Trains, Boats & Planes | 10 January 2018Missions of the World’s Most Famous Spy Plane Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Even before airplanes were invented, warring factions in Europe utilized early flight (air balloons) to spy on their enemies and locate soldiers. After the Wright Brothers, spyplanes quickly came into being by all sides when World War I began. By the 1950s the United States Air Force U-2 spyplane began a long and storied history that included an international incident at the height of the Cold War. From the book Spyplanes: The Illustrated Guide to Manned Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft from World War I to Today, is a look at some of the hundreds of missions this stealthy aircraft flew throughout the globe. And just in case you’re wondering, the band U2 is not named after the plane! LOCKHEED U-2 DRAGON LADY Undoubtedly the world’s best-known spyplane, the U-2 photo and electronic recon aircraft has been in US service since 1956, continuing in frontline US service into the twenty-first century and outlasting its planned successor, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The U-2 was to fly over Soviet territory at altitudes above 60,000 feet (18,288 meters). Essentially a powered glider, it had “such a unique configuration that there was little chance of its being mistaken for a bomber,” according to then President Eisenhower. When the U-2 was built, it was estimated that it would be able to fly over the Soviet Union for two years before the Soviets would detect it and have the capability to shoot it down. Nevertheless, all of the estimated 24 overflights of the Soviet Union between 1956 and 1960 were tracked by Soviet radar. The first operational U-2 mission took place on 20 June 1956, when an aircraft overflew Poland and East Germany. The first U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union took place on 4 July 1956, with Moscow as the primary target.In 1957, a U-2 was reported to have looked down on the first Soviet intercontinental missile on its launcher at Tyuratam, east of the Aral Sea. The flights over the Soviet Union were piloted by civilian pilots under contract to the CIA, actually on loan (“sheepdipped”) from the air force. Then, on 1 May 1960, the U-2B flown by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile near the industrial center of Sverdlovsk in central Russia. Powers had taken off from Peshawar, Pakistan, and had intended to cross the Soviet Union and land in Bödo, Norway, in a 9.5-hour flight covering 3,788 miles (6,096 kilometers), of which 2,919 miles (4,698 kilometers) would be over the Soviet Union. Eight or nine SA-2 missiles were fired by the air defense unit commanded by Major M. R. Voronov. The U-2 seems to have suffered an engine problem and, as it lost altitude, it was severely damaged by an SA-2 missile. Powers’ aircraft was fitted with a plastic explosive linked to a delayed timing switch that he was to initiate prior to ejecting from the aircraft. The explosive was intended to destroy the camera but not the aircraft. Powers was unable to initiate the destruct mechanism, though he parachuted from the aircraft and was captured upon landing. The Powers incident occurred 15 days before a scheduled summit conference of major world leaders in Paris. As a result, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded an apology at the conference from President Eisenhower, causing the collapse of the conference and a worsening of American-Soviet relations. Following the incident, U-2s were no longer flown over the Soviet Union, but they did continue overflights of other areas of interest to the United States. British pilots also trained to fly the U-2, and in 1958 President Eisenhower persuaded Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to have RAF pilots overfly the Soviet Union. Most RAF U-2 missions were over the Middle East, however, where British pilots flew 27 missions in the two years that they participated. U-2s were also flown extensively over Cuba, with the first flight, personally authorized by President Eisenhower, made on 27 October 1960, by a CIA aircraft. On the night of 13–14 October 1962, air force pilots began making the Cuba overflights. The U-2s revealed the buildup of Soviet weapons on the Caribbean island, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. On 27 October 1962, a U-2 piloted by air force Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr. was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile, killing Anderson. Far Eastern U-2 operations initially were flown from the US air base at Atsugi, Japan. U-2 flights over China flown by Nationalist pilots from Taiwan began on 13 January 1962, with 101 more flights occurring over the next six and a half years. The first Taiwanese U-2 loss occurred in September 1962, and China eventually claimed to have shot down a total of nine Taiwanese U-2s during the 1960s. While four have been confirmed by western sources, only seven U-2s were transferred to Taiwan. Other unusual U-2 missions included spy flights over China made by US pilots flying from India, in 1962, when, following another Chinese-Indian clash, the Delhi government turned to the West for military assistance (while continuing to procure arms from the Soviet Union). Intelligence about Chinese military forces in the border region was shared with the Indian government in this highly secret operation. The last U-2 flight over China was made in June 1974. Meanwhile, Middle East operations, primarily over Israel and Egypt, flew from West Germany, the RAF base on Cyprus, and from Adana, Turkey. The first such flight, taking off from Wiesbaden, was on 29 August 1956, during the Suez crisis. More flights followed during the 1956 crisis.One CIA-piloted mission took off from the US aircraft carrier Ranger (CVA 61) in the mid-Pacific in May 1964. That U-2G successfully photographed the island of Mururoa, part of French Polynesia, to spy on French atomic bomb tests being conducted there. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, by agreement with both Israel and Egypt, USAF U-2s flying from Cyprus carried out truce verification missions over the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal, an operation that has continued into the twenty-first century. During the Gulf War of 1991, U-2s were flown in Saudi Arabian airspace to provide real-time intelligence on Iraq. The U-2s subsequently monitored the “no-fly zones” of Iraq, briefly flew over Iraq under the aegis of the United Nations to seek out illegal weapons; they provided valuable intelligence again in the Gulf War of 2003. A total of 104 U-2s were produced: In 2016, the USAF had 27 operational U-2s in its inventory. Buy From an Online Retailer A comprehensive history with descriptions of the world’s most significant aircraft employed as “eyes in the sky.” For as long as there has been sustained heavier-than-air human flight, airplanes have been used to gather information about our adversaries. Less than a decade after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, Italian pilots were keeping tabs on Turkish foes in Libya. Today, aircraft with specialized designs and sensory equipment still cruise the skies, spying out secrets in the never-ending quest for an upper hand. Spyplanes tackles the sprawling legacy of manned aerial reconnaissance, from hot air balloons to cloth-and-wood biplanes puttering over the Western Front, and on through every major world conflict, culminating with spyplanes cruising at supersonic speeds 85,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. Authors Norman Polmar and John Bessette offer a concise yet comprehensive overview history of aerial recon, exploring considerations such as spyplanes in military doctrine, events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the downing of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2, the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, and the USAF’s Big Safari program. Polmar and Bessette, along with a roster of respected aviation journalists, also profile 70 renowned fixed-wing spyplanes from World I right up to the still-conceptual hypersonic SR-72. The authors examine the design, development, and service history of each aircraft, and offer images and specification boxes that detail vital stats for each. Included are purpose-built spyplanes, as well as legendary fighters and bombers that have been retrofitted for the purpose. From prop-driven to jet-powered aircraft, this is the ultimate history and reference to those “eyes in the skies” that have added mind-bending technologies, not to mention an element of intrigue, to military aviation for more than a century. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.