April 19, 2019

From the Vaults: U-2


    It is probably a bit misleading to use ‘U-2’ as a title because with the musical vein of the majority of the FTV articles, it will make one think instantly of Bono and the boys.  With that said, it can also trigger a different memory for those who follow aviation circles. A fan of deep aviation history may recognize ‘U-2’ as the designation of a single prop Russian biplane flown before World War II.  More recent historians will no doubt recognize the ‘U-2’ as being one of the key players in the Cold War, and that is where we are going in this edition of FTV. It seems that anyone who has heard about the Cold War has some knowledge of the U-2, but few realize exactly how important this fragile, high flying aircraft was from the last term of the Eisenhower administration through Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis.  

    Perusing the books offered for sale at the Ontonagon Township Library, I happened upon MAYDAY:  Eisenhower, Khrushchev and the U-2 Affair by Michael R. Beschloss (1986 – Harper & Row Books).  Beschloss served as an Adjunct Historian of the Smithsonian Institution and as a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony’s College at the time he wrote this book.  After gaining access to previously unavailable documents, he spent more than four years interviewing many people who were there during the whole affair. I may have only been seven years old when the U-2 incident occurred, but it was hard to not be a little shaken by the news reports that I heard on television and radio.  My dad assured me that it was just a lot of ‘sabre rattling’ on both sides. I may not have understood the concept of ‘sabre rattling’ at the time, but I do remember that it didn’t sound like a good posture for either side to take during those tense days of the Cold War.

    Here is a quick refresher course on the U-2 Affair:  On May 1, 1960, pilot Francis Gary Powers took off from an airfield in Peshawar, Pakistan.  He was piloting a U-2 spy plane that was to take him 3,788 miles over the heart of the Soviet Union before landing in Bodo, Norway.  At strategic places along his flight path, he would trigger high resolution cameras in the plane’s belly. The photos taken by these cameras were detailed enough that interpreters could count the cars in a parking lot from 70,000 feet up.  Somewhere near Sverdlovsk, an explosion crippled the plane. Powers was not able to exit the plane via the ejection seat, but he was able to jettison the canopy and parachute to the ground with minor injuries. He was captured and interrogated by the Russians who tried him for a host of charges in an elaborate show trial.  He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison and was eventually released in a trade for a high level KGB spy named Rudolf Abel. Powers worked for a time at Lockheed Aircraft (with the CIA secretly paying his salary) before he was fired. After years being unemployed, he worked as a broadcast pilot in Los Angeles until his helicopter crashed and he was killed in August of 1977.   

    During the investigation of the U-2 affair, there were many theories advanced as to what exactly happened on May 1, 1960.  Eisenhower was aware of the dire consequences that could be triggered if one of the U-2 craft were ever shot down or crashed in the USSR.  He had been assured by the CIA that a) no pilot could survive a U-2 crash and b) the planes were wired with explosives that would be triggered to destroy most of the plane after a pilot ejected from a crippled aircraft.  When word finally came from Russia that they had a good deal of the plane on display (which some felt was probably a different aircraft entirely) and that the pilot was alive and well, Powers immediately came under suspicion of defecting or being a double agent.  

    The Russians had protested U-2 overflights of their territory as early as 1956, but eventually they stopped complaining.  Khrushchev faced the twin horns of a dilemma: he did not want to appear to be begging the United States to stop the flights nor did he want the Russian people to know that the US had been violating their airspace for years.  Khrushchev often bragged about the military superiority of the Soviet Union and admitting that they were impotent to stop the U-2 overflights would not have been in his best interests. He was not about to hand his critics the ammunition they needed to push him from power.

    Powers maintained that he was flying near the plane’s maximum altitude and writing in his log book when there was a shock and flash that put his aircraft out of control.  He was pushed forward in the cockpit far enough that he feared he would lose his legs if he activated the ejection seat. As the plane spun wildly out of control, he managed to jettison the canopy so he could climb out.  He reached back to arm the explosive device that was supposed to destroy the plane, but he was jerked out of the cockpit before he could reach the twin switches. There had been speculation among the pilots that the CIA had the explosives rigged to explode when the ejection seat was activated (and not 70 seconds later as the pilots were told), so some felt that Powers deliberately avoided using the ejection seat.  Others claimed that he had fallen asleep and allowed the U-2 to descend to a lower altitude, thus allowing the Soviets to shoot it down (something that they were not able to do at its normal cruising height). Still others accused Powers of defecting. In the end, the Board of Inquiry that investigated the crash after Powers’ returned to the United States concluded that he had done his duty for his country. The sensitive nature of some of his testimony before the Board meant the full report was never released to the public (spurring accusations of a cover up, naturally).  Personal testimonies from members of the Board of Inquiry showed that Powers was held in high regard by those charged with the investigation. They concluded that Powers had performed his mission, kept vital intelligence information about the U-2 program from the Russians, and had behaved in an honorable fashion in the light of the possible death sentence that he faced during his trial.

    There was a lot of political fallout from the whole U-2 affair.  When the first cover up story had enough holes poked in it to sink a battleship (‘it was a weather reconnaissance flight that strayed into Russian airspace’), Eisenhower finally admitted that he authorized the U-2 flights (the first time the US acknowledged espionage outside of wartime).  Khrushchev had assured those in the Presidium that it was ‘the war mongering CIA and Pentagon’ who were to blame and not his friend Ike. Outraged that Eisenhower admitted to his role just as the US/Russian relations were entering a period of detente, Khrushchev then scuttled a Big Four Summit meeting in Paris allegedly because the president refused to apologize for the U-2’s ‘aggressive acts’ against the USSR.  Khrushchev withheld an offer to release Powers until after the 1960 presidential election because he felt doing so ahead of time might give Richard Nixon an edge. Having no love for Nixon, Khrushchev later told John F. Kennedy that he had in essence cast a vote for him by not releasing Powers sooner. It is a kind of ironic twist of fate that the U-2 spy plane that caused Khrushchev so many headaches under the Eisenhower administration were the same planes that gave Kennedy the definitive proof that the Russians were setting up missle bases in Cuba.

    I used to tell my students that there are 88 keys on a normal piano keyboard and 88 constellation recognized in the sky, therefore, ‘88’ must be a cosmic number.  It turns out that the entire U-2 project was put together in, you guessed it, 88 days. There is an Upper Peninsula connecting here as the plane was developed by famed aviation designer Kelly Johnson.  Johnson was born in Ishpeming, Michigan and grew up intent on becoming an aircraft designer. After working his way through the University of Michigan, he headed for California where his ‘Skunk Works’ (named for the place Hairless Joe concocted his moonshine in the ‘Lil Abner cartoons) lab designed a bevy of high performance aircraft.  Called to Washington for a secret meeting with the CIA in December or 1954, a deal was struck for Lockheed to produce twenty planes at a total cost of $22 million.  Designed to maximise the altitude and distance it could fly, the U-2 was more like a glider than a high performance jet. With Pratt and Whitney turbojet engines that could be turned off and on as it skittered through the rarified atmosphere at 70,000 feet, it could stay aloft for eleven hours and travel 4,750 miles burning a little over a thousand gallons of fuel.

    The designer’s working name for the plane was Angel and Beschloss described it as being “made of titanium and other lightweight materials.  Wingspan was roughly twice the length of the fuselage. The razor-like tail was joined to the rest of the plane by just three bolts. The aircraft was slung so low that on the runway, its nose was only the height of a man.  It was so light that later, at first glimpse, pilots wondered whether this was intended to be the world’s first disposable plane, built for only one flight.” At take off, the wing tips were supported by wheeled stilts called pogos that dropped off after the plane was airborne.  There is a fable that after a test flight, one of the pilots criticized Johnson’s design and the heated conversation that ensued ended with one of them telling the other off with a succinct, “(expletive deleted) You!” which was answered with, “(expletive deleted) You, Too!” Closer to the truth, they wanted to avoid the ‘X’ plane designation (which was used for experimental planes like Chuck Yeager’s X-1) because it would generate questions that they wouldn’t want to answer.  The ‘U’ designation came from ‘Utility Plane’ which was thought to be generic enough to pass without generating much notice. Amazingly, the CIA was able to get the Air Force to fund most of the project even though it was being flown by ‘civilian pilots’ working for the CIA.

    In the time period between Khrushchev’s unprecedented tour of the United States in in the Fall of 1959 and a planned Eisenhower visit to Russia, the first measurable thaw in the Cold War was just beginning.  Both Khrushchev and Eisenhower seemed to be in lock step to reduce nuclear weapons production and were looking forward to taking the first steps in that direction at the Big Four Summit in Paris. As the date for the Summit slipped toward the middle of 1960, the CIA pressed for the resumption of U-2 flights so they could keep an eye on Russian ICBM development.  As Eisenhower later said, he had become “a bit careless with success…lulled into overconfidence” because the Russians had not complained about the overflights for many years.  What progress that had been made in detente was lost with the President’s approval of the U-2 flight that was downed on the supreme holiday of all Soviet holidays, MAYDAY.

    As the political and propaganda wheels spun in both countries, the world moved dangerously close to World War III.  The nuclear disarmament talks that could have been a final triumph for Eisenhower turned out to be anything but. Khrushchev and Eisenhower could both see the folly of the two superpowers engaging in a nuclear war and were worried about other countries joining the nuclear family.  Thankfully, the sabre rattling never escalated beyond the point of no return. The next time the U-2 made headlines, it was uncovering evidence of Soviet Missiles being set up in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the tip of Florida. The world again held its breath as Khrushchev tested the resolve of the new president, John F. Kennedy.  Eventually, the U-2 gave way to another Kelly Johnson designed plane that could fly even higher and faster, the SR-71 Blackbird.

Top Piece Video:  It would have been fine to insert at U2 song here, but who sings of a high flying aircraft better than The Byrds?