The purpose of Aerial Reconnaissance is twofold.
There is reconnaissance that is confined to the environs of the battlefield, the purpose of which is to gather intelligence about the enemy’s disposition, strength and technology in the immediate area of localised conflict. The USAF identifies this as tactical reconnaissance. Then there is reconnaissance with a strategic emphasis. This includes the finding and pinpointing of targets for intercontinental warfare and seeks indications and warnings of a surprise attack, in addition to gathering intelligence of the enemy’s disposition, strength and technology on a global scale.
The so-called ‘overflights’ of the Cold War were strategic. Their execution involved the state-sponsored overflying of a country without the consent of the other country, with the specific intention of gathering intelligence that could be used in the event of war.
From the end of the 1940s there had been growing concern in the West about the strategic capabilities of the Soviet Union. Numerous ‘spy flights’ over the Soviet Union and China during the Korean War were conducted using a variety of aircraft, from reconnaissance-capable single engined jet fighters to multi engined bombers modified for reconnaissance such as the RB-45C.
The North American B-47 Stratojet was originally designed as a strategic nuclear bomber, However, during its distinguished career with Strategic Air Command, it performed a variety of reconnaissance missions. Two variants: the RB-47E and the RB-47H were specifically designed for the recce role, however the first Stratojet overflight mission was flown by modified B-47Bs.
On the morning of Wednesday October 15, 1952, two B-47Bs took off from Eielson AFB in Alaska. The Stratojets were from the 306th Bombardment Wing and had been modified with special radar and photographic cameras installed in the bomb bay.
Their mission was to look for Tupolev TU-4 bombers at airfields in the Chukotskiy peninsula and on the islands of Dickson in the Kara Sea and Mys Schmidta in the Chukchi Sea. The B-47s were supported in this mission by KC-97s of the 36th Air Refuelling Squadron.
One of the B-47s — commanded by Captain Patrick D Fleming — was to be the back up aircraft and after the air to air refuelling in the area of Port Barrow, Alaska, it took up station in a racetrack over the Chukchi Sea. The other B-47 commanded by Lt Col Donald Hillman proceeded towards the Soviet coast at 40,000ft and crossed into Siberia.
«We had finished covering two of our five targets,» recalled Hillman, «taking radar and visual images, when warning receivers on board announced that we were being tracked by Soviet radar. Sitting in the rear seat behind me, Ed Gunter was alerted to be ready for a possible encounter with MiG-15s, which we knew to be stationed in the area. Ed swivelled his seat 180 degrees to the rear to control the bombers only defensive armament, the GE tail guns. A few minutes later he advised over the intercom that he had Soviet fighters in sight, below and to the rear: climbing desperately to reach us. Now identified as a hostile intruder, I broke radio silence and notified Pat Fleming and Lloyd Fields, still orbiting off the coast in the backup B-47B, of our position and situation. In case things went badly for us at least others would have an idea of what had happened.
«Gunter kept his eyes on the fighters, but they had apparently scrambled too late. Because of our altitude, speed and position, at least this flight of interceptors could not overtake us. The tactic of surprise had worked, though we worried, with our position and heading now known, other jet fighters ahead might already be airborne and climbing to altitude to make an interception. Moreover: we had yet to overfly Provideniya — home to MiG Regimental headquarters.»
Hillman and his crew succeeded in covering all their targets and his fears of further interception proved unfounded.
The mission was a complete success and, furthermore, led to the sacking of the Soviet regional commander!
When Hillman’s B-47 had successfully penetrated Soviet airspace, Captain Fleming’s aircraft began the secondary mission, which was to turn due south and follow the Soviet coast south-westward before turning towards Fairbanks, Alaska, overflying Wrangle Island. This mission proceeded without incident.
With the end of the conflict in Korea in mid 1953, the United States — under President Eisenhower: who had been elected in January of that year — committed itself to a programme of peacetime overflights of the Soviet Union and its allies. This became known as the Sensitive Intelligence (SENSINT) programme. For a period of two to three years these flights would be carried out as they had been before: by using military aircraft in service use, specially modified for the purpose.
In 1953 the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio began conversion from RB-45C Tornados to the RB-47E variant of the Stratojet bomber.
The reconnaissance suite of the RB-47E was virtually identical at this time to that carried by the RB-45C Tornado: an O-I5 radar scope camera, a K-38 forward oblique camera with a 24 inch lens in the nose; and a trimetrogen installation, a vertical station and a split vertical station in the bomb bay The RB-47E retained its two M24A guns in the tail.
Colonel Harold ‘Hal’ Austin was assigned to the 91st SRW and was soon part of a detachment of four RB-47Es sent to RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire. Colonel Austin was to conduct the first daylight overflight of the Soviet Union.
The route planned for the RB-47s was over the north-western corner of the Soviet Union. The purpose was twofold: to update Strategic Air Command’s knowledge of the air defence radars in place in the region and to ascertain the presence and numbers of Soviet bombers and air defence fighters based in the area.
On May 6, 1954 six RB-47Es flew a mission along the Scandinavian coast to photograph the Spitzbergen Islands. This mission, it turned out was a practice for the one that was to take place two days later with some notable additions! It was also designed to lull the Soviets into a false sense of security. There would be no reason for them to suppose that the next mission was any different to the last…
On May 8, the second peripheral mission along the Scandinavian coast took off from Fairford. Three aircraft were to continue up the coast of Norway and then turn east to a point 100 miles east of Murmansk before returning to base. However; the RB-47E flown by Austin and his crew would proceed south and east and enter Soviet airspace, Their mission was to photograph airfields and industrial sites before exiting Soviet airspace and returning over Finland to the UK.
Hal Austin explained: «We were to enter the USSR at 40,000ft and follow a route towards two airfields near Murmansk, then turn south-east toward another airfield, then two more in the vicinity of Arkhangelsk, and then on the south west to photograph four other targets on the way home. The Colonels gave us a strip map cut roughly 100 miles either side of the route of flight covering the nine targets and instructed us to destroy it, eat it if necessary, if anything happened to us.»
The crew had been told by SAC Intelligence that flying at 40,000ft would counter any effective opposition from air defence MiG-l5s, This was because their 23mm cannons were very unstable at that altitude, The more capable Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 ‘Fresco’ was unlikely to be deployed to the area in any significant numbers.
Everything went as planned in the initial part of the mission, As the RB-47E entered the USSR, cameras were turned on and the photos were taken. It was as the aircraft was approaching targets in the vicinity of Arkhangelsk that the first MiGs appeared. «Carl [Carl Holt, the co-pilot] spotted a flight of three MiGs below us», recalled Austin, «and to the left rear well below our altitude, between the second and third airfield, no doubt checking whether or not we were friend or foe. As we moved on towards target four; a flight of six more MiGs showed up again to our left rear; a couple of hundred yards out, but closer to our altitude. We did not believe that either of the first two MiG flights were armed, but in fact were just sent to check us out. Shortly after reaching our fourth target, however; a third flight of six MiGs, operating in two groups of three arrived again to our left rear and nearly at our altitude.
«After completing coverage of target five, we turned to the south-west toward the other four targets. Very soon a fourth flight of six MiGs appeared at our left rear and, to our surprise, at our altitude. They began a pursuit, making firing passes at us one fighter at a time, Carl and I both said ‘Hey! These must be MiG 17s!’ and the next thing we knew we saw phosphorus tracer shells going above and below our aircraft.»
Carl Holt succeeded in getting off a short burst with the Stratojet’s tail gun, which forced the MiGs to break off their attack. Unfortunately the cannons jammed and soon the fighters were back on the attack, Austin executed a left turn to target seven and during this turn the aircraft sustained a hit from one of the MiG-l7s. Austin put the RB-47 into a shallow dive to increase airspeed and throw off the aim of the pursuing fighters. Intent on completing the mission he required new headings to the next target. Unfortunately the hit from the MiG had knocked out the intercom; and all communication inside the aircraft had to be passed by mouth to ear inside the very noisy cockpit.
“The other two MiGs in that flight made firing passes at us but were unable to hit us again and we made a couple of small turns towards target eight. Yet another flight of six MiGs came up on our left rear and again made firing passes at us without success. We proceeded on to the last airfield fairly close to the Finnish Border When we had covered it, we turned south west towards friendlier territory with the MiGs still making passes at us even after we had crossed into Finland.”
Austin and his crew received two DFCs each for this mission. A Silver Star was not forthcoming as its award would have prompted too many questions about the details of the mission by those not qualified to know.
Project Home Run
The other variant of the Stratojet to be involved with clandestine flights was the RB-47H, an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft. Its mission was the detection and location of enemy land and sea-based radars. The aircraft carried a crew of six: pilot, co-pilot, observer and three Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) operators.
Project Home Run was a major clandestine mission planned for the RB-47 to conduct photographic and electronic reconnaissance of selected areas of the Soviet Arctic.
In March 1956, sixteen RB-47Es and four RB-47Hs arrived at Thule AFB in Greenland. The RB-47Es were from the 26th SRW and the RB-47Hs from the 343rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron of the 55th SRW The first overflight planned for April 5 was unsuccessful, largely due to the fact that the vital in-flight refuelling assets for the RB-47s were not in place. The mission was rescheduled and went well. From that point on all Home Run missions were successfully completed.
George Brown, the officer responsible for mission planning for the RB-47Es recalled his experience: “Normally we flew RB-47E reconnaissance flights whenever weather in the photo areas permitted, two to four aircraft a day» The four RB-47H aircraft would fly in the general area where the photo ships were operating, to collect Soviet electronic intelligence that focused on the RB-47E aircraft.
Project Home Run finished in May 1956 with a‘grand finale’. On May 5, a flight of six RB-47Es took off from Thule, flew over the North Pole and entered Soviet air space in daylight over the Siberian town of Ambarchik. Flying in line abreast at 40,000ft, they proceeded towards Anadyr on the Bering Strait. photo-mapping the entire region. The six aircraft landed at Eielson AFB in Alaska; returning to Thule on May 7.
After a furore and strong protests from the Soviet Union caused by an overflight of the Soviet Far East by Martin RB-57D Canberras in December 1956, President Eisenhower ordered a directive banning all future overflights of the Soviet Union by US military aircraft.
The SENSINT programme was at an end. However this was not to be the end of overflights altogether, for waiting in the wings was a new aircraft designed from the outset for high altitude reconnaissance. This was the Lockheed U-2, to be flown by the pilots of the civilian Central Intelligence Agency.