Cold-War Spy Plane's History Emerges From Cloud of Secrecy
Many of the U-2's early secrets are to be unveiled today at a ceremony in Washington.
WASHINGTON — To the satisfaction of the pioneer jet-jocks who first flew the U-2 to the edge of space, their "Dragon Lady" is finally about to get her due.
Built to fly above 70,000 feet and shoot Kodak-clear imagery of the earth below, the U-2 spy planes are credited with changing the cold-war balance of power.
The joint CIA-Air Force project brought back photographs in 1956 that revealed a smaller-than-feared Soviet nuclear arsenal. The intelligence came at a time when America's obsession with nuclear annihilation fueled a backyard construction boom in bomb shelters.
Through the years, the U-2's secrets have been well preserved. But later today, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, and contractors like Lockheed Martin Corp. will unveil many of the spy plane's early secrets.
While the declassified information is decades old, details of the project open a window into the way the United States gathers intelligence from the heavens.
For example, U-2 imagery of Russian and Chinese missile sites from the 1960s provides the basis for analyzing real-time pictures of India, Pakistan, and North Korea as those countries develop similar systems.
"This isn't so much, 'Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear,' as [it is] the first chapter in a very long book," explains John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "The thing that's bizarre about the U-2 ... is it's as important now as at the beginning of the program."
While the plane is most closely associated with its daring flights over the Soviet Union, 23 in all, it has been used extensively in Vietnam, the Middle East, and over North Korea.
More modern versions of the U-2 gathered photographic and radar-generated imagery during the Gulf War. The newer planes can transmit their images electronically to satellite downlinks.
Just last year, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened to shoot down any of the reconnaissance aircraft discovered flying over Iraqi airspace.
But it is the early days of the program that are the stuff of aviation lore. Approved in 1954 by President Dwight Eisenhower, the plane was designed and constructed in just eight months by the Lockheed Corp. at their Skunk Works facility in California, under the supervision of Clarence "Kelly" Johnson.
"[The construction of the plane] is a great lesson in what is possible," observes former CIA Director Stansfield Turner. "It was done secretly, low cost, the results were quick and good. Today it would take 20 years to build."
Its implications for American foreign policy were enormous. "From a geopolitical point of view, we understood how weak the Soviet Union was in terms of their intercontinental ballistic missiles, and it established a strategic understanding ... during the Cuban missile crisis," retired Admiral Turner says.
America first learned about the U-2 in May 1960, when pilot Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk, Russia.
By the time Mr. Powers went down in 1960, there had been almost two dozen incursions into Soviet airspace. The first pilot crossed over on the Fourth of July in 1956. "I knew they couldn't reach me," recalls Carmine Vito, the man in the cockpit that day.
Mr. Vito's flight took him directly over downtown Moscow. "I could see them [Soviet fighter aircraft] scrambling, two of them collided," he remembers. "But Kelly [Johnson] said they couldn't get at us, and he was right."
An emergency landing Vito made in 1956 at California's Palm Springs airport illustrates the speed needed to keep the U-2 a secret. Within moments, a team of mechanics rolled up and had the plane totally disassembled in 23 minutes.
They loaded it into a C-124 cargo plane that had landed while disassembly was in progress. Few even knew the plane had been there. Those who saw it had no idea what it was.
The plane with the massive wing-span that "loves to fly" was conversely the plane that hated to land. "We all had difficulty bringing it down," says Hervey Stockman, another of the original six pilots.
Flight engineers used to chase the descending planes in a station wagon across a dry lake bed, telling the pilot how close his landing gear was to the ground.
The U-2's extensive testing and development in 1954 and 1955 corresponded with another phenomenon of the jet age: the UFO.
"You can correlate 67 percent of the early test flights with UFO sightings," chuckles Gerald Haines, chief historian at the CIA in Langley, Va.
"You would have commercial pilots flying at 30,000 feet seeing light reflecting off something [40,000 feet] above and reporting it in," Mr. Haines says.
In addition to the detail historians hungered for, the declassified images give a picture of early high-altitude pioneers that predates the Apollo 1 mission, which benefited from technology developed for the U-2, including pressurized space suits.
The government will declassify nearly 1-1/2 million images taken from the mid-1950s through 1974. The information will be available to the public at the National Archives in Washington.
But much will remain classified, including a massive overfly mission of China in the 1960s and a program to train Taiwanese pilots to fly the U-2s.
"I think the country would be surprised if they realized the number of flights we took into the Sino-Soviet bloc, and the number [of pilots] shot down," Turner says.