When we asked former Blackbird, B-57 and U-2 pilot BC Thomas for his thoughts on the Top 10 spy planes he wasn’t comfortable with the term, noting “The SR-71 was a Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft, not a ‘spy plane.’ The practice of calling the SR-71 a ‘spy plane’ is so prevalent that I have stopped trying to correct the error, and it is no longer important since the SR-71 is no longer flying, although the U-2 pilots have cause to resent their being called ‘spy pilots.’ We have resented that moniker because of the formal, international consequences of being captured as a spy, as opposed to a military man flying a marked military aircraft, while wearing a military uniform with name and rank displayed, and carrying a military identification card which is also a Geneva Convention Identification card. Our status as a military pilot on a military mission was supposed to carry with it certain prerogatives which other countries were “constrained” to recognise, but whether they did or not was another question. Routinely, spies are summarily executed; military men captured, are supposed to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.“.
With this cautious note in mind, we hand you over to former RC-135 pilot Robert S Hopkins III:
“Compiling a Top 10 list on any subject is fraught with the risk of being ostracised for omitting some obscure subject or slighting someone’s Number One. The benefits, however, outweigh the opprobrium, as these lists tend to foster (spirited) discussion. ‘Spyplanes’ are no different.“
The first challenge is defining ‘spyplanes’. Thaddeus Lowe’s US Civil War balloon and observer would certainly qualify, as would a First World War biplane with a chap standing up in the back seat holding a camera. Spitfires and Mustangs equipped with cameras count for reconnaissance, but not necessarily ‘spyplanes.’ To this end, I’ve elected to use the following criteria to compile this list (in no particular order):
Manned aircraft. I’m not ready to deal with drones. Besides, there’s always the dismal MOBY DICK balloon debacle to muddy the waters. I’m also not willing to include satellites, the X-37B, or programs like Dyna Soar and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL).
Peacetime operations. During wartime you can make anything into a reconnaissance platform. Just too many options, especially the esoteric one-offs.
Collects intelligence related to national security. There, I said it—strategic. Putting a camera in a Viggen to take pictures of Soviet boats in the Baltic may update an Order of Battle but doesn’t necessarily influence Swedish national security decisions. (Yeah, I know, exceptions).
Length of service and variety of use. Ranking the very top of the list requires some kind of discriminator, and this is as good as any. No flash-in-the-pan, one-trick ponies here.
Impact. A wild card that recognizes the long-term effect a spyplane has on the intelligence community, diplomacy, national security, and even popular culture.
And now, Dear Reader, for your consideration, The List.
10. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25R Foxbat
Converted from the MiG-25 high-altitude, high-speed interceptor, the recon Foxbat carried cameras and electronic sensors in Soviet service, as well as a handful of export versions. The Foxbat earns the clean-up spot on the list because of its impact as an intelligence collector on the international stage. The March 1971 deployment of Soviet MiG-25s and pilots to Egypt and their unopposed overflights of Israel were a shock to the West. Although their contributions to Egyptian security and intel were minimal, their impact on Israeli security was profound. Even with only two Mach 2.5 overflights a month, the inability of Israeli F-4s and Mirage IIIs to intercept and destroy the Foxbats raised serious questions in Tel Aviv and in Washington about the ability of Western aircraft to engage what was considered—in this pre-Belenko time—the most dangerous Soviet aircraft yet. The MiG-25R photo intelligence (PHOTINT) overflights were significant escalations in the so-called War of Attrition, which led to the 1973 October War and the brief superpower diplomatic confrontation over possible unilateral Soviet intervention on behalf of the encircled Egyptian Third Army. For the first time thanks to the Foxbat, Western military leaders had to take Soviet aerial reconnaissance seriously.
Did I mention the MiG-25RR sample collectors that monitored Chinese nuclear tests? Now that’s cool.
Our interview with a MiG-25R pilot here
Credit: In photo
9. Biz jets
“For decades, few nations could afford the sufficiently large and equally expensive platforms needed to conduct routine communications and electronic intelligence (COMINT and ELINT) collection. That changed with the availability of smaller sensors and on-board analyzers as well as the reduced need for multiple operators, resulting in the procurement and conversion of SIGINT variants of large business jets or regional airliners such as Sweden’s Gulfstream IV and Israel’s G550 Nahshons, and Britain’s Bombardier Global Express Sentinel R1s. Even the United States, with its putatively bottomless budgets, is exploring the use of biz jets to replace its ageing fleet of RIVET JOINTs. After decades of just RC-135s, EP-3s, and C-130-IIs in American service, Nimrod R.1s in RAF colors, and the occasional French DC-8 and Soviet/Russian Coot, at last nations such as South Korea, Argentina, India*, Brazil, and Mexico can afford a ‘poor man’s Rivet Joint.’
Yes, I know India has one ‘RC-707’ (permanently) parked on the ramp, which is why they want to replace it with a biz jet. Iran has one too (anyone seen it flying recently?). And the lone Saudi RE-3. My point remains: only nations with deep pockets can afford to buy and sustain regular peacetime SIGINT operations with these dinosaurs. Biz jets change that equation entirely.”
Credit: In photo
8. Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter
“If you believe that Boeing’s B-29 bomber converted into an airliner modified into a tanker was just another airplane dripping oil on the ramp, think again. A handful of the venerable C-97s was configured with ultra-discreet intelligence systems and operated for years in plain sight. That was precisely what the US Air Force intended.
Beginning in the early 1950s, a little-known Texas organization installed a 20 ft focal length BIG BERTHA camera in a C-97. Through the clever use of mirrors and masterful camouflage of the aircraft’s exterior, the PIE FACE C-97 was indistinguishable internally and externally from any other trash hauler. Based at Rhein-Main AB in West Germany, PIE FACE quickly began taking superior-quality images of Soviet and East German forces along the border. Although restricted to flying no higher than 10,000 ft, it routinely flew into Berlin along the three air corridors from the West, earning the squadron the nickname “Berlin for Lunch Bunch.” Despite its unassuming appearance, the Soviets were keenly aware of its clandestine role. In a chance meeting between pilots after the Cold War ended, a Soviet pilot asked a C-97 pilot, “Which were you, pictures or beeps?” The same company modified other C-97s to collect PHOTINT and ELINT from the Baltic to Africa to Southeast Asia. One variant even collected Cuban television and radio broadcasts. The Cloudmaster C-97 was envisaged with huge wings and jet engines, designed to operate at altitudes above 60,000 ft but never made it off the drawing board. The C-97’s operational life as a spyplane lasted nearly 25 years, with the final example retiring in 1975.
What about that little-known Texas organization? BIG SAFARI would become the world’s largest and most successful converter of aircraft into spyplanes, a legacy which it continues today. That alone merits the C-97’s inclusion on the list as the patriarch of the many BIG SAFARI spyplane descendants.”
Credit: Ralf Manteufel
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7. Lockheed EP-3
“The US Navy pegs its first spot with the spooky version of its antisubmarine warfare P-3. In 1963 the CIA wanted a replacement for its RB-69s (converted P2V Neptunes) used in covert reconnaissance and insertion operations in Europe and China. By 1964 three P-3s were configured for ELINT and COMINT. Two years later they were transferred to Taiwan’s secret Black Bat squadron. Reportedly equipped with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for self defense, they flew peripheral SIGINT missions off the coast of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Eventually these were returned to the US Navy and by the late 1960s became part of the small EP-3 fleet that operated in conjunction with EA-3s and EC-121s. These missions, which continue today, largely focus on maritime operations and peripheral sorties along coastal areas of interest to the US Navy. Arguably the most famous EP-3 is the one struck by a cowboy PRC Shenyang J-8 pilot while on a peripheral sortie in April 2001 and made a forced landing on Hainan Island. The aircraft and its contents were exploited by the Chinese, but the crew and airplane were all repatriated. The EP-3 has become the mainstay of US Navy long-range peacetime intelligence collection effort.”
Credit: US Navy
6. Douglas EA-3 Skywarrior
“As the US Navy sought to increase its role in delivering nuclear strikes from carriers during the budget battles of the 1950s, the Douglas A3D emerged as a twin-engine “heavy” bomber. Known variously as “the Whale” and “All Three Dead” (it lacked ejection seats), this relatively capacious airplane was soon carrying out ELINT missions. This proved especially valuable as some of the most precious Soviet naval ELINT was obtainable only during short periods of intense blue-water operations that could not be covered by land-based aircraft. Launching an EA-3 (and RA-3 variants) from a nearby carrier group often bagged the latest data on new shipboard missiles and radar that had cognate systems on the ground such as the SA-N-1 Goa, the same as the land-based SA-3. Several EA-3 aircraft were also collected telemetry intelligence (TELINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) associated with Soviet ballistic missile tests. Operations included missions from Shemya AFB, AK (original home of the COBRA BALL) and British bases in the Indian Ocean. By the time VQ-2 retired its last EA-3 in 1991, it had accumulated more than three decades of maritime intelligence and peripheral ELINT collection.”
Our interview with a Skywarrior pilot here.
Credit: US Navy
5. Boeing RB-47 Stratojet
“Along with the B-36, Boeing’s B-47 acquired a reputation for never having fired a shot or dropped a bomb in anger. While this may have been true of the B-47 bomber, it did not apply to the reconnaissance versions of the Stratojet. When the US Air Force and Strategic Air Command (SAC) realized that piston-powered RB-50s and RB-36s were vulnerable to Soviet MiG-15s, they pinned their hopes on the speedy, high-flying B-47. Its first overflight of the USSR was a B-47B PHOTINT mission above the Chukotskii Peninsula in October 1952, attracting considerable attention from MiGs. Another overflight followed with the April 1954 RB-47E PHOTINT mission over Murmansk, where it was chased by dozens of MiG-15s and MiG-17s before safely recovering in the UK. The RB-47’s most significant overflight of the USSR was the HOME RUN series in early 1956. Flown from Thule AB in Greenland, 20 PHOTINT-configured RB-47Es, SLAR-equipped RB-47Es, and ELINT-configured RB-47Hs conducted 156 deep overflights of the USSR. Amazingly, none were shot down.
Sadly, three RB-47s were lost to hostile fire. In April 1955 the Soviets shot down the ROMAN I RB-47B off Kamchatka as it flew in international airspace, killing the crew of three. On 1st July 1960, exactly two months after the Soviets used an SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) to shoot down CIA pilot Frank Powers and his U-2, a MiG-19 pilot shot down an RB-47H in international airspace near the Kola Peninsula. Four crew were lost, and the two survivors eventually repatriated. In April 1965, North Korean MiG-17s attacked an RB-47H in international airspace. The crew was able to land safely in Japan but the airplane was scrapped. Copilot Captain Hank Dubuy returned fire and shot down one of the MiGs, the first jet bomber to claim a fighter kill.
In addition to the RB-47 ELINT missions, three EB-47E(TT)s flew TELINT missions from Turkey and Alaska to collect data on the Soviet ballistic missile program, leading to the development of the RC-135S COBRA BALL. Moreover, three ERB-47Hs flew specialized ELINT missions as the precursor to the RC-135U COMBAT SENT.
Between 1956 and 1967, RB-47s flew thousands of daily, routine missions from bases in the US, England, Japan, and Turkey that established and validated the routes and procedures that SAC and its successor Air Combat Command would use to the present day. It was truly the pioneer of Cold War peacetime aerial reconnaissance.”
Our interview with a RC-135 pilot here
Credit: US Air Force
“If there is a grandfather of modern high-altitude, jet-powered reconnaissance airplanes, it would be the English Electric Canberra. When the U-2 first overflew Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1956, the Soviets misidentified it as a Canberra, attesting to its reputation as a high flyer. The PR.3 was reportedly the first purpose-built photo reconnaissance airplane for the RAF, entering service in 1952. By the following year it was flying ELINT missions from West Germany over the Baltic, as well as sorties over the Black and Caspian Seas and from Iraq. No, a Canberra did not overfly Kapustin Yar in 1953.
License-built by Martin in the United States as the RB-57A, a handful of these conducted high-altitude overflights of the USSR, PRC, and North Korea under programs like HEART THROB and SHORT CUT. Three heavily modified RB-57Ds conducted SAC’s last overflight of the USSR in December 1956. Other missions included Baltic sorties and flights from Turkey. Taiwan operated RB-57Ds on overflights of China. The loss of one of these in October 1959 is believed to be the first airplane shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a lesson not fully appreciated until six months later over the USSR. Further modified into the RB-57F, the “big wing Canberra” collected ELINT and PHOTINT as well as particle sampling to detect atmospheric nuclear tests. Sweden and Pakistan were among the countries that used the Canberra or RB-57 to conduct peacetime ELINT and PHOTINT missions. The PEE WEE RB-57Fs in Pakistan also monitored Soviet ICBM tests in evaluation sorties on behalf of the US. “
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“Although RB-36 peripheral recon sorties could operate as high as 50,000 ft, its slow speed and large size made it an appealing visual and radar target. The Canberra met the need to go faster and higher to fulfill peacetime intelligence collection by pushing the 60,000 ft mark, later eclipsed by the U-2 at 70,000 ft and finally the SR-71 at 80,000 ft. The Canberra’s spyplane legacy, however, goes beyond its airframe. Many of its pilots went on to fly the U-2, including RAF pilots seconded to the CIA.”
Credit: US Air Force
3. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
How could this not be the Number One Spyplane of All Time? It’s so cool! I grew up at Beale AFB, CA, where this was stationed. My family was closely connected with the Habu community: Jerry O’Malley flew B-47s with my father, Jamie Kraus was my best friend, and our house was filled with swag like pachinko machines and Honda 70 minibikes brought back from Okinawa in the supporting KC-135Qs. Did I mention it was cool?
Lockheed’s SR-71 was—and remains—the ultimate aircraft used as a spyplane. Mach 3+ at 80,000 ft, exotic fuel, Dave Clark space suits (the same as the U-2 and RB-57 drivers wore), black, enigmatic, small fleet, and sure to please crowds and aviation enthusiasts everywhere surely have to count for something.
Both the CIA’s A-12 and SAC’s SR-71 first saw operational service over North Vietnam on PHOTINT missions. Its height and speed made it the ideal replacement for the U-2 on overflights of hostile territory. By the time they entered service in the 1960s, however, peacetime US overflights of everywhere but China were prohibited.
BC Thomas disagrees with this, “The declaration that the SR-71 did not overfly any country except China is wrong on two counts. We did not overfly China or the Soviet Union at all, but we did overfly other countries.
We routinely overflew Cuba* except for most of President Carter’s administration. We also overflew territory claimed by North Korea, the Middle East, and Central American countries like El Salvador when Communist insurgencies were operating. We did not overfly China or the Soviet Union, but we penetrated inside the National boundary which each claimed. They claimed 100 nm, we flew within 12.5 nm (the international norm is 12 nm).”
The D-21 was an unmanned derivative of the A-12 and flew a few failed missions over China. After President Richard Nixon ended Taiwanese/CIA U-2 overflights of China in 1971 to improve relations, the need for peacetime overflights was at an end (Cuba was an exception until President Jimmy Carter put a moratorium on them). Consequently, other less-expensive platforms could and did undertake peripheral intelligence missions, and the SR-71 was suddenly an outstanding capability in search of a mission.
Once the war in Southeast Asia ended, the Habu found work in the timely collection of high-value intelligence, often in conjunction with other platforms. SR-71 RSO Tom Veltri joked that after a coordinated sortie with an RC-135 over the Barents Sea, he and pilot Duane Knoll were back at RAF Mildenhall, played 18 holes of golf, and were already the center of attention at The Bird in Hand pub before the RC-135 even landed. This made it ideal for missions like the 1973 butt-busters flown from the US to the Middle East (the first of these was flown by Jim Shelton, my next-door neighbor). The addition of an ELINT capability added to the Habu’s repertoire, but it was still constrained by the need to return from a sortie, download the collection, and then get it analyzed. The Habu’s flying speed no longer translated into the ability to get results faster in front of decision makers. Plans to incorporate a downlink to accelerate this process ran afoul of budgetary considerations.
By the late 1980s, SAC was caught in a monetary bind: plenty of money for new strategic programs like the B-2 but asked to cut corners to help pay for them. The US Navy loved the SR-71 for its ability to monitor the Soviet Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula, but wasn’t enthusiastic about footing the bill. With satellites increasingly able to meet US intelligence requirements, the two unique things which the Habu offered the intel community—its speed and height—were no longer worth the cost. Far more than just a budget battle, the SR-71 was a capability whose time had passed.
Our interview with a SR-71 pilot here
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Credit: Paul Crickmore
2. Boeing RC-135
“For years, a huge black-and-white picture of an RC-135U hung on my bedroom wall (no, I didn’t have THE Farah poster). Now living at Offutt AFB, NE, home base of the majority of the RC-135 fleet, I saw these jets every day while volunteering at the SAC Museum at the end of the closed runway. I had an inkling of what they did, and my early exposure to British aviation magazines led me to appreciate the mystique they possessed when visiting RAF Mildenhall in England.
Fast forward a dozen years, and I arrived at Eielson AFB, AK, as a copilot newly assigned to fly the RC-135S COBRA BALL. Three years later, I was back at Offutt AFB as an RC-135 aircraft commander flying the RC-135V/W RIVET JOINT and RC-135U COMBAT SENT. But it wasn’t until I wrote a book about the KC-135 and its variants that I fully understood the history and significance of the RC-135 fleet.
For 15 years SAC’s reconnaissance fleet was dedicated to PHOTINT and ELINT which had direct applicability to the success of its nuclear war plan and to the defense of the US from a Soviet nuclear attack. COMINT was not a high priority, and was undertaken on behalf of the US National Security Agency (NSA) largely by C-130s filled with linguists flying along the periphery of the Communist Bloc. The loss of one of these in 1958 emphasized the need for additional platforms, preferably a long-range, high-altitude jet capable of carrying a sizeable number of linguists and their gear. An excess of transport C-135s proved to be the ideal solution, and the RC-135 lineage was born in 1962 with the OFFICE BOY KC-135A-IIs.
Over ensuing decades, other variants rolled out of BIG SAFARI and other programs. The next version to see service that same year was the RC-135S RIVET BALL (later COBRA BALL), designed to replace the EB-47E(TT) which lacked any optical collection capability. The Manual Tracker sat with his head in a plexiglass bubble atop the fuselage and tracked incoming re-entry vehicles with the many sensors on board. By 1965, Boeing delivered 10 new RC-135Bs to replace some 35 E/RB-47Hs used to collect ELINT, but these were not delivered until 1967 as BIG TEAM RC-135Cs. Other variants were dedicated to monitoring atmospheric nuclear tests using both sensors and air filters. Indeed, a small fleet of WC-135s flew daily missions around the world collecting not only weather data while secretly acquiring air samples that revealed the presence and sophistication of foreign nuclear tests. Budget and turf battles between SAC and NSA led to the integration of the OFFICE BOY and RC-135M COMBAT APPLE COMINT missions with the BIG TEAM ELINT mission, resulting in the 1974 RIVET JOINT common platform.
Recounting the thousands of daily RC-135 missions around the globe and their significance would glaze the eyes of even the most devoted fan. Suffice to say that nearly 60 years after the first RC-135 reconnaissance sortie, the fleet is still flying while simultaneously undertaking tactical missions in support of theater combat operations begun in 1991 with Operation DESERT STORM. The RC-135 may not have the global reputation as a Cold War rock star like the SR-71, but it has quietly conducted missions essential to US national security.
And no, those “cheeks” don’t contain side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), nor do they contain (as one air show visitor told me with absolute certainty) nuclear missiles with which to start World War Three. Did I mention that the RAF decided to replace its ageing Nimrod R.1s with three ageing RC-135Ws? Go figure.”
Credit: US Air Force
- Lockheed U-2 ‘Dragon Lady’
“Unless you were an #AvGeek or devoted reader of Aviation Week in the 1950s, no one had heard of the U-2 until May 1960, when Frank Powers and the CIA exploded onto the front page of newspapers around the world. The U-2 Incident has spawned books, TV documentaries and a dramatic series (Call to Glory), a Tom Hanks movie, and is a central feature in Cold War history books after it scuttled the Paris Four-Power Summit in 1960 (Khrushchev had already decided to do this, but used the U-2 as justification). Since then the Dragon Lady has largely returned to the shadows while continuing its peacetime collection duties.
The U-2 earns megapoints for its longevity. The first overflight of the USSR took place on 4th July 1956 with Hervey Stockman at the controls. It remains in service today, along with an elite cohort of airplanes designed by slide rule that are still flying: Boeing’s B-52 and KC-135, Lockheed’s C-130, and Northrop’s T-38. The U-2 is more than a high-altitude flying camera. It carries a variety of sensors that can be uploaded as needed, including ELINT and COMINT. SAC first used the U-2 for both peripheral PHOTINT sorties as well as the CROW FLIGHT High Altitude Sampling Program (HASP) nuclear detection mission. Surprisingly, its OLIVE HARVEST PHOTINT collection is shared with Israel, Egypt, and Syria as part of the cease-fire agreement for the 1973 Arab-Israeli war (not sure how it works today with Syria, though). The U-2 has a distinctive panache, including a reputation as the most-difficult airplane to fly (and especially land).
Apart from its longevity, the U-2 is arguably the most significant spyplane in terms of its impact. Images from overflights of the USSR debunked the Missile Gap, and missions over the Middle East in 1956 forewarned the US of the impending Suez Crisis and reassured President Dwight Eisenhower that the Soviets were not moving troops to Syria in response to the Franco-British/Israeli invasion. A SAC U-2 took the photographs which showed President John Kennedy the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba during the 1962 Crisis, and the loss of U-2 and pilot Rudolf Anderson from a Cuban SA-2 SAM nudged global nuclear tensions closer to the breaking point. China shot down four Taiwanese U-2s in their ongoing argument over independence.
Despite this high visibility, the U-2 continues discreet peripheral peacetime intelligence missions in places like the border between North and South Korea and along the coast of civil-war-torn Syria. If there is an icon of Cold War spyplanes, Kelly Johnson’s U-2 is surely that jet.”
Credit: Bob Archer
Which ones did I miss, overlook, or ignore?
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