Spying On Russia: The First Overflights


The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", is a single-engine, very high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and rightly so. No nation, even including Imperial Japan, was as obsessed with secrecy as the U.S.S.R. The Soviet government kept it secrets closely guarded, going to sometimes grotesque lengths of disinformation. Even tourist maps of cities such as Moscow and Leningrad were deliberately erroneous. The Soviet borders were closed by more than an Iron Curtain, they were closed with an impenetrable seal of ruthless terror which kept all but a few out, and all but a very few in. Those who were admitted from the outside were kept under extremely close surveillance, and were never permitted to do the sort of casual intelligence gathering that is customary in every other country in the world. Those that were let out had to leave family members behind as security for their behavior.

Thus it was that when the Cold War came into being shortly after World War II the United States found that it had virtually no information with which to plan a bombing campaign against the Soviet Union. The available captured German maps were useful for the western portions of the U.S.S.R., but everything else was a blank slate. There were entire cities that were known to exist, but whose locations were unknown. (As later events would prove, there were also entire cities whose location and existence had been kept secret.)

This utter lack of knowledge became increasingly importance with the passage of time. The Soviet Union steadily expanded its sphere of influence through Eastern Europe and Asia even as it demonstrated one technological success after another. These included the masterful reverse engineering of interned Boeing B-29s to create the Tupelov Tu-4 and the explosion of an atomic bomb in 1949. By October, 1951, there was evidence that a Tu-4 had dropped an nuclear weapon in an air-burst test; this was followed by news of the detonation of a thermonuclear weapon in 1954.

Intelligence estimates (later proven to be exaggerated) assumed that there might be as many as 600 Tu-4s in service, with perhaps as many as 100 atomic bombs available by 1952. With this combination of weapons, the Soviet Union possessed the capability for a devastating one-way strike on many major American cities.
This was an intolerable threat, and the need for exact information on Soviet capability and for a basis from which to divine their intentions became paramount. As early as 1946, attempts were made to gain information by flights near Soviet and satellite territories, and these later became known as PARPRO flights for Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance Program. Such flights are perfectly legal and could be undertaken on the authority of the theater commander. The Soviets ruthlessly defended their air space however, and many PARPRO aircraft were shot down. Some of these were shot down while accidentally within Soviet national territory, while others were lawlessly shot down over international waters.

As useful as the PARPRO flights were, the absolutely essential intelligence concerning what was going deep inside the territory of our potential enemy could be gained only by over-flying the Soviet Union and its allies. This was serious business, essentially an act of war, for such an overflight violated Soviet national sovereignty. It should be noted that the Soviets were especially sensitive to overflights, because they had been exposed to them prior to the German invasion on June 22, 1941. Luftwaffe Colonel Theo Rowehl’s special reconnaissance unit had conducted almost 500 long-range flights, pinpointing most of the major Russian airfields. Stalin was trying desperately to post-pone the war and made no objection to the overflights even when a German reconnaissance plane crashed complete with cameras and exposed film.

The gravity of the Cold War overflights was such that they could not be undertaken with authority from the President. At a recent Defense Intelligence Agency symposium on early overflights, several speakers went to great lengths to establish the difference between a Presidentially authorized overflight and the more common, if never routine, PARPRO missions. Each these speakers also took time to emphasize that General Curtis E. LeMay never, under any circumstances, ordered an overflight to be made without Presidential authorization. They were adamant on this point because some authors, a notorious television program, and in recent months, a film, have unjustly portrayed LeMay as a stubborn warmonger, trying to start World War III on his own. Nothing could be further from the truth. LeMay was dedicated to having SAC ready for war, and he was prepared to take the war into the heart of enemy territory, but he was first and foremost a soldier who obeyed his Commander in Chief.

National Reconnaissance Office Historian Cargill Hall has offered a definition of an “overflight” that fits the facts. He states that “In using the term “overflight,” I mean a flight by a government aircraft, that, expressly on the direction of the head of state, traverses the territory of another state in peacetime without that other state’s permission.”

The distinction is important for it highlights just how important and how dangerous the highly classified overflight mission was. All of the flights were conducted with hermetically sealed secrecy, a level of security which was maintained until very recently, when, at last, the missions were declassified, and the men who flew the missions could finally talk about them. Curiously, this secrecy was aided and abetted by the Soviet Union, for it refused to admit to its people and to the world that it could not prevent U.S. aircraft from overflying its national territory.

The missions were extremely dangerous, in part because of the unsophisticated reconnaissance aircraft that were available for use. These ranged from piston-engine aircraft like the Supermarine Spitfire, Lockheed Neptune and Boeing RB-50, to the early jets. The latter category included Lockheed RF-80As, slowed by their huge tip-tanks necessary for range, a single Republic F-84E, North American RF-86s, RF-100s and RB-45s, Martin B-57s and Boeing B and RB-47s. All of these aircraft led the way to the later purpose-built Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 aircraft, and ultimately to satellites.

Regardless of the equipment used, the mission was extremely dangerous from the overloaded take-off to fending entry off MiG cannon fire. Ironically enough, the missions were sometimes detrimental to the careers of the heroic men flying them. It was not unusual for a pilot selected to fly overflight missions to be unable to tell his boss, or his bosses’ boss, exactly what it was he was doing. This was not a good way to achieve a top officer efficiency report.

The secrecy was so tight that even individuals in a unit assigned to overflight missions did not discuss their missions with each other. Valuable bits of information on the position of anti-aircraft batteries, enemy airfields and so on were not shared; each man had to go out and learn for himself. Only one of the pilots or crew-members who made the overflight missions saw the results of their work until almost fifty years later, and that, as we shall see, was the late Bryce Poe.

It was implicit in all the overflight missions that if an aircraft were forced down by enemy fire or mechanical malfunction, the purpose of the mission would be formally be disavowed by the United States, with “navigation error” being the favored excuse. All the men making overflights knew that they were on their own; if something went wrong, there would be no rescue flights. Walking out of Siberia, China or Manchuria was out of the question, and so some pilots studied a translation of a MiG-15 pilot’s manual, staking their survival chances on the very slim chance of being able to steal a MiG-15 from some obliging flight line and flying it back.

Early Overflights

It has not been established that the very earliest overflights had Presidential authority. The first USAF overflight on record was flown by the then 1st Lt. Bryce Poe II, later a four-star general. On May 10, 1949, Poe took his Lockheed RF-80A, burdened with special long-range tip tanks, on a flight over the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin. Later he made flights over the Soviet mainland, including a March 10, 1950 flight that covered Vladivostok.

When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25th, 1950, Poe flew many reconnaissance missions, but avoided penetrating Chinese airspace. He would fly his RF-80A along the Yalu, banking to take oblique photos across the border. However, he was soon tasked with another overflight mission, legal now because the Soviet Union was recognized as a “co-belligerent” in the so-called police action in Korea. Flying out of Misawa, Japan, he once again covered familiar territory in the Kuriles, Sakhalin and Vladivostok. The Soviet attempted interception with piston-engine aircraft but were unsuccessful.
Poe continued his operations over the Soviet mainland until he rotated home in January, 1951. Unlike his successors in the overflight business, Poe interpreted the developed photos, and personally briefed the Commander in Chief, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, and Far Eastern Air Forces Commander, General George E. Stratemeyer. Pretty heady work for a first john recce pilot!
The success of these flights prompted USAF planners to seek additional intelligence and early in the Korean War a decision was made to conduct overflights of coastal areas of China, particularly in the ports opposite Taiwain. In addition, planning was begun for overflights into the western areas of the Soviet Union. Great Britain also felt the need to acquire information, and a reconnaissance partnership using the best and brightest of both nations would be established.

Three North American RB-45Cs were sent to Japan in September, 1950, and immediately began reconnaissance operations. Although fast compared to the B-29, the RB-45C was no match for MiG 15s and were roughly handled. One was lost in combat on December 4, 1950, and another badly shot up on April 9, 1951. Fighter escorts were laid on, but a third aircraft was almost shot down on November 9, 1951. As a result RB-45s were withdrawn from daylight operations.
Ironically, RB-45 overflight operations in Manchuria and the Soviet Union did not encounter difficulties. Captain Howard S. “Sam” Myers, veteran of 200 Berlin Airlift missions, flew a jet black RB-45C from Yakota to Harbin Manchuria, collecting radarscope photos of airfields and other military installations on the night of December 17/18, 1952. The valiant RB-45Cs continued to conduct overflight missions until April, 1953.
The 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron had operated RF-80s as a part of Col. Karl Polifka’s 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in Korea, then transitioned to RF-86s. Most of the RF-86s were custom built aircraft, with the 15th making the camera installations themselves. Ops Officer Captain Laverne H. Griffin personally selected the pilots for the RF-86 missions, and on July 27th, 1953, the last day of the Korean War, made the longest overflight in Manchuria ever recorded by a single-engine jet. One of his squadron mates was Captain (later Major General) Mele Vojvodich, who flew 125 combat missions, including a flight over Vladivostok in an RF-86.

The RF-86F’s initially flew in pairs, with two F-86s as escorts. Vojvodich came to regard the reconnaissance aircraft as merely bait to lure MiGs into battle, and pressed for solo missions. He got his way, and was rewarded with one of the longest RF-86 overflights of the war, a three hour and fifteen minute that took him from Seoul to Shenyang to Harbin and return. He crossed the Yalu at Antung, trailed by 24 MiGs and deadsticked into K-14, overdue by one hour. His photos revealed ten airfields, five of them previously unknown, and with Ilyushin Il-28s parked on some of them. IAL ABOUT TRAINING THE CHINESE PILOTS FOR PHOTO RECCE)

Most of the fighter missions were relatively shallow penetrations , but the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, stationed at Komaki Air Base, west of Nagoya, had specially equipped RF-86s for the task. These had been stripped of their guns, and fitted with two 200 gallon and two 400 gallon drop tanks. Two cameras were mounted either side of the pilot’s seat to take overlapping photos, while a third wide-area camera was mounted vertically.
Nine overflights were conducted between April 1954 and February 1955, usually four aircraft flying at altitudes from 45,000 to 48,000 feet. While they knew they would be tracked by the excellent Soviet radar, the pilots real concern were con-trails which would identify their position to interceptors. Normally the flights were a quick loop overflying targets near Vladivostok and Sakhalin.
On February 19, 1955, Morrison flew alone all the way to Khabarovsk, well within the Soviet Union, on the Amur River near the Manchurian border. Although one tip tank did not jettison when he released it, he pressed on, homing in on the Khabarovsk radio station. Just as he turned in over his target, an airfield, his tip-tank at last released, plunging down toward the city below. Short on fuel, Morrison flew a direct course to Chitose air base on Hokkaido, his engine flaming out as he turned off the runway.

Early European Overflights

The successful Chinese intervention in Korea in November, 1950, presented not only a crisis in that theater of war, but across the world. There was a real possibility that the United States and the People’s Republic of China would become engaged in a full-scale war that would inevitably include the use of nuclear weapons. Great Britain, far from recovered from the devastating effects of World War II, feared that a Sino/American conflict would give the Soviet Union the opportunity to overrun Europe.

In December, 1950, Prime Minister Clement R. Atlee came to Washington to discuss the situation with President Harry S. Truman. One result of that discussion was decision to conduct joint USAF/RAF reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union and its satellites. Another was an agreement to begin photo-reconnaissance operations over Red China.

The Asian operations got under way when Flight Lieutenant Edward “Ted” C. Powles flew his Supermarine Spitfire Mark 19 photo-reconnaissance aircraft on the first of 107 missions over China. Flying out of Kai-Tak airport, Powles’ Spitfire was equipped with two F.52 36 inch vertical cameras. He would fly the aircraft at the very edge of its flight envelope, attaining an altitude of about 50,000 feet, with his airspeed indicating 120 knots and the outside air temperature stable at minus 70 degrees Centigrade.

Powles’ long missions ranged over coastal China, going as far as 150 miles to the northeast and 400 to the southwest. At times he reached as far as 100 miles inside the mainland. He was never intercepted, but stretched the range of his aircraft to its limits, sometimes having to dead-stick in at Kai- Tak. Powles is retired and living in Asheville, North Carolina, free at last to talk about his one-man reconnaissance war.

Tornadoes Over Russia

The United States and Great Britain devised a ludicrously simple—and utterly transparent—cover up for their first overflights from U.K. bases. The USAF was to provide four North American RB-45C Tornadoes to the RAF, which would paint them in RAF covers, and use American-trained RAF crews to fly them. If one was forced down in the Soviet Union, the United States would point to the British insignia and disclaim all knowledge, while the British would make it clear that they owned no RB-45s, so it could not be theirs. Fortunately, the ruse was not put to the test.

Squadron Leader John Crampton led a secret RAF “Special Duty Flight,” that trained at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. before returning to Sculthorpe Royal Air Force Base in the fall of 1951. A Strategic Air Command detachment, commanded by Lt. Col. Marion C. “Hack” Mixson, flew out of Sculthrope, and Crampton’s flight was attached to it. Mixson, Crampton and his navigator, Flt. Lt. Rex Sanders, received approval for the first overflight from Sir Winston Churchill, newly returned as Prime Minister.

After a March practice mission, the first clandestine RB-45C overflight took place on the night of April 17/18. After an initial in-flight refueling, the three Tornadoes, all beautifully done up in RAF markings, flew separate routes to their targets, which were principally the operating bases of the Soviet Long Range Air Force. One crossed the Baltic states, the second penetrated Belorussia, while the third, with Crampton,. Sanders and copilot Sgt. Bill Lindsay, on board, went to the Ukraine.

Despite heavy involvement of the surprisingly large Soviet radar defense, none of the aircraft were intercepted, and vital information on the Soviet bases was acquired.

The “Special Duty Flight” was de-activated for a time, then reactivated for a reprise of the mission on the night of April-28-29, 1954, with Crampton again in charge. Not only was Soviet radar as active as before, they had now linked their anti-aircraft fire to it, and as Crampton approached Kiev, flak burst exactly at his altitude of 36,000 feet and only a few hundred yards away. He cut the mission short and returned to Munich to refuel. The other two “RAF RB-45s”, flying the same routes they had flown before, escaped flak and fighters. (The RAF had its own way of doing business—only Crampton and Sanders were volunteers for these flights—the others were simply assigned to the task.)

In 1955, USAF crews led by Major John Anderson would fly three RB-45Cs on basically the same mission as flown by Crampton and his crews had done.

Where are the Tu-4s?

The threat of one-way attacks by Tu-4s had not receded and in the spring of 1952, there were intelligence reports that the big Tupelov bombers had been sent to forward bases in Siberia, from which over-the-pole attacks could be launched. A joint USN/USAF program was established in which a special Navy Lockheed P2V-3W Neptune would work in concert with a Boeing RB-50 in overflights of the Kamchatka, Peninsula, the Bering Straits, and Wrangel Island off the Northern Siberian coast.

The twin-engine, unpressurized P2V-3W was an unlikely formation mate for the larger, pressurized four-engine B-50. The Neptune flew at about 15,000 feet and identied radar and radio signals that would indicate radar sites and airfields. The pressurized RB-50 flew much higher and well behind the Neptune. There was a complete radio silence on these flights that ran perhaps twenty miles inside Soviet territory, so everything depended upon timing, as the RB-50 was to photograph the areas the Neptune identified. The Lockheed was intercepted twice by MiGs, but not fired upon.

The Neptune/RB-50 flights were so successful that a new program, designated Project 52 AFR-18 was put into motion. Dwight D. Eisenhower had become president, and he was so deeply convinced of the need for reconnaissance that some people said that he had a “Pearl Harbor complex.” In any event, he took great political risks to back long-range reconnaissance, including the development of specialized aircraft for the role.

Project 52 AFR-18 originally called for two modified Boeing B-47Bs from the 306th Bomb Wing at MacDill AFB, Florida, to make deep penetrations of Siberia via widely different routes. (This was the second time that B-47s had been selected for the overflight role. The fourth B-47B off the production line had been heavily modified for the task, but was unfortunately lost in a ground accident on August 15, 1951.)

Two top crews were selected for the mission, and were briefed by General LeMay personally. The primary crew was led by Colonel Donald E. Hillman, deputy commander of the 306th, with Majors Lester E. “Ed” Gunter as copilot and Edward A. “Shakey” Timmins as navigator. The back-up crew was led by Colonel Patrick D. Fleming, who had scored 19 victories as a Navy pilot in World War II, and was to die in the first crash of a B-52 on February 16, 1956. His crew consisted of Majors Lloyd F. “Shorty” Fields as copilot and William J. “Red” Reilly as navigator.

President Truman had misgivings about one of the routes, believing it put the aircraft at too great a risk. The approved route took the B-47s from Eielson Air Force Base north to a refueling point near Point Barrow, then west past Wrangel Island to a point near Ambarchik. It then turned southeast, to parallel the length of the Chukotskiy Peninsula to Provideniya, thence east to return to Eielson.
The two B-47s took off on October 15th, following the two Boeing KC-97 tankers assigned to them for support. After the refueling, Fleming flew to an area over the Chukchi Sea, taking up a race-track pattern.

The mission proceeded as briefed, with Hillman flying at 40,000 feet at 480 knots true airspeed, a difficult target to intercept. But the Soviets were ready, and after two targets had been photographed, they became aware that they were being tracked by MiGs. Hillman broke radio silence to alert Fleming of the possibility of an attack. Gunter turned his seat 180 degrees to prepare his rear turret for firing, but the MiGs were unable to get into position and the rest of the mission went off without incident.

The 7-3/4 hour flight had covered some 3,500 miles, 800 of them in Soviet territory. The photographs had revealed that the Soviets were not massing their Tu-4s for an attack, the radar data was extremely worth while.

The flight had different effects upon different careers. It was soon learned that the Soviet regional commander had been fired, while six months later, all of the B-47 crew members were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Hillman received his from LeMay personally.

New Threats, New Missions

In 1954, Western leaders became concerned that the new Myasishchyev M-4 Bison jet powered intercontinental bomber might be stationed in the Kola Peninula. A flight of three Boeing RB-47Es was dispatched to Fairford RAF base. The three aircraft were to fly in radio silence to a point near the Kola Peninsula. There two were instructed to turn back; the third, unknown to the other two, was going to proceed into Soviet territory, flying from Murmansk south to Arkhangelsk then southwest to Onega. It would then fly due west to neutral territory over Scandinavia.

The degree of security involved in the overflight missions can be illustrated by the fact that the three RB-47Es took off on May 9, 1954, unaware that the RAF had flown the last RB-45C mission just one week earlier. The lead RB-47E was commanded by Captain Harold Austin, with Captain Carl Holt as copilot and Major Vance Heavilin as navigator.

At the designated point, two of the RB-47Es turned back; to their amazement, Austin kept on going, crossing the Kola Peninsula at Murmansk, at 40,000 feet and 440 knots true airspeed.

Austin’s aircraft was quickly picked up by a flight of three MiG-15s over Murmansk, but they did not attack. As they approached Arkhangelsk, six hostile MiGs began attacking. The MiGs flew in echelon, with the lead plane firing, then siding off to be replaced by a wingman. Fortunately for Austin, their aim was poor for a while, with cannon shells flashing above and below his aircraft. As Austin covered the last of his targets and was passing over Finland, one of the MiGs’ 23-mm cannon put multiple holes in the left wing and near the forward fuel tank, knocking out the intercom system. One MiG flew in very close and appeared to be threatening to ram the B-47, then banked away, Copilot Holt had fired his tail guns, but they had jammed, a not uncommon occurrence on B-47s. Still, the threat kept the MiGs at bay until the RB-47 was in neutral airspace, and Austin returned to Fairford. The crew subsequently received two DFC’s each for the mission; LeMay later said that he would have preferred to have awarded them the Silver Star, but this award required a board of officers for approval, and they had no need to know of the mission.

At the debriefing, LeMay asked Austin “Why didn’t they shoot you down?”
Austin, striving for the right answer, said “They did not want to fly up our tail pipe because of the rear gun.” To which LeMay replied “I’m firmly convinced that all fighter pilots are cowards.”

Project Homerun

The largest and by far the most arduous of the overflight operations began from Thule Greenland and operated between March 21st and May 10, 1956. During this time sixteen RB-47Es of the 10th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, Lockbourne AFB, Ohio flew with five RB-47Hs from the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron from Forbes AFB, Kansas. They were supported by twenty-eight KC-97 tankers.

Achingly familiar to anyone who served or visited there, Thule was located 690 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Temperatures were averaged 35 degrees below zero, and it was dark almost twenty-four hours of every day. Work was conducted under survival conditions on the flight line, and as usual, the corps of non-commissioned officers and airmen worked miracles as 156 missions went off flawlessly. There were many special hazards to adapt too, from getting lost in an ice-fog on the way to a latrine to not being able to lock brakes for an engine run-up.

The missions covered the entire Arctic coastline of the Soviet Union, a 3,500 mile line that ran from the Kola Peninsula in an arc around to the Bering Strait. Operating off the ice-covered runways and using grid navigation to fly in the polar areas, the missions were conducted in radio silence. There were no aborts, no accidents and no losses to the Soviets.

Normal missions called for pairs of RB-47s (usually an H and an E model) to fly their sectors, with two KC-97 tankers for in-flight refueling. On one famous mission, on May 6/7, six RB-47Es conducted a “mass flight,” entering the Soviet Union at Ambarchik and flying east to Anadyr.

The Homerun overflights were of course a terrible affront to the Soviet Union, which protested bitterly. The United States gave a standard reply, noting that “if” there had been “an” overflight, it was due to a navigational difficulty, and was “deeply regretted.”

There were many overflight operations, including those by “Slick Chick” North American RF-100s and Operation Heart Throb missions conducted by Martin RB-57As. All were characterized by secrecy and by the utmost bravery of the crews.

These early penetrations of the Soviet Union paved the way for the future, when, for political reasons, the USAF would turn the overflight role over to the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA would use series of highly specialized aircraft such as the Lockheed U-2s, the long-wing Martin RB-57Ds and Lockheed SR-71s, and these in turn would be superseded by satellites for information gathering.

2 responses to “Spying On Russia: The First Overflights

  1. I came across an obituary that states Edward C. Powles of the RAF, who flew over China around the time of WWII, died in 2008. Today (11/11/11) I met a man at a retirement home who says his name is Edward “Ted” Powles and that he wrote about his experiences in the RAF flying spitfires over China after WWII. Which one is the real Edward “Ted” Powles?!

    • That is a fascinating story; the Edward Powles whose obituary you read was 6’4″ tall, which may help you identify the gentleman you met in the retirement home. But you know, despite all the concern over “stolen valor” by the time a man reaches the end of the road at a retirement facility, maybe he is just trying to spice up his life and should be cut a little slack. Of course, its always possible that there were two Edward Powles in the dangerous business of reconnaissance, so it won’t hurt to give him a break. But I think the obituary you read was reliable. All the best, Walt

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