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 3 of 7)
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.