You've probably never heard of Carmine Vito. At 5:26 a.m. on July 5, 1956, Vito climbed into the cockpit of his silver Lockheed U-2A in Wiesbaden, Germany, popped a wad of tutti-frutti gum in his mouth to quell his anxiety, and took off for Moscow.
His single-engine U-2 was tricky to fly, a skittish and fragile bird intolerant of stress and prone to engine flame-outs. The A model had no ejection seat and a primitive autopilot. At the edge of space, alone, over denied territory, if anything went wrong, Vito would be in big trouble.
En route to Moscow at 66,000 feet, Vito flew over two concentric rings of SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites and watched Soviet aircraft scramble to Wiesbaden that afternoon after the eight-hour flight—the first and only U.S. spy flight over Moscow—the United States had its first aerial photographs of the bomber factory and the airfields around the capital.
Richard S. Heyser is another name you probably don't recognize. Six year after Vito's historic mission, on October 14, 1962, Heyser took wing in a black U-2F. From Edwards Air Force Base in California, he flew east, high and slow and silent, to Cuba.
Heyser entered Cuban airspace at 72,000 feet above the Isle of Pines, flying over batteries of SA-2 missiles. Five and a half hours after taking off, he landed at McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida, where a waiting U.S. Air Force brigadier general whisked the U-2's film to Washington. Within hours the hard evidence that President John F. Kennedy had been fearing was sitting on his desk: photographs of operational Soviet-built nuclear ballistic missile sites in Cuba.
There's an old axiom that reconnaissance pilots fly alone, unarmed, and unafraid. And, I might add, unheralded. For security reasons, reconnaissance, recce ( pronounced "recky"), pilots have seldom gotten the respect due them. Because of the secrecy of their operations, their names are rarely mentioned outside their organizations. Yet each time they fly, recce pilots risk capture, imprisonment, and even death if they are downed by hostile fire or mechanical failure. Since the 1950s, more than 170 airmen have lost their lives on reconnaissance missions. Still others have simply disappeared.
Given their critical roles, it saddens me that throughout my 50 years at the National Photographic Interpretation Center, which analyzes aerial photographs for the White House, senior policy officials, and the U.S. Congress, not once did I hear the name of the pilot who acquired the photographs. I have long felt a deep regret that they experiences and exploits of the pilots who fly these missions have never been officially recorded or acknowledged. Even today, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California, home base for 31 U-2s that flew 1,099 operational sorties and 6,936 hours in 1998, won't confirm the number of current U-2 pilots. "For a recce pilot, the less attention the better," says retired U.S. Air Force colonel Tom Alison, who flew nearly 1,000 hours as an SR-71 Blackbird pilot and later was director of wing operations at Beale. (Today, Alison oversees the collections division at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.)
"I guess we just recognized each other," says Heyser, now 73 and living in Florida. "You could say that we were just each other's heroes."
Were you to ask a recce pilot to name his heroes, he would probably start with Karl Polifka, who flew numerous missions over Japanese-held territory in the Pacific during World War II. Polifka, who never ordered a recce pilot in his command to fly a mission he wouldn't fly himself, loved to quote Rudyard Kipling: "He travels fastest who travels alone." Polifka was a master at evading fire from enemy fighters, and he often led Japanese pilots into carefully planned ambushes where U.S. fighters were waiting. Later called to fly and devise recon missions over North Korea, he was killed when he attempted to bail out of his damaged F-51.
At the end of World War II, reconnaissance pilots were faced with a different kind of task. The Soviet Union was a vast blank on U.S. military maps. Some 15,000 manufacturing plants had been moved east of the Ural Mountains into Siberia and the Russian far east, an area that we knew nothing about. All we had were some old Luftwaffe photos and Nazi charts, and most of that was the area west of the Volga. We were desperate to see what these cities and towns and new Soviet industries were like, both to learn what weapons were being produced and to get accurate targeting information for our bombers. But without satellites, how could we get that information?