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Alone and Unarmed

As unpiloted craft take over the reconnaissance mission, an intelligence insider looks back on the work that set recce pilots apart.

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?

At first, before the Soviets developed a radar network that could track our airplanes, British pilots flying U.S. RB-45s made deep penetrations into European Russia.  Under the cover of night, the aircraft were able to fly in and out of Russia before its interceptors could be scrambled, allowing the RB-45 pilots to gather radar images of cities that the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command had identified as targets in the event of war.  Then, in 1952 and again in 1954, a SAC pilot flying an RB-47 made a photo-reconnaissance flight into the Soviet Union.  But other than information gleaned from ferret missions—aircraft flights along a country's borders intended to excite and thus reveal the position of radar and defense installations—and a few quick forays into cities close to Russia's east border, Siberia remained hidden to U.S. military planners (see "Beyond the Iron Curtain," Aug./Sept. 1994).  Clearly, a new reconnaissance technology was necessary.

Enter the U-2, the first airplane build exclusively for high-altitude, long-range strategic photographic reconnaissance.  One of the first U-2 pilots was Carmine Vito.  In 1955 he was a U.S. Air Force F-84 pilot with 1,100 hours , including combat over Korea, when he landed sweet job offers from both United and Easter Airlines.  He was imagining a life of ease when the Air Force suddenly canceled his retirement for a special assignment.  "I said, 'Please don't do this,'" says Vito, who today lives in Austin, Texas.  "I thought it was a hoax to keep us in service."

Vito and five others, all F-83 pilots, were given fake honorable discharges and "sheep-dipped" into the classified U-2 program under the aegis of the Central Intelligence Agency.  On the third floor of a Texas bordello decorated in red and gold, says Vito, "these CIA hoods" unveiled a picture of the airplane.  "Boy, was that a letdown," he says.  "I thought it was going to be some supersonic plane capable of flying to the moon, and here was this thing that looked like a glider."  His disappointment evaporated when he finally saw the U-2 in the flesh at "the Ranch," the CIA's—and later the Air Force's—secret test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada.  "It was a masterpiece, a Porsche—like something you'd see in a museum," he says.  "Every rivet was perfect."

On July 4, 1956, Vito's colleague, Hervey Stockman, made the first U-2 flight over the Soviet Union.  The bomber gap controversy was raging; no one knew if the U.S.S.R. had a handful or a thousand new long-range bombers.  So Stockman flew over a number of bomber bases in the western U.S.S.R., along with Leningrad and targets in the Leningrad area.  (Photographs taken during the mission showed no evidence of long range, heavy bombers.)

In the usual drill, representatives from the various services would troop before James Reber, head of the CIA's Ad Hoc Requirements Committee, trying to convince him of the urgent need for reconnaissance of their pet areas.  The U.S. Navy would want photos of submarine bases, for instance; the Air Force, bomber factories.  Then Reber, Jim Cunningham, who managed the CIA's fleet of aircraft, and I, representing the field of photo-reconnaissance interpretation, would create a mission plan, and Reber would write a one- to two-page memo outlining and justifying the mission for the White House.  Once the president approved it, we had 10 days to carry it out.

It was presumed that Soviet radar would have difficulty locating the U-2 on that first flight over the U.S.S.R.  But the Russians did detect the airplane and attempted more that 20 interceptions of Stockman's mission.  MiG-17 and MiG-19 fighters were photographed desperately trying to reach the U-2, only to have to fall back to an altitude where the air was dense enough for them to restart their flamed-out, oxygen-starved engines.  U-2 pilots had a device known as a drift sight, an upside-down periscopethat had four levels of magnification and could be swiveled 360 degrees, allowing pilots to observe those desperate attempts.  "I saw two planes taking off, but they could get close," says Vito, who left for Moscow the day after Stockman returned (in the very same airplane, which today hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, complete with the now hardened was of tutti-frutti gum that Vito stuck under the canopy rail).

After his flight, Vito learned that four Soviet MiGs had crashed and one disappeared trying to intercept him.  "I tried to tell my bosses that made me an ace," he says laughing.  "But they didn't buy it."  Later, the Soviets lightened several Sukhoi aircraft by stripping htem of all armaments and placing them on alert on airfields along U-2 flight paths with the intent of using them to ram the U-2s.  It didn't work.

A year after the CIA took delivery of the first U-2s, the Strategic Air Command took delivery of the second batch.  Again pilots were culled from the ranks of SAC's F-84 units, pilots who had experience flying single-engine, high-performance jets—alone.  And again, like Vito, the first Air Force fighter pilots picked were dismayed when they saw the U-2.  "We were fighter jocks, and when we saw the yoke instead of a stick, well, that was a disappointment," says retired Major General Pat Halloran, who was part of the first wave of SAC pilots.

Though the U-2s and their pilots were stationed all over the world, the missions were still long and difficult (usually eight to 10 hours in flight).  Pilots ate a low-bulk, high-protein diet, usually steak and eggs, prior to their flights (in-flight foods could be squeezed through a toothpaste-like tube inserted through a special opening in the pilot's face plate).  For two hours before takeoff pilots breathed pure oxygen.  And then there was the diabolical partial pressure suit.  "you closed that face plate and you were in for the durations, which might have been 12 or 13 hours, with in-flight refueling," says Heyser.  "Some guys were tiger pilots, but they couldn't take the pressure suit; they'd just come apart when you closed that helmet."

Says Halloran: "The airplane flew differently from anything I'd ever flown.  There was a five- to seven-knot window between stalling and exceeding the airframe's speed capacity, and you'd have to fly in that window for hours and hours.  That took a lot of attention.  When, the autopilot was working, that wasn't hard, but if it wasn't, which was often in the early days, then you can imagine the intense concentration it took to stay in that envelope."  Flame-outs were common too, and pilots had to descend to 38,000 feet to restart the engine, a nightmare if MiGs or SAMs were waiting to pick them off.

Throughout my long career in the reconnaissance community, I learned that in spite of all the careful planning for a mission, there were often unpleasant surprises.  In 1962, U-2 pilot Chuck Maultsby, on an atmospheric sampling mission out of Alaska, got lost and ended up over the U.S.S.R.  Although eventually reoriented, he was chased by Soviet MiGs and ran out of fuel shortly after making U.S. airspace, where he dead-sticked into a remote Alaskan radar station and landed safely.  That same year, Pat Halloran flamed out after departing denied territory in Cuba but managed to glide into Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.  There was even a tragedy during the development and testing of the U-2: In 1957 Lockheed test pilot Bob Sieker lost consciousness at altitude and perished when he was unable to reclose his face plate, which had a flawed clasp.  And then, of course, there was Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 was downed over the Soviet Union in 1960.

As for the photos, we were lucky.  We had the best equipment and the best technicians, and never once did a mission come back with unusable film.

Looking back at those days, I remember that during tense situations, I had to keep my kids away from the telephone because I might be called in anytime, even in the middle of the night.  When the film came back, I created briefing boards and notes for the director of the CIA, who would then brief the president—often with bad news.  So I always found things to lighten the briefings.  One time I included a photo of a couple in, well, a compromising position in a field in Laos.  And once after some low-level flights over Africa, I included a photo of a tribesman throwing a spear at the aircraft.  The Soviets knew we were watching them, so they frequently stamped out tauting messages in the snow, and we'd put shots of those in the briefing book as well.

I always enjoyed getting to know the pilots, some of whom I met in Washington, D.C., and some out at the Ranch.  They were a real gang.  James Cherbonneaux was so big that I used to wonder how he fit into the tiny U-2 cockpits.  Vito had a wry sense of humor.  "Yeah, we sure did whoop it up," he recounts today.  When asked for an example, he laughs and says, "I'm trying to think of something clean."  He then remembers some revelry from his days based in West Germany.  "Well, it was before the Fourth of July," he says.  "We were at the Wiesbaden officers' club, and then we decided w can't drink here in public."  So he and the other U-2 pilots went to their rooms and proceeded to shoot bottle rockets out of the windows and into a parking lot.  "The guy's rocket who went the farthest, he didn't pay for the booze," says Vito.  The same group of pilots also bought new German cars, many of them Porsches and Mercedes, and raced them at an abandoned field on weekends.

Being a separate unit of SAC meant, as Heyser puts it, that recce pilots "were on the outside looking in," a phenomenon that continued even when the pilots started flying the SR-71.  "Everyone considered us a bunch of prima donnas," says Halloran.  "After all, we flew the highest performance airplane in the world and we were a small, select group who also got to fly T-38s all the time.  A lot of people were envious."

"For an aviator, it was a real prestigious assignment," says former Blackbird pilot Tom Alison.  He knew of Air Force pilots stationed in Europe who flew all the way to Beale Air Force Base to personally deliver their applications to the SR-71 program.  "They would do anything they could to get in," he says.  "And I think initially it would be because of the airplane.  I mean they didn't really know about the mission.  It was only after you got into the program that you came to appreciate the mission and what it took to do the mission."

Once pilots were accepted, they began a rigorous 10-month training program that nurtured their already impressive flying skills (applicants had to have a minimum of 1,500 flying hours, and to be competitive, most had accumulated more than 3,000 hours).  Retired U.S. Air force colonel Richard Graham, a former SR-71 pilot and commander of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, says of pilots entering the Blackbird program: "It was a long process, but besides the psychological discipline, above all, we wanted great general aviation skills.  Could they hold the airplane up at Mach 3?  Did they have experience with mid-air refuelings?  Not all pilots are born equal, and you can tell almost immediately in the T-38 or even the SR simulator how precise a pilot was or how good his spatial orientation."  Most SR air crews (pilots and men who flew in the back seats as the reconnaissance systems officers, or RSOs) entered the programs as senior captains and were promoted to majors and lieutenant colonels.  "There was lots and lots of pressure to excel, but at the same time I would call it a supportive environment," says Alison.  "Very much a 'Hey, this is the kind of thing that's happened to me.  This is what's happened to other people.  I'm telling you about it so maybe it won't happen to you.'  You wanted to see people succeed."

The pilots and RSOs who made it through the training period (and most of them did because the selection process was so discriminating) could look forward to a good life by military standards.  In addition to the SR-71s based at Beale, there were two detachments: one at Mildenhall Royal Air Force Base in England, and one at Kadena Air Force Base, on the small, lovely Japanese island of Okinawa.  The crews spent more than 200 days a year assigned to one of the detachments, and when they weren't flying, they threw Sunday afternoon daiquiri parties, played softball and racquetball, and engaged in five-mile runs in the afternoon called "fun runs."  The living quarters weren't luxurious, but the crews made the most of them.

At Kadena, they lived in a two-story BOQ, or bachelor officers' quarters.  Each man had his own room, complete with a bar for entertaining, and each two-man crew of pilot and RSO had a car to share.  Whey they weren't hanging out in their rooms discussing the missions they had flow, the men could often be found at two off-base hangouts: Secret Beach, where they could sun themselves and go swimming in the East China Sea, and the Paradise Garden restaurant, whose owners lavished the aviators with hospitality.

Because the SR crews spent so much time in the small, insular worlds of Mildenhall and Kadena, they became very close.  Crew members relied on each other for companionship, especially since they were away from their families.  "Occasionally, you'd have a wife show up at an [overseas] location, but frankly it was discouraged," says on former pilot.  "We didn't want to have wives there because of the mission and the pressures involved with the mission.  You had to be able to shift from that 'fun run' to a very important sense of urgency almost at the snap of a finger.  And that's hard to do in a family environment."

For every spy flight over another country, the president must ponder five questions: Is the information that would gleaned from the flight an absolute necessity for national security?  Would the mission be worth the political costs should it fail?  Would the mission precipitate a crisis whereby the adversary could institute measures that would be detrimental to the United States?  Would such a mission poison the atmosphere of discussions or negotiations on the other issues dividing the countries?  And if the aircraft is brought down, what would be the consequences if the pilot were captured?

The classic example was Cuba.  We had reports of Soviet missile sites being built, but Cuba was lined with SA-2 SAMs, a type of missile that had shot down a U-2 in China (flown by a Taiwanese pilot) on September 10, 1962.  That started a big argument about the safety of U-2s over Cuba.  Finally, President Kennedy gave his approval for an overflight and the job fell to Richard Heyser.

Heyser's first clue that this would be no ordinary mission were the three SAC generals at his preflight briefing.  "I was told that they wanted to know if Cuba was constructing missile sites or not and that there were SAMs there," he says.  "They didn't know if I'd be fired on."  Just before midnight on October 13, 1962, Mission G-3101, code-named Victor, began, with Heyser "anxious to do what I was supposed to do because the results were obviously so important," but otherwise unafraid.  "The airplane was unforgiving, but I liked it and thought I knew what it could do," he says.  "I'd long since passed being nervous about being shot at, and I just didn't think I could get hit up there."

Over the Isle of Pines he began his track to get the prime targets as close to nadir as possible.  Nadir is the point on a photograph directly below the camera lens when the photo is taken.  This can be visualized by imagining a plumb line attached from the optical center of the lens to the center of the designated target.  Interpretations of a photograph are easier and measurements most precise when the image is recorded at nadir.  The recce pilot must be not only a good pilot but an expert navigator.  "You had to navigate really precisely to be on track," says Halloran.  "You had to find every little railroad or town to stay on course.  The agency pilots were allowed to overly the U.S.S.R., but not the Air Force [pilot], and so a lot of time you'd fly right up to the international limits of the country's periphery."

Heyser's trck, it turned out, was uneventful.  "As soon as I hit the Isle of Pines I started my camera," he says.  The camera was a high-resolution, 36-inch-focal-length, large-format camera loaded with two nine-inch-wide rolls of film.  The 5,000 feet of film could provide about 4,000 paired aerial photographs over a 2,000-mile line 100 miles wide.  "I was at about 72,000 feet," he says.  "I could see the ground and I looked in the drift sight but I never saw anything—not the missile sites or any SAMs or interceptors."

Heyser was lucky.  As the missile crisis intensified and both U-2 and low-altitude, high-speed Navy F8U and Air Force RF-101 flights blanketed the island with nearly continuous surveillance, the pilots reported being fired on.  Still, U-2 pilot Rudolf Anderson headed for Cuba on October 27.

That was a day I'll never forget.  About noon, we received word that Anderson was late and probably had been drowned by an SA-2.  The we heard that he'd died.  That night I prepared the brief which stated that Cuba's medium-range ballistic missile sites were operational.  My boss, Art Lundahl, returned from his meeting with Kennedy and said it didn't look good.  I called my wife and told her if I called again to put our children in the car and head for Missouri.  We went to DEFCON—defense condition—TWO (DEFCON ONE is war), and Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, had 1,200 bombers loaded with nukes.

Within weeks, however, low-level and U-2 flights were recording the dismantling of all ballistic missile sites in Cuba.

Flying long, precise, and potentially high-profile missions in the world's most exclusive airplanes requires, as Alison puts it, "a different breed of cat."  As important as it is, the mission of fighter jocks and bomber pilots is essentially over when the bombs are delivered.  For a recce pilot, the mission isn't a success until the pilot is home and the images or intelligence delivered.  For that, "you can't have a cocky guy who wants to fly off on his own," says former Blackbird pilot Richard Graham.  "Wed had to see a shrink to make sure you wouldn't just take an SR and do your own thing.  You've got to stay on that black line, and if something goes wrong, you can't say, 'Well, I can probably do it.'  You abort the mission."

In 1966, when the Air Force received its fleet of SR-71s, it recruited pilots from the U-2 program and those that were flying B-58s, the Air Force's most advanced bomber at the time.  Later pilots came from nearly every discipline except cargo flying.  ("You're flying an airplane at 33 miles a minute and things start to go wrong—that's why you need to have a background in high-speed aircraft," explains Alison.)

When Alison was recruited in 1974, he was a reconnaissance pilot flying RF-4s, and he hadn't even heard of the SR-71.  "I got a call late one night from a friend of mine who'd sort of disappeared and he said, 'I'm in a pretty unique organization that I think you'd like an we're looking for a pilot.  Are you interested?'  I said sure, and he said, 'We'll get back to you.'"  What was the Air Force looking for in Alison?  "I had experience in fast, high-performance airplanes, mid-air refueling, and good decision-making," he says.

But Alison also had the right personality traits: good judgment, discretion, loyalty, and dedication.  "'How does this person fit into the group?'—that was almost as important as their skill at flying an airplane," says Alison.  "Because you're going to be spending a lot of time together."  Show-offs were not encouraged to apply.  "You're flying top-secret-type missions," says Alison.  "Can you do that without going to a bar and having too many drinks and bragging about it?  You're flying an aircraft that is the highest and fastest in the world, and you're flying it at the end of its performance envelope.  You're in a black world and a pressure-sensitive area.  One mistake could take you to the head of the president's shit list.  The gods are just waiting for that one moment for all hell to break loose."

Just readying for takeoff required prudence and patience.  In 1978, U.S. intelligence heard that a version of the MiG-23 capable of carrying nuclear weapons was being deployed in Cuba.  Alison was tagged to fly over Cuba to check out the situation.  Twenty-four hours before he needed to be over his target, he and his RSO reported for work at Beale Air Force Base.  They were briefed, went over the maps, and planned the mission in detail: the route, the fuel requirements, where and when they would refuel, what they would do if something went wrong with the refueling or if something went awry over the target.

The following evening, Alison kissed his son goodnight and reported to the program's physiological support division.  Flight surgeons gave him a brief physical and he wolfed down a meal of steak and eggs.  Two hours before takeoff, he slid into long johns and was put into his full pressure suit, which was tested for leaks.  Then he was installed in the cockpit.  "You can't do it yourself, so you just sit down with your hands on the canopy rails," he says; technicians connected his harnesses, oxygen, radio, and the urine collection device, a bag strapped to his leg with a tube running to the source.

Fifty minutes before takeoff, he started the engines and went through his flight checks, all while the jet remained in its hangar, raining fuel from tanks that didn't stop leaking until the airframe heated up at altitude.  With 15 minutes to go, he taxied out, and 10 minutes later he was ready to take off.  On schedule to the millisecond, Alison released the breaks, throttled up, lit the afterburners, rolled 4,000 feet down the runway, and lifted off at 240 mph, roaring skyward at a 40-degree pitch and climbing more than 10,000 feet per minute.

Twenty minutes later, at 25,000 feet, he rendezvoused with the first two tankers.  Sucking 55,000 pounds of fuel in 20 minutes from the tanker's boom in the world's fastest and highest airplane isn't easy.  "I'm working my butt off, and add a little weather, turbulence, the dark of night and you've got your hands full," says Alison.  As the Blackbird, a large and weighty airplane, gulps fuel, it gets heavier and sinks, while the tanker gets lighter and rises.  "The SR isn't made to fly at 25,000 feet, and you can get power-limited," says Alison.  "I'm at full throttle without afterburners, and if I need more power to stay on the boom I have to light afterburners on one side, which gives me a huge kick in thrust and twists the plane sideways.  I go from not enough power to too much, and I have to apply full right rudder and cross control the airplane."

Tanks full, Alison climbed to 78,000 feet and Mach 3 in 18 minutes, somewhere over Idaho.  "You can't feel the speed, but the sensation come from looking at the instruments," he says.  "You're covering 30 miles a minute, and a night like that you're in a cocoon of instrument lights and millions of stars."  An hour later he rendezvoused with a second set of tankers over Florida.  "That's always a great sight, knowing you'll get your gas," he says.  "We loved those tanker guys."  As dawn broke, Alison headed into the denied area over Cuba, a quick 30-minute flight across the island.  Toward the end of this track, Cuban radar locked on to his airplane but, says Alison, "that didn't worry us; there wasn't a hell of a lot they could do."  He refueled over the Gulf of Mexico and headed back, rolling into Beale at 7 a.m. California time, the photo sensor technicians attacking the plane "like a swarm of locusts."

When the photos came in, we could see that the MiGs were not the model that had the harness necessary to carry nuclear weapons; they were defensive interceptors, not offensive bombers.

Not every flight was as uneventful as that one.  During the Vietnam conflict, SR-71 missions were flown nearly every day over such targets as Hanoi and Haiphong.  The missions were critical.  Not only did they provide daily tactical information, they also located SA-2 SAM sites, which posed a constant threat to the U.S. tactical bombing missions.  The North Vietnamese knew the flight paths of these missions and were determined to shoot down a Blackbird.  But it simply flew too fast and too high.  More than 800 SA-2 missiles were fired at the SR-71, at first singly.  In the later stages of the war, the North Vietnamese launched a salvo of six SA-2 missiles from each site along an invading airplane's flight track, but they never brought a Blackbird down.  "I always had complete confidence in the plane," says Graham.  "Once flying along the Russian coast of Kamchatka, I could see MiGs ahead of me flying in circular orbit and trying to do pop-up maneuvers to get me, but they couldn't get close."

At its peak in the late 1960s, the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing maintained two squadrons with a total of some 50 SR-71 aviators (only 32 SR-71 aircraft were ever built).  And for a while, flying a Blackbird "was the most promotable job you've ever seen," says Halloran.  His first SR unit produced one four-star general, one three-star general, five major generals, and "three or four" brigadier generals.

With the development of increasingly sophisticated satellites and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, the SR-71 was retired in 1990 (three of the aircraft were transferred to NASA, which keeps them at Edwards Air Force Base in California).  Although U-2s continue to fly, they are now vulnerable to a new generation of SAMs that render them, at best, a second-tier reconnaissance system.  The days when pilots risk everything to overfly the hottest spots on earth are winding down.

Still, the recce pilot fraternity has proved to be a strong one.  Every two years a reunion is held in Reno, Nevada, for SR-71 crews, U-2 pilots, and the maintenance, tanker, and intelligence staff who supported them.  Those who attend know all too well that the world of recce pilots faces extinction, but we can all be glad that we played a role in planning and safely executing thousands of high-risk flights.  And no one can stop us from reminiscing about what we pulled off.

"It's funny, but we looked at recce as a rather soft mission until we realized the dangers involved," says Carmine Vito, laughing at his own naïveté.  Then came the flights over and around the Soviet Union and their survival kits packed with deadly poison-tipped needles and cyanide ampules, which pilots could administer to themselves to avoid imprisonment and torture.  "That was just contrary to everything I'd learned as a fighter pilot," he says.  "We killed other people, not ourselves."

Over the years, I got to know a lot of these men, and I was always impressed by their humility.  They shouldered a lot of responsibility, but they never seemed to seek any glory for themselves.  They flew their missions alone, yet they were the ultimate team players, working closely with their maintenance and tanker crews, intelligence officers, and technical representatives from Lockheed and other manufacturers.  They also didn't take themselves too seriously: They knew how to goof off.  But when a crisis developed anywhere in the world, the first guys we went to were the recce pilots.  And they were always ready.

Carl Hoffman assisted in the reporting and writing of this story.

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