Alone and Unarmed

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

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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.

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