Spy Planes of the CIA, Part One: The U-2
Did you know that, once upon a time, CIA was in the plane-making business? It wasn’t a long career,
but it certainly was an exciting one.
This story begins just a few years after the creation of CIA (1947), in the early 1950s. The United
States had just entered into the Cold War against former World War II ally, the Soviet Union, and
realized that it knew dangerously little about its new adversary.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked CIA to create an overhead collection program that would give the
United States more insight into the military capabilities of the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower believed that overhead imagery of the Soviet Union would give U.S. policymakers and
military leaders the information they needed to make well-informed decisions about how to engage with
the famously secretive Soviet Union. And he thought CIA was just the group to get the job done.
Always the over-achiever, CIA – in partnership with legendary Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson –
created, tested, and delivered a final product in just 18 months (and a few million dollars
under-budget). That plane, a sleek power glider, would be called the U-2.
Eyes Way Up In the Sky
The U-2 boasted some pretty impressive stats. At a top speed of 500 miles per hour, it wasn’t the
fastest bird in the sky, but what made this plane truly exceptional was its flight altitude. U-2 could
fly at a whopping 70,000 ft., twice as high as the average modern day airliner. At this altitude, the
plane was impervious to anti-aircraft weaponry, allowing it to safely travel over its targets without
fear of being shot-down.
Images captured during the U-2 overflight program were essential to U.S. decision-making early in the
Cold War. They provided U.S. military leaders and policymakers with timely intelligence on Soviet
Unfortunately, technology was moving fast at that time, and in the spring of 1960, a U-2 plane flying
over the Soviet Union was shot down by new-and-improved anti-aircraft weaponry. The U-2 was no longer
impervious to enemy fire.
Never the group to settle, and recognizing that it needed a capable successor to the U-2, CIA
continued in its search for aviation excellence. Its answer would be the A12, codename OXCART. Learn
more about this remarkable aircraft in Part Two.