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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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."

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