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Article: The U-2 Enters Service

The U-2 Enters Service

The 60 year old aircraft still flys today serving our country's need for information on our adversaries.
The 60-year-old aircraft still flys today serving our country's need for information on our adversaries.

U-2 flights began in 1956, but they were paused by President Eisenhower in 1958 because he was uncomfortable with penetrating Soviet airspace for intelligence gathering.

The U-2 program was initially conducted by the CIA, and later the program was placed under the USAF.

Over 250 U-2 overflight and peripheral missions were flown over Europe, the USSR, the Middle East, and the Far East from June 1956 through 1959. Remember, these flights were conducted to gather intelligence about the actions and capabilities of countries not friendly to the US after World War II.

However, that changed in the summer of 1959 due to the perceived growing "missile-gap"  controversy. This came about due to a series of dramatic Soviet announcements during the second half of 1957.

In August 1957, the Soviet Union announced the successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

This was followed in October of 1957 when the "Sputnik" satellite was launched, followed a month later by launching a second satellite containing a dog and a television camera.

The Missle Gap

To many Americans. including some influential members of Congress. The
Soviet Union's space successes seemed to indicate that its missile program was ahead of that of the United States.

By the spring of 1958, after the United States had launched several satellites, fears of a space technology gap between the two superpowers had eased.

By the end of the year, however, new concerns arose that the Soviet Union was producing a missile arsenal that would be much larger than that of the United States. 

This "missile-gap" controversy was caused by the Soviet Union's leaders boasting about the success of their missile and space programs.

The Geneva Conference On Surprise Attacks 1958

A photograph of the 1958 Geneva Conference on Surprise Attack
A photograph of the 1958 Geneva Conference on Surprise Attack

On December 4th, 1958, a Soviet delegate to the Geneva Conference on Surprise Attack stated: "Soviet ICBMs are at present in mass production." 

Five days later Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told the world that the Soviet Union now had an ICBM that could carry a 5-megaton nuclear weapon 8,000 miles.

This was problematic because in December 1958 the United States' first attempt to launch the new Titan ICBM resulted in failure.

In truth, however, the Soviet ICBM program was at a standstill, and as a result, there were no launches of an ICBM from the Soviets Tyuratam Missle Range between May 29, 1958, and February 17, 1959.

To conceal these problems Khrushchev and the Soviet Defense Minister Malinovsky told the world that their ICBMs were capable of hitting "precisely any point," adding that the Army was equipped with a whole range of intercontinental, continental, and other rockets of long, medium, and short range.

When President Eisenhower was asked about this he replied, "They also said they invented the flying machine, automobile, telephones, and many other things," and concluded by saying "Why should you be so respectful of this statement?"

Renewed US U-2 Overflights of the Soviet Union

With rising concern about this alleged "missile-gap" defense department officials pressed President Eisenhower to resume overflights to gather up-to-date information on the Soviet Missle Program.

But the President resisted these arguments and noted that the reconnaissance satellite program was "coming along nicely." Eisenhower stated that the U-2 program should be "held to a minimum pending the availability of new equipment."

On April 10, 1959, the President tentatively approved several overflights, but on the following day, he withdrew his authorization for the overflights.

President Eisenhower was worried about "the terrible propaganda impact that would be occasioned if a reconnaissance plane were to fail."

He did, however, authorize in June of 1959 two electronic intelligence collection (ELINT) missions along the Soviet-Iranian border.

This flight involved a CIA U-2 and a USAF RB-57D Canberra, and this successful mission made the first telemetry intercept ever from a Soviet ICBM during the first-stage flight, 80 seconds after launch.

Soviet Oveflights Resume

The CIA proposed that the intelligence that could be gathered far outweighed the danger of a U-2 being shot down.

President Eisenhower then authorized a mission consisting of one U-2 equipped with a B camera to fly from Peshawar, Pakistan across the Ural Mountains and then across the missile test range at Tyuratam. The mission was known as Operation TOUCHDOWN, and it produced excellent results.

While TOUCHDOWN was in flight another U-2 flew a diversionary mission along the Soviet-Iranian border.

However, President Eisenhower was unwilling to authorize more overflights of the Soviet Union because of the upcoming visit of Premier Khrushchev to the United States scheduled for September 15-27, 1959.

At the same time, the President wanted as much intelligence about the Soviet missile program as possible, and 14 ELINT flights were conducted along the Soviet border for the rest of the year.

US Concerns Continue To Grow

On September 12, 1959, the Soviets launched the Luna 2 rocket which impacted on the moon. Upon Khruschchev's arrival in the United States, he continued to boast about Soviet space success.

In addition, Khrushchev and other leading Soviet officials continued to make exaggerated claims about the extent of their missile force.

In November Khrushchev told a group of journalists "Now we have such a stock of rockets, such an amount of atomic and hydrogen weapons, that if they attack us, we could wipe our potential enemies off the face of the earth."

Because the Soviets had been launching at least one missile per week since early fall, US policymakers placed a lot of weight on his remarks.

Meanwhile, the British began overflights of the Soviet Union in U-2s which began on December 6, 1959, flying from Peshawar, Pakistan to Adana, Turkey, and across Kuybysheve Saratov Engels Airfield, then the Kapustin Yar Missile test range before landing at Adana.

An image of the British U-2 flight over the Soviet Union on December 6, 1959
An image of the British U-2 flight over the Soviet Union on December 6, 1959

The British conducted another flight a few days later, as well as another flight by the British over the Soviet Union on February 5, 1960, called Operation KNIFE EDGE.

Despite the excellent photography, not one missile site could be seen. 

Because there had been so few overflights of the Soviet Union in 1958 and 1959 many questions remained about the Soviet missile program, and the missile-gap debate continued.

 On April 9, 1960, a U-2 equipped with a B-camera departed Peshawar, Pakistan, and photographed Saryshagan where it obtained the first pictures of two new Soviet radars, then across the nuclear testing site a Semipaltinsk, crisscrossed a railroad network there (the US thought missile sites would be near railroads), then proceeded to Tyuratam where it photographed a new two launching pad area serviced by roads that suggested a new Soviet missile was in the offing.

An image of Operation SQUARE DEAL on April 9, 1960, by a British RAF U-2
An image of Operation SQUARE DEAL on April 9, 1960, by a British RAF U-2

The route for this flight had been selected because planners believed that penetration from the Pakistan/Afghanistan area offered the greatest chance of escaping detection by the Soviet air defense system.

Escaping detection was important because if Soviet surface-to-air missile sites (SAMs) received an early enough warning they posed a major threat to the U-2.

The CIA's hope that the flights from Pakistan to Afghanistan might go undetected proved to be incorrect. It turned out that the U-2 ELINT collection unit indicated Soviet tracking early on in the mission.

Even though the Soviets failed to intercept the U-2 on April 9th, it should have served as a warning against future overflights of the Soviet Union.

The project staff failed to recommend the cessation of overflights now that the risks had increased substantially.


Prior to the April 9th overflight President Eisenhower had authorized another two overflights during the month of April 1960; however, no flights were to be scheduled in May because of an upcoming Paris Summit scheduled to start on May 16, 1960.

The confidence in these flights was reinforced because the Soviet Union did not protest the April 9th overflight.

Due to bad weather OPERATION TIME STEP, which was scheduled to fly from Greenland and land in Norway was scrubbed,

On the other hand, OPERATION GRAND SLAM would be the first U-2 overflight to fly across the Soviet Union from South to North, departing Peshawar and landing in Bodo, Norway. 

The U-2 flight route planned for Gary Powers for May 1, 1960.
The U-2 flight route was planned for Francis Gary Powers for May 1, 1960.

Powers was the most experienced U-2 pilot in the program, having flown27 operational missions, including one each of China and the Soviet Union, as well as six along the Soviet border.

To prevent the U-2 from being seen at Peshawar, project managers decided to ferry the aircraft from Adana in Turkey to Pakistan the night before the scheduled flight. As soon as the aircraft was refueled it would take off at daybreak with little if any exposure to local residents. Less than six hours on the ground.

The first U-2 was flown to Peshawar but returned immediately to Adana because of bad weather over the Soviet Union. On April 29th, 1960, it was again flown to Peshawar but returned immediately to Adana due to bad weather over the Soviet Union.

By this time it had to be removed from service for maintenance, so a different U-2 was flown to Peshawar on Saturday night, April 30, 1960.

This aircraft, U-2 C, article 360, had made a crash landing in Japan during the previous September, had been refurbished by Lockheed, and now had a more powerful J75 engine that would give higher altitude capabilities to the airplane.

Pilots who flew this aircraft after the accident did not completely trust it, and referred to it as a "hangar queen."

The aircraft was equipped with a B-model camera, a System-VI electronic intelligence unit, and a System IXB device which generated false-angle information in response to radar pulses used by some Soviet airborne-missile fire-control systems.

This, the 24th deep penetration of the Soviet Union, departed 30 minutes late on Sunday, May 1, 1960.

Disaster Waits

After takeoff Powers guided his aircraft toward Afghanistan and clicked his radio switch to signify his penetration altitude of 66,000 feet which signaled Peshawar everything aboard the aircraft was working and that the mission would proceed as planned.

All U-2 pilots maintained strict radio silence during penetration missions.

Powers' route was to take him over the Tyuratam missile test range, then Chelyabinsk, just south of Sverdlovsk, northwest then to Kirov, north over Yur'ya and Plesetsk, to Severodvinsk, northward to Kandalaksha, north to Murmansk, and finally west to Bodo, Norway.

Because it was May Day, a celebration day in the Soviet Union, there was little air traffic and it was quite easy to identify and track the U-2 when it was 15 miles south of the Soviet-Afghan border. They continued to track the aircraft and when Powers reached the Tashkent area approximately 13 Soviet intercept aircraft scrambled in an unsuccessful attempt to intercept the flight.

Powers never made it past Sverdlovsk. Four and a half hours into the mission a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile detonated close to and just behind his aircraft, disabling it 70,500 feet above the Sverdlovsk area.

The plane spiraled down towards the ground while Gary Powers looked for a way out of the U-2. Unable to use the ejection seat he released the canopy and prepared to bail out, waiting to arm the destruction device at the last moment so that it would not explode with him still in the aircraft.

When he released his seatbelt, however, he was immediately sucked out of the aircraft and found himself dangling by his oxygen hose, unable to reach the destruction switch.

Finally, the hose broke and he fell away from the spinning aircraft.

After falling several thousand feet his parachute opened automatically, and he drifted slowly to earth where he was quickly surrounded by farmers, and then Soviet officials.

The aircraft was not destroyed by the crash, and the Soviets were able to recover and identify much of its equipment when they put it on display 10 days later.

Even if he had been able to activate the destruction device the only thing that would have been damaged was the B-camera.

A phograph of the damaged U-2 that Gary Powers had been flying.
Onlookers view the wreckage of Gary Powers U-2 aircraft.

The CIA wondered if Powers had been flying too low due to an error of equipment malfunction, but he maintained he had been flying at his assigned altitude and had been brought down by a near miss of a Soviet surface-to-air missile.

This ultimately turned out to be the case, for in March 1963 the US air attache learned that the Sverdlovsk SA-2 battery had fired a three-missile salvo that, in addition to disabling Powers U-s, also scored a direct hit on a Soviet fighter sent aloft to intercept the U-2.

Mission planners had not known about this SAM site before the mission, and always tried to avoid known SAM sites when laying out the flight plan.


I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here:

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!


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