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.)