Alone and Unarmed
As unpiloted craft take over the reconnaissance mission, an intelligence insider looks back on the work that set recce pilots apart.
- By Dino A. Brugioni
- Air & Space magazine, March 2000
(Page 2 of 7)
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).