About CIA


Aerial Reconnaissance

Pigeon Camera

CIA’s Office of Research and Development developed a camera small and light enough to be carried by a pigeon. With the camera strapped to its breast, the bird would be released.  With the camera running, the bird would fly over a target on its return home. Being a common species, the pigeon concealed its role as an intelligence collection platform among the activities of thousands of other birds. Pigeon imagery was taken within hundreds of feet of the target so it was much more detailed than imagery from other collection platforms. (Aircraft took photos from tens of thousands of feet and satellites from hundreds of miles above the target.)

The camera could be set to begin taking photographs after release or after a pre-set delay. The camera took a series of still images at a set interval. A tiny, battery-powered motor advanced the film and cocked the shutter. Details of pigeon missions are still classified.


CORONA is America’s first successful photographic reconnaissance satellite. When introduced in the 1960s, it revolutionized the collection of intelligence. CORONA’s first mission in August 1960 provided more photographic coverage of the Soviet Union than all previous U-2 aircraft missions.

Satellite imagery was used for a variety of analytical purposes – from assessing Soviet military strength to estimating the size of their grain production. CORONA and its successors made Soviet-American strategic arms-control agreements possible.


A-12 Flight Suit Accoutrement

Providing for A-12 pilots’ safety and comfort was difficult, as the external air temperatures would make the uninsulated cockpit feel like the inside of a moderately hot oven. To reduce the weight of the plane, Lockheed (who designed and built the aircraft) did not even try to insulate the aircraft’s interior; instead, it counted on the pilot’s suit to protect him. Pilots would have to wear a type of space suit with its own cooling, pressure control, oxygen supply, and other life-support capabilities.

Two Lockheed subcontractors, the David Clark Company and the Firewel Corporation, developed the S-901 full-pressure suit and oxygen-supply system based on ones created for pilots of the X-15 rocket aircraft. The aluminized outer layer and breathing apparatus would protect the pilot from heat radiated from the 400-degree-Fahrenheit windshield, the effects of depressurization, and the extreme cold encountered during a high-altitude bail-out. Each suit was custom made at a cost of $30,000 in the mid-1960s.


A-12 Full Pressure Suit

A-12 pilots wore a type of protective pressure suit with thermal insulation, pressure control, cooling, and a life support system. The suit offered protection from heat radiating through the windshield and from cold and low pressure in the event of a high-altitude bailout.


A-12 Spurs

Dr. Albert D. "Bud" Wheelon, the first Director of Science and Technology, received these “spurs” as mementos of his flight aboard the A-12 OXCART supersonic reconnaissance aircraft in 1964.

Strapped over one's boot heels, each spur was attached to a ball. The ball was attached to a cable under the seat. The cable-ball rig allowed movement of one’s feet during normal flight. However, if the pilot had to pull the "D" ring (ejection handle) in an emergency, the cables would snap one’s feet back under the seat to insure a compact and safe ejection from the aircraft.


Piece of Metal from A-12

During a routine A-12 training flight on January 5, 1967, a fuel gauge failed to function properly, and the aircraft ran out of fuel only minutes before landing. The pilot, Walter Ray, ejected but was killed when he was unable to separate from the ejection seat before impact. The aircraft was completely destroyed. Its wreckage was found on January 6, and Ray’s body was recovered a day later. This is a piece from that plane.

D-21 TAGBOARD (1/48 Scale Model)

CIA developed the D-21 drone for surveillance missions over enemy territory. It was launched from a modified A-12 aircraft. The D-21's engine propelled it to speeds over 2,000 mph. During missions, the D-21 would follow a pre-programmed flightpath over areas of interest and take pictures. Then the drone returned to international airspace where it dropped the film canister. A specially equipped aircraft recovered the film canister. The drone would then self-destruct.


Piece of Metal from U-2, Article 341

On August 1, 1955, during a high-speed-taxi test in the first U-2, Article 341, Lockheed's Flight Test Pilot Tony Le Vier inadvertently became airborne at a remote test site in Nevada. This test would later be considered the first unofficial flight of the U-2.

Two years later, on April 4, 1957, during a Project Rainbow test with Lockheed's Flight Test Pilot Robert Sieker at the control, a malfunction occurred, and both the plane and pilot were lost.

Forty years later, after five years of searching, the wreck site was rediscovered, but only a handful of small parts were found. This is one of those parts that were preserved in Lucite blocks and flown on an Air Force U-2S aircraft to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of U-2's first flight.


U-2 Aircraft "AQUATONE" (1/48 Scale Model)

The development of the U-2 in 1954 signaled the Central Intelligence Agency's entry into the world of overhead reconnaissance. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized construction of a new aircraft designed specifically to fly over the Soviet Union and collect strategic intelligence. Peacetime reconnaissance flights over the territory of a potential enemy power thus became national policy. To reduce the danger of conflict, the President entrusted this mission not to the armed forces but to a civilian agency – the CIA. Since that time, overhead reconnaissance has been one of CIA's most important missions.


U-2 Model used by Francis Gary Powers

On May 1, 1960, Soviets shot down U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers over Sverdlovsk.  He spent 21 months in a Russian prison. In 1962, Powers was exchanged for Soviet intelligence officer Col. Rudolf Abel. Abel had been arrested in New York in 1957.

This is one of two U-2 models crafted for Powers. CIA model makers made this for his March 1962 Senate Armed Services Committee testimony about the downing of his aircraft. The wings and tail are detachable to show the aircraft's breakup after the shootdown.


U-2 Pressure Suit and Helmet

Suit - This is an S-1010 pressure suit for a U-2R plane. High-altitude pilots wear pressure suits as protection from cockpit depressurization. At altitudes above 63,000 feet without artificial air pressure, human blood and other fluids boil. In addition to preventing this, pressure suits also protect pilots from low temperatures at high altitudes. The temperature at U-2 mission altitudes is about minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If the pilot had to eject, he would free fall for two to three minutes before parachute deployment. The suit provides flotation for a water landing, as well.

Helmet - A coated-fabric face barrier inside this U-2 helmet divides the oxygen supply into two sections. One region covers the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin; the other compartment houses the rest of the head and is linked to the air in the interior of the suit. The barrier fits smoothly to the skin across the forehead, down the side of the face in front of the ears, and under the chin to make an airtight seal. The pilot's breath passes from one region to the other by means of a one-way exhalation valve near the right cheek.

To close the visor, a lever is pulled to lower it and force it against the gasket on the shell. Then, liquid and paste food can be ingested by the pilot through the feeding port located in the front of the helmet on the lever latch. The visor contains a transparent resistive heater to keep it clear of condensation.

Posted: Jul 23, 2012 09:04 AM
Last Updated: Jul 23, 2012 09:04 AM