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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With the development of increasingly sophisticated satellites and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, the SR-71 was retired in 1990 (three of the aircraft were transferred to NASA, which keeps them at Edwards Air Force Base in California).  Although U-2s continue to fly, they are now vulnerable to a new generation of SAMs that render them, at best, a second-tier reconnaissance system.  The days when pilots risk everything to overfly the hottest spots on earth are winding down.

Still, the recce pilot fraternity has proved to be a strong one.  Every two years a reunion is held in Reno, Nevada, for SR-71 crews, U-2 pilots, and the maintenance, tanker, and intelligence staff who supported them.  Those who attend know all too well that the world of recce pilots faces extinction, but we can all be glad that we played a role in planning and safely executing thousands of high-risk flights.  And no one can stop us from reminiscing about what we pulled off.

"It's funny, but we looked at recce as a rather soft mission until we realized the dangers involved," says Carmine Vito, laughing at his own naïveté.  Then came the flights over and around the Soviet Union and their survival kits packed with deadly poison-tipped needles and cyanide ampules, which pilots could administer to themselves to avoid imprisonment and torture.  "That was just contrary to everything I'd learned as a fighter pilot," he says.  "We killed other people, not ourselves."

Over the years, I got to know a lot of these men, and I was always impressed by their humility.  They shouldered a lot of responsibility, but they never seemed to seek any glory for themselves.  They flew their missions alone, yet they were the ultimate team players, working closely with their maintenance and tanker crews, intelligence officers, and technical representatives from Lockheed and other manufacturers.  They also didn't take themselves too seriously: They knew how to goof off.  But when a crisis developed anywhere in the world, the first guys we went to were the recce pilots.  And they were always ready.

Carl Hoffman assisted in the reporting and writing of this story.

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