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U-2 Program

Overflights of the Soviet Union


Open Skies for National Security
open skies for national security

Scroll down to lists of U-2 missions over the Soviet Union

and books on aerial (including U-2) and space reconnaissance


Origins of the U-2 Program

from Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry, pp. 385-392, 2014

U-2 Moscow photo

... The post World War II world was not peaceful. In the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, "every agreement the Soviets entered into at [the] Teheran [Conference] in 1943 and [the] Yalta [Conference] in 1945, was ruthlessly broken, save for those palpably to their advantage. The same holds true for the Potsdam Conference of 1945" (Eisenhower 1963, 504). A confrontation between the free world and totalitarian communist states became a dominating feature of the political and military situations in Europe and Far East.

Development of powerful long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons rapidly accelerated in the 1950s threatening devastating consequences should the Cold War turn into a full-scale military conflict. New technologies allowed no time for preparation for hostilities and mobilization and made an intelligence failure such as Pearl Harbor absolutely unacceptable. Therefore, monitoring military developments and posture of the adversary and accurate knowledge of its offensive potential and deployment of forces became a key to avoiding a fatal miscalculation and hence reducing the risk of war ...

... In preparation for the summit of the Big Four powers [in Geneva, Switzerland, 18–23 July 1955], President Eisenhower endorsed a suggestion to propose a bold new doctrine allowing reciprocal aerial reconnaissance overflights of the American and Soviet territories. This concept, called the "open skies" plan, was enthusiastically advocated by President's Special Assistant for Cold War Strategy Nelson A. Rockefeller. At the same time Rockefeller strongly argued for launch of a scientific satellite, advancing the idea that would be realized in the Vanguard program.

On 21 July 1955, Eisenhower proposed the open skies concept during the summit meeting in Geneva. The president characterized the concept "both patently practical and fair" and emphasized an objective of reducing dangers of a surprise attack, which could be achieved by reciprocal overflights of the Soviet Union and the United States by reconnaissance aircraft.

The American proposal received a flat Nyet! -- No! -- from the Soviet leader. Eisenhower later recalled that "he [Nikita S. Khrushchev] said the idea was nothing more than a bold espionage plot against the USSR, and to this line of argument he stubbornly adhered" (Eisenhower 1963, 521). Soviet Premier Nikolai I. Bulganin formally responded to the American president on 19 September 1955, as noted in the Department of State Bulletin, p. 645, 24 October 1955, that "the problem of aerial photography [and mutual overflights proposed by you at the Geneva Conference] is not a question which, under present conditions, would lead to effective progress toward insuring security of states and successful accomplishments of disarmament." Ironically, a tacit "common-law" agreement would tolerate routine overhead photography from satellites in only five short years.

first U-2 Tyuratam Baikonur photos

The Soviet refusal and continuing Cold War confrontation accompanied by belligerent Kremlin rhetoric left no choice to the Eisenhower administration but to initiate a program of overflights of the Soviet Union. Peacetime overhead reconnaissance of the denied areas had thus become a national policy, and its implementation would eventually make possible verifiable arms control and limitation agreements between the USSR and the United States.

The three major intelligence objectives of American aerial reconnaissance in the mid-1950s were the Soviet long-range bombers, guided missiles, and the nuclear weapons program. Lack of accurate information about the closed information- controlled socialist state led to the perceived bomber gap and later to the missile gap, feared large-scale deployment of Soviet strategic bombers and dangerous superiority in deployed ICBMs, respectively. These expensive misconceptions were corrected only by the successful overhead reconnaissance programs initiated and implemented by President Eisenhower.

The importance of peacetime overhead reconnaissance in the postwar world was recognized by a number of military officers, scientists, and industrial leaders ...

... a new, more powerful means of photoreconnaissance was coming. Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson's team at the Lockheed's Skunk Works in Burbank, California, was completing crash development of a revolutionary high-altitude aircraft CL- 282 that would become known as the U-2. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had the primary responsibility for the U-2 program with vital contributions by the Air Force. This was a most unusual arrangement for a major national security program, and President Eisenhower thus established a seed of a civilian organization, reporting to secretary of defense, to direct overhead strategic reconnaissance. This new management structure eventually evolved into a civilian-directed office in the Department of the Air Force and was subsequently reorganized into the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). CIA's Richard M. Bissell, Jr. was put in charge of the U-2 program (called initially Project AQUATONE) since its inception, and he would later direct the follow-on A-12 (SR-71) aircraft (Project OXCART) and Corona satellite reconnaissance programs.

The U-2 was a high-altitude unarmed aircraft carrying primarily optical equipment for photoreconnaissance ...

The aircraft became operational in a record time, and a new overhead reconnaissance program was baptized by deep-penetration flights over Soviet territory on 4 and 5 July 1956. These first U-2 missions immediately proved their enormous and unique value by revealing that the Soviet Union did not have a large number of long-range Myasishchev-4 "Bison" heavy bombers and that the feared bomber gap did not really exist.

Sporadic reconnaissance flights, each requiring prior presidential approval, continued in spite of vigorous Soviet protests until that fateful day of 1 May 1960, when the Soviet air defenses finally succeeded in shooting a U-2 aircraft down deep inside the USSR, with the pilot Francis Gary Powers captured alive ... Shooting down of the U-2 and the follow-on publicity and show trial of Powers had stopped aircraft overflights. By that time, however, an alternative means, a secret crash reconnaissance satellite program Corona was close to producing first results.


Sputnik 1    Explorer 1    Vanguard 1    Astronautics    Missile Defense    Baikonur Tyuratam    Saryshagan    Rocket equation    Rocket espionage


24 Overflights of the Soviet Union

     date             Mission     Pilot                     airfield

4 July 1956            2013       Hervey Stockman           Wiesbaden (Germany)

Areas covered: East Germany, Poland, Minsk, Leningrad, Estonia, Latvia, Poland

5 July 1956            2014       Carmine Vito              Wiesbaden (Germany)

Areas covered: East Germany, Warsaw, Minsk, Moscow, Eastonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland

Some mission photos in [ref. A - see below]: Figs. 4.5, 4.6, 4.8, 4.9, 4.10

9 July 1956            2020       Marty Knutson             Wiesbaden (Germany)

Areas covered: East Germany, Poland, Minsk, Poland

9 July 1956            2021       Carl Overstreet           Wiesbaden (Germany)

Areas covered: Czechoslovakia, Vianna, Hungary, Lvov, Kiev, Minsk, Poland

10 July 1956           2024       Glendon Dunaway           Wiesbaden (Germany)

Areas covered: Poland, Kishinev, Kerch, Savastopol, Simferopol, Odessa, Romania, Hungary

20 November 1956       4016       Francis Gary Powers       Adana (Turkey)

Areas covered: Iran, Yerevan, Baku, Astara, Caucasus

18 March 1957          4020       James Cherbonneaux        Adana (Turkey)

Areas covered: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia

20 June 1957           6005       Albert Rand               Eielson (Alaska)

Areas covered: Khailyulya, Ust-Kamchatsk, Kozyrevsk, Karaganskiy-Ostrov

5 August 1957          4035       Buster Edens              Lahore (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Afganistan, Tashkent, Tyuratam, Kazalinsk, Aral Sea

Mission flight path in [ref. B - see below]: Fig. 6
One mission photo in [ref. B - see below]: Fig. 7

11 August 1957         4039       Bill McMurry              Lahore (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Ala-Ata, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Sinkiang (Xinjiang)

21 August 1957         4045       Sammy Snider              Lahore (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Novokuznetsk, Tomsk

21 August 1957         4048       E.K. Jones                Lahore (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Lake Balkhash, Karaganda, Omsk, Alma-Ata

22 August 1957         4049       Tom Birkhead              Lahore (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Merket Bazar, Kuldja, Abakan, Krasnoyarsk, Kansk, Sinkiang (Xinjiang)

22 August 1957         4050       James Cherbonneaux        Lahore (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Lake Balkhash, Semipalatinsk, Barnaul, Prokop'evsk, Novokuznetsk, Leninogorsk

28 August 1957         4058       E.K. Jones                Lahore (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Dushanbe, Tashkent, Tyuratam, Kazalinsk, Aral Sea

Some mission photos in [ref B - see below]: Figs. 10, 11

10 September 1957      4059       Bill Hall                 Adana (Turkey)

Areas covered: Krasnovodsk, Gur'ev, Astrakhan, Tbilisi

16 September 1957      6008       Barry Baker               Eielson (Alaska)

Areas covered: Kamchatka Peninsula, Milkovo

13 October 1957        2040       Hervey Stockman           Giebelstadt (Germany)

Areas covered: Norway, Finland, Murmansk, Kandalaksha

1 March 1958           6011       Tom Crull                 Atsugi (Japan)

Areas covered: Dalnerechensk, Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, Belagorsk, Komsomolsk, Sovetskaya Gavan'

9 July 1959            4125       Marty Knutson             Peshawar (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Tyuratam

6 December 1959        8005       Robert Robinson (RAF)     Peshawar (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Kuybyshev, Kapustin Yar, Caucasus

5 February 1960        8009       John MacArthur (RAF)      Peshawar (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Tyuratam, Kazan, Crimea

One mission photo in [ref A - see below]: Fig. 4.11

9 April 1960           4155       Robert Ericson            Peshawar (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Lake Balkhash, Saryshagan, Semipalatinsk, Kyzylsepe, Dzhezkazgan, Tyuratam

Some mission photos in [ref A - see below]: Fig. 6.8, 6.9, 6.14, 6.20, 7.5, 7.17

1 May 1960             4154       Francis Gary Powers       Peshawar (Pakistan)

Areas covered: Tyuratam, Kyshtym, Sverdlovsk (shot down by a SA-2 Guideline)

reference A - Intercept 1961. The Birth of the Soviet Missile Defense

reference B -

From Tyuratam Missile Range to Baikonur Cosmodrome,
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2018.12.021
Acta Astronautica, vol. 155, pp. 250-366, 2019
(or email -- mikeg@usc.edu -- the author for pdf)


Recommended science and engineering books on astronautics, rocketry, and space technology

Recommended missile defense books

Recommended books on history of astronautics, rocketry, and space


Aerial Reconnaissance and U-2

C. Babington-Smith, Air Spy: How Nazi Secrets Were Uncovered from the Air, Ballantine Books, New York, 1957

A.J. Brookes, Photo Reconnaissance, Ian Allan Ltd, London, 1975

D.A. Brugioni, Eyes in the Sky: Eisenhower, the CIA and Cold War Aerial Espionage, Naval Institute Press, 2010

G.W. Goddard with D.S. Copp, Overview: A Life-Long Adventure in Aerial Photography, Doubleday, garden City, NY, 1969

M. Gruntman, Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry, AIAA, 2004

M. Gruntman, Intercept 1961, The Birth of Soviet Missile Defense, AIAA, 2015

M. Gruntman, From Tyuratam Missile Range to Baikonur Cosmodrome, Acta Astronautica, 2019 (pdf)

R.C. Hall and C.D. Laurie, Early Cold War Overflights, 1950-1956, Symposium Proceedings, Volume 1: Memoirs, National Reconnaissance Office, Washington, DC, 2003

R.C. Hall and C.D. Laurie, Early Cold War Overflights, 1950-1956, Symposium Proceedings, Volume 2: Appendixes, National Reconnaissance Office, Washington, DC, 2003

H. Mike Hua, Lost Black Cats, Story of Two Captured Chinese U-2 Pilots, Authorhous, Bloomington, IN, 2005

C.L. "Kelly" Johnson with M. Smith, Kelly. More Than My Share of It All, Smithsonian, 1989

J.E. Lewis, Spy Capitalism: Itek and the CIA, Yale Univ. Press, 2002

C. Pocock, 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the Dragon Lady, Schiffer Publishing, 2004

F.G. Powers and C. Gentry, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, Potomac Books, 2004

F.G. Powers Jr. and K. Dunnavant, Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy, Prometheus Books, Guilford, CT, 2019

G.W. Pedlow and D.E. Welzenbach, The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, 1998


Space Reconnaissance – Corona and Hexagon

D.A. Brugioni, Eyes in the Sky: Eisenhower, the CIA and Cold War Aerial Espionage, Naval Institute Press, 2010

D. Day, J.M. Logsdon, and B. Latell, Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites, Smithsonian, 1999

M. Gruntman, Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry, AIAA, 2004

M. Gruntman, Intercept 1961, The Birth of Soviet Missile Defense, AIAA, 2015

R.A. McDonald (ed.), Beyond Expectations – Building an American National Reconnaissance Capability: Recollections of the Pioneers and Founders of National Reconnaissance, ASPRS, 2002

F.C.E. Oder, J.C. Fitzpatrick, and P.E. Worthman, The Corona Story, National Reconnaissance Office, Washington, DC, 1987

C. Peebles, The Corona Project. America's First Spy Satellite, Naval Institute Press, 1997

P. Pressel, Meeting the Challenge. The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite, AIAA, 2013

K.C. Ruffner (ed.), Corona: America's First Satellite Program, Central Intelligence Agency, 1995


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