The Development of Spy Planes

Since the beginning of time there has always been conflict and inevitably war. Because of war, it is logical that enemies would seek out information about each other in order to increase their own chances of survival. Reconnaissance would be the proper terminology for gathering this information. There are many ways in which to gather reconnaissance, however I am going to talk about aerial reconnaissance and the use of spy aircraft as a method of acquiring important information. The first documented evidence of aerial reconnaissance was in 1794 when Captain J.M.J. used his captive balloon to observe his enemy at the Battle of Fleurus. The first documented use of airplane reconnaissance was in 1911, when Italian Captain Piazza spent an hour in his Blerot making notes on the Turkish positions between Azizia and Triopoli. The next year in 1912, this same pilot recorded the first aerial reconnaissance sortie using a camera. These first methods of reconnaissance were very cumbersome events because the cameras of those days would fill your entire lap. Because it greatly increased range of sight, it was extremely advantageous to observe from a higher elevation. For example, an average 6ft man can see approximately 3 miles, however, when put in an aircraft 65 feet above the earth’s surface, his horizon increase to 10 miles. Moreover, put him in an aircraft 35,000 ft above the earth’s surface and his horizon is no less than 230 miles. This paradigm shift in intelligence would lead to astounding innovations in aerial reconnaissance within this century.

The Great War World War I was basically a ground war, which consisted of bloody fighting throughout an immense system of interconnected trenches. Because of this, each side needed a reliable source of intelligence about each other’s movements At the beginning of the World War I aircraft had only been used as an effective fighting machine. After realizing that these high-flying aircraft could observe and bring back panoramic photographs of enemy fortifications and movements, each side began modifying aircraft to carry large cameras of the time. Most of the modifications were very simple, consisting of a hole cut in the bottom of the fuselage through which your back gunner could point and operate the camera. However, more often than not, the back gunner just basically manhandled this large robust camera into position when a target was sighted. In either case, by the end of the WWI in 1918 more than 90,000 people on all fronts, produced roughly 12,000 large photographic prints a day. Also, the quality and reliability of these photos were unimagined four years earlier. Pressure of four years of war had transformed aerial reconnaissance into a routine operation using extremely large but very good cameras designed for the job.

By the time the Second World War began in September 3, 1939, there were many aircraft in circulation, however the U.S. had not been able to get sufficient photos of Germany for a variety of reasons. Sidney Cotton, who was an expert pilot and photographer, was contracted by the British to daringly fly his civilian Lockheed airplane over German hostile territory and come back with photos of the German fleet. He had accomplished his mission in less than a month after the War had started. Sidney Cotton went on to set up the Photographic Development Unit in Heston. The Unit became know as the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, which was famous for developing millions of films and made great technological advances in the art of aerial reconnaissance. During the time of WWII aerial reconnaissance and intelligence gathering really came into its own. Advanced warplanes were often modified as reconnaissance platforms capable of carrying a battery of cameras at high speed and over long distances. These reconnaissance flights became a regular part of the war, and were instrumental in the planning of the D-day invasion.

The Cold War, which began at the end of World War II and last until the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991 called for extreme advancement in all aspects of aircraft and aerial reconnaissance. It was this sensitive period that inspired the United States CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to fund the production of the famous U-2 spy plane. The U-2, also known as Dragon Lady, was the first aircraft built specifically for clandestine reconnaissance flights. Lockheed developed the U-2 in 1954 for the USAF to fly over foreign territory without permission in order to take photographs of military or strategically interesting installations. The U-2 was a glider-like airplane that was extremely light and could fly at very high altitudes – 70,000 to 90,000ft . It was hoped that the plane could fly high enough that the Russians could not detect it. As it turned out, they could see it, but it flew high enough that the Russians couldn’t shoot it down. The U-2 was entirely gray without markings, which provoked public interest and government officials released that it was some kind of NASA experimental utility aircraft. After several successful flights and providing the U.S. with valuable information during the Cold War, the U-2 was shot down. But the factual information suggests that Russia sent up an aircraft to shoot it down, while simultaneously shooting at the U-2 from the ground. Consequently, instead of the U-2, Russia shot their own airplane and the shock wave from that explosion snapped the U-2’s fragile wing. After four years, the U-2’s secret missions had come to an end. By the 1960’s such aircraft were obsolete because of the development of SAM’s (Surface to Air Missiles) which could reach far higher than airplanes of that era could fly. A next generation airplane that could fly just as high, and five times faster than the U-2 was already in the works.

Even while the U-2 was in service, the CIA knew that at its slow airspeeds of 494mph, the U-2 would soon become vulnerable to anti-aircraft weaponry. This compelled the CIA to begin development of the A-12. In 1959 a contract was given to Lockheed to begin production. The first flight of the A-12 took place on April 26, 1962. Lockheed went on to build several more 15 to 18 total for the CIA. Although there is no evidence to suggest that the CIA ever flew the A-12 operationally, most would speculate that it was. The mission-hindering problem of the A-12 was that the systems carried where so complex that the pilot’s workload was almost impossible. This was a large factor in development for the SR-71. The A-12 is probably most famous for setting the groundwork for its replacement the SR-71, also known as the Blackbird . The only significant difference is that the A-12 was a single seat aircraft, with reconnaissance equipment where the RSO Reconnaissance System Officer is now located on the SR-71. The contract for the first six SR-71’s was issued in December in 1962. The first SR-71 flew two years later in December of 1964 and was followed by the production of 28 more Blackbirds . The SR-71 was without a doubt the single most technologically significant aircraft since the end of World War II. The SR-71 Blackbird went on to set nine new records in speed and altitude. Colonel Robert L. Stephens along with RSO Lt. Col. Daniel Andre set a new absolute world speed record of 2,193-mph Mach 3.17; 30 miles a minute and a new absolute sustained altitude of 85,069 feet. The Blackbird was operational for nearly three decades, and was unmatched as a strategic reconnaissance airplane. Due to politics, the SR-71 was retired in 1990. However, the USAF still kept a few SR-71s in operation and in 1995 two were brought back into service. Now only NASA’s DFRC at Edwards AFB flies the SR-71.

Although the United States Government denies having a reconnaissance aircraft to replace the SR-71, it is hard to believe that in today’s technological world that we would not have an advanced spy aircraft. In the early hours of the morning on January 30, 1992 a loud boom of the coast awakened people all over southern California. US geologist looking into the phenomena assumed it had been another tremor, which is quite a common occurrence on the West Coast. However, a few hours later they decided an unidentified flying object traveling at Mach 3.1 had caused the disturbance. Also determining that it was also heading straight for the U.S. Airforce’s top secret base at Groom Lake Nevada. Even after official denials, evidence indicates that the United States is operating a very fast secret spy aircraft It seems that this aircraft has been titled Aurora, after it showed up by mistake in an 1985 Pentagon budget document. Eyewitnesses have seen unusual triangle-shaped aircraft over the Western United States and the United Kingdom’s North Sea. People have also spoke of hearing a low frequency rumble followed by a very loud roar, which experts say could be the highly advanced engines used by a Mach 6 4,000 miles per hour aircraft.

In spite of these technologcal advances, spy planes may become obsolete in the near future. The question that most people have asked is, “Why would we need a spy plane, when a complex network of orbiting satellites is capable of aerial reconnaissance ” It’s a strong case indeed, as compared to the analogy earlier in my paper, when placing a satellite in orbit 100 miles above the earth, its horizon is an amazing 900 miles. This is quite an impressive figure, when compared to the number of satellites that are already in orbit. It is amazing to think, that in a little over a century we have come from using huge box camera to satellite imagery. It is mind boggling to think where we will be by the end of the 21st century.

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