away from making its first test flight. To expand the covert overflights, a single F-84 Thunderjet was secretly modified. The aircraft, normally used for close air support in Korea, was fitted with a single K-39 camera and a 36-inch focal length lens. On February 11, 1951, the F-84 made an overflight of Vladivostok at 39,000 feet, without incident.     By this time, the political climate regarding a more extensive overflight effort had changed. Unwilling to accept U.S. forces on their doorstep, the Chinese had intervened in the Korean War. The massive attack had shattered the U.S. and South Korean forces, drove them south, and raised the possibility of an expanded war. Spitfires over China The atmosphere following the Chinese attack bordered on panic. The sudden collapse of U.S. and South Korean forces before the Chinese onslaught, combined with intelligence on the positions of Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, caused many U.S. political and military leaders to believe that a Soviet land attack in Western Europe and an air attack against the continental United States was a serious possibility.     President Truman responded by declaring a state of national emergency, reinstating wartime presidential powers, calling National Guard units to active service, and bringing Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower out of retirement and naming him as Supreme Commander, Allied Forces in Europe, in charge of NATO forces. The JCS reviewed existing war plans and notified U.S. commanders of the possibility of global war. The JCS chairman, General of the Army Omar N. Bradley, directed that a study be made of how overflights might be used to detect preparations for an attack by the Soviets. These would not be the quick dashes made previously but rather flights deep into the interior of the USSR.     In late December 1950, air force vice chief of staff Gen. Nathan Twining briefed President Truman on overflight plans. Two months before, daytime overflights of the USSR by manned aircraft were judged too risky. Now, the possibility of a nuclear attack on the United States made such flights critical. Twining recalled later that the JCS wanted to use the new B-47B, which was just entering production. The aircraft would be modified with a camera capsule in the bomb bay. Two overflight routes were proposed over the Soviet Far East: one to cover the northern shore of Siberia and the other taking the southern route, over the coastline nearer Japan. After reviewing the plans, Truman signed papers approving the two overflights.     On January 4, 1951, air force headquarters assigned the overflight mission to a B-47B scheduled for delivery in the spring of 1951. Although the original plan was for two aircraft, only the fourth-production B-47B was modified. Identified as Project WIRAC, the B-47B, serial number 49-2645, was to be delivered on April 25, 1951. In addition to the camera capsule, the B-47B was also fitted with special compass and autopilot equipment as well as a high-latitude directional gyro system. The pilot selected for the overflights was Col. Richard C. Neeley, a B-47 test pilot.     The British were also now involved with the U.S. overflight program. President Truman's remarks to a reporter on November 30 seemed to indicate that the United States was considering the use of A-bombs in Korea, at the discretion of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In response, the British prime minister, Clement Attlee, flew to Washington, D.C. He arrived on December 4, having already been assured that Truman was not actively considering using nuclear weapons and that any decision would be in the president's hands, not MacArthur's. Prime Minister Attlee stressed that a limited war against China would leave Europe open to a Soviet attack.     It was at this time, or soon after, that Truman and Attlee secretly agreed to divide worldwide responsibility for overflight activities and to undertake a joint reconnaissance program against the western USSR. The United States would supply the RB-45Cs as well as train the RAF crews who would make the actual overflights. It is not known whether Truman gave further assurances about the use of nuclear weapons in Korea, but it is thought likely.     The Truman-Attlee agreement was soon put into effect, with great subtlety. Just before Christmas 1950, RAF flight lieutenant Edward C. Powles was told that he was to be the officer commanding the No. 81 (PR) Squadron Detachment at RAF Kai Tak, Hong Kong, which operated a pair of Spitfire PR Mk. 19 photoreconnaissance aircraft. Two F-52 cameras were mounted in the Spitfire, each with a 36-inch lens.     For the first two weeks after Powles arrived, he had no orders or "terms of reference" as to what his duties were. Then in mid-January 1951, an RAF photointerpreter came into his office, laid a map on the desk, and asked if Powles could fly reconnaissance missions over several of the Chinese islands in the area. They discussed the scale of the photos needed, and Powles said he would be glad to oblige. He now knew what his job was. Powles wrote later: "No mention was made of authorization to carry out these flights over the Chinese islands, and I presumed that they had been approved by higher authority. Otherwise I would not be asked to do them, and there would be no need to have PR aircraft at Kai Tak."     Powles made his first overflight of China on January 16, 1951. By the end of the month, he had completed three more overflights, which were followed by another-four in February. The flights had all been made at 30,000 feet. Powles was then asked if he could take low-level oblique photos of an airfield on the Chinese mainland. He made six such flights in March and April.     In mid-May, Powles was summoned to air headquarters on Hong Kong Island. There he was given a briefing by a Captain Black, chief of U.S. naval intelligence, a U.S. Navy admiral, two American civilians, and an RAF group captain. They asked Powles to cover Yulin Harbor, the dock areas, and the airfield on Hainan Island. They added that they had no authority to authorize Powles to make an overflight of China, and if he agreed he would be on his own. Under no circumstances was Powles to fly lower than 30,000 feet. If he did make the flight, Powles was told, a U.S. Navy destroyer would be positioned off Hainan Island and an RAF Sunderland flying boat would also be on hand.     Powles told the group that he would have to make careful plans for the mission, because it was close to the range limit of the Spitfire PR Mk. 19, and he would have to calculate the number and length of the passes needed to cover the target area. He said he did not want to make a direct flight from Hong Kong to Yulin and back, and he wanted to change his call sign once clear of Hong Kong. The timing of the overflight would depend on the weather forecast, which was not reliable in the Hainan Island area. Powles was told that the destroyer and the Sunderland would require twenty-four-hours' advance notice to be in position.     Powles worked out the basic flight plan, then discussed it with Captain Black. They agreed on the U.S. Navy call signs, procedures, and radio frequencies. All that was now required was good weather. On the morning of May 21, the forecast looked favorable, and Powles notified Captain Black that he would make the overflight the next morning.     At 10:00 A.M. on May 22, 1951, Powles took off from Kai Tak, then turned southeast for fifty miles. As he climbed to 30,000 feet, he could see two-tenths cloud cover to the west, over the Chinese mainland, but the sky was clear over the Pacific. He turned to the southwest and headed to a point fifty miles from Hainan Island, where the U.S. destroyer was waiting. As he flew, he could see clouds building up to the west, then a heavy layer of clouds at 20,000 feet over the northern end of Hainan Island. The weather was deteriorating.     Five minutes before reaching the next turning point, Powles, using an American accent and call sign, radioed for a weather check. This was the signal to the destroyer and Sunderland that he had reached the area and was about to head for the island. Powles then turned and flew forty miles to the west-northwest, where the Spitfire was to head north. Powles was about ten miles from Hainan Island when he saw a thin cloud deck over the coastline. The base of the clouds was at 28,000 feet. Although Powles knew that he should not, under any circumstances, fly as low as this, the weather and lighting conditions were otherwise good. He decided to make the overflight at 27,000 feet, just below the cloud base. The lower altitude would mean that three passes were needed rather than the two originally planned. Powles turned away from the island as he marked the three flight lines on his map and changed the interval setting on the camera control.     Powles then turned back toward Yulin Harbor, spotted the turning point to begin the first photo run, and rolled out on the proper heading. With the cameras turned on and the camera control lights flashing in the proper sequence, Powles kept watch for any Chinese aircraft, but he saw none. Reaching the end of the first flight track, Powles rolled the Spitfire on its port wing to check that he had covered the area, then set up for the second flight line. He lined up on a prominent landmark about one third of the way along his planned track. With the second flight line completed, Powles felt that he had completely covered the harbor and dock areas.     He spotted the airfield, which was farther from the harbor than he expected. He decided to make the last run directly across the field. About halfway through the third run, he saw sunlight glinting off two aircraft approaching from the north in a direct intercept course toward him. He completed the run, then pushed the prop pitch and throttle lever forward and climbed into the clouds. Now hidden from any Chinese aircraft, Powles turned off the cameras, leveled out, and turned toward a point about fifty miles from Hainan Island. When he reached the area, he radioed a fictional U.S. aircraft with weather data; this was the signal that he had completed the overflight and was heading back to Hong Kong. Both the destroyer and the Sunderland acknowledged the message.     Although Powles had completed the overflight, a greater challenge now presented itself. The original flight plan allowed a twenty-minute fuel reserve on arrival back at Hong Kong. Because of the time spent making the third photo run, even a direct route would leave only five minutes of fuel. As Powles flew back, he slowly descended to 22,000 feet, the Spitfire's best-range altitude. He soon entered the clouds that he had seen on the trip out and saw ice forming on the wing leading edges. He knew he did not have the fuel to climb above the icing, so he descended to 15,000 feet, cutting the fuel margin even thinner. The buildup of ice stopped, but it did not clear off until he left the clouds.     By the time Powles reached Hong Kong, he had less than five gallons of' fuel left. He radioed the Kai Tak tower to ask for an emergency landing on runway 31. This was refused, because there were twelve- to seventeen-knot crosswinds. He was cleared to land on runway 07, which was short and whose buildings and mountains at its far end prevented an overrun. As Powles began his approach, the fuel gauge needle was bouncing on empty. He turned onto the runway heading and lowered the landing gear. Before he could extend the flaps, however, the engine quit for lack of fuel. The Spitfire touched down on the grass, then bounced onto the runway and came to a stop. Total flight time was three hours and thirty minutes.     By the end of 1951, Powles had completed sixty-three missions over China. He had been given only special briefings for four of the overflights. Each time, he was reminded that he had no authorization for the missions and was on his own. Most of the overflights were made at 30,000 feet. Whenever Powles saw aircraft or contrails heading toward his Spitfire, he would begin to climb and turn toward the coast. Once he was sure they were not trying to intercept him, he would return to the previous course.     Powles continued to make overflight missions in the spring of 1952, despite some disquieting rumors. He had heard that an air vice marshal newly assigned to Singapore had seen some of the photos of China and begun asking who had authorized the missions. Subsequent word on the grapevine was that he had convened a court of inquiry to identify the officer responsible.     Powles expected to be ordered to Singapore to face a possible court-martial. Every time his phone rang, he thought it would be the bad news. When he got a call in early June 1952 from air force chief marshal Bonham-Carter, he immediately thought that he was in trouble. But the caller said, "Congratulations! Her Majesty the Queen has graciously awarded you the Air Force Cross." Powles told him he must have the wrong number, but the caller assured Powles that he was being given the award. Powles was also invited to lunch and was sent on a week's leave with his wife and son.     Later in June, Powles went to singapore to be congratulated by senior RAF and U.S. Navy officers and high-ranking civilians, Amid the praise heaped on him, he did not recall any of them mentioning the area he had photographed. Indeed, the Air Force Cross commendation read, "In addition to his photographic reconnaissance duties he has undertaken meteorological reconnaissance flights in weather unfit for photograph)' and a number of special and, on occasion, long and arduous flights in connection with ferrying operations." The reconnaissance flights were mentioned almost in passing.     By September 1952, virtually all the important intelligence targets along the Chinese coast from about 400 miles southwest of Hong Kong to 160 miles to the northeast had been photographed. Also covered were specific areas up to 100 miles inside the mainland. Powles's final total was 107 reconnaissance missions. Additional overflights of the Chinese coastal islands were made by the other pilots attached to the unit. These were authorized by Powles, but he always preferred to make the long-range flights himself. These required that Powles fly the Spitfire beyond its design limits. Two overflights of Hainan Island ended with dead stick landings at Kai Tak, and on two other missions he did not have enough fuel to taxi back to the flight line after landing. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Curtis Peebles. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1 Early Covert Overflightsp. 4
2 Covert Overflights Under Eisenhowerp. 40
3 The Birth of the U-2p. 62
4 Genetrix and Homerunp. 106
5 Early U-2 Overflightsp. 130
6 Soft Touchp. 164
7 The Missile Gapp. 195
8 From Touchdown to Grand Slamp. 231
9 Reflections on a Secret Warp. 278
Sourcesp. 290
Indexp. 305