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Agency Pilots in the U-2 Program

a star from the cia memorial wall

The risks assumed by the brave men who piloted the U-2 and the A-12 cannot be overstated. Each time they climbed into the cockpit, they headed to the very edge of the technical horizon—a place of unknown yet palpable danger.

CIA pilots Wilburn S. Rose, Frank G. Grace, and Howard Carey each died in the crash of his U-2 aircraft during test flights in 1956. Eugene “Buster” Edens and Walter Ray, also Agency pilots, lost their lives when the U-2 and A-12 aircraft they were piloting crashed in 1965 and 1967 respectively. Here we look at the lives of these brave pilots who heralded the Agency into the world of overhead reconnaissance.

Birth of Contemporary Aerial Reconnaissance:

In response to the Soviet Union’s growing military strength and the perceived danger of the Soviet Union attacking the continental United States, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the construction of a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft would be designed specifically to fly over the Soviet Union and collect strategic intelligence. To reduce the danger of conflict, the president entrusted this mission not to the armed forces but to a civilian agency – the CIA. From 1954-1974, overhead reconnaissance was one of CIA’s most important missions.

Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s “Skunkworks” designed the U-2 to be flown by a single pilot, at altitudes of 65,000 to 70,000 feet at subsonic speed. To reach the altitude, the aircraft was stripped down to ensure a lighter weight. The aircraft had an extraordinary gliding ability and could stay aloft for more than eight hours.

Several dangers faced the U-2’s pilots. Because of the high speed and altitude, pilots had to keep the aircraft at a slightly nose-up position. A slight drop in the nose position (even as slight as a degree) could cause the plane to gain speed dramatically, which could ultimately lead to the aircraft breaking apart. (For more on the U-2, visit “The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974”).

The plane’s challenging flight characteristics and fragility resulted in the deaths of four Agency pilots.

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Wilburn S. Rose

The first of four fatal U-2 crashes occurred on May 15, 1956, when pilot Wilburn Rose had trouble dropping the aircraft’s “pogos,” the outrigger wheels that kept the wings parallel to the ground during takeoff. The crash occurred during a training flight.

Once airborne, Wilburn made a low-level pass over the airstrip and succeeded in shaking loose the left-hand pogo. When he tried another maneuver to shake loose the remaining pogo, the U-2 stalled and plunged to earth. The aircraft disintegrated over a wide area, killing Wilburn instantly.

Frank G. Grace

Approximately three months later, a second crash occurred during a night-time training exercise. On Aug. 31, 1956, during a nighttime training flight, Frank Grace stalled his U-2 at an altitude of 50 feet when he tried to climb too steeply during takeoff.

The aircraft fell to earth, cartwheeled on its left wing, and struck a power pole near the runway. Frank died in the crash. He was 30 years old, married, and the father of four children.

Howard Carey

Before 1956 came to a close, two more U-2s piloted by Agency test pilots on contract crashed during test flights. One of these crashes was fatal.

On Sept. 17, 1956, pilot Howard Carey took off from Lindsey Air Force Base in Wiesbaden, Germany. His U-2 mysteriously disintegrated in mid-air, perhaps caused by the jet wash from four fighter aircraft nearby. Howard was less than three weeks shy of his 34th birthday when he died.

Eugene “Buster” Edens

Nearly a decade later, Eugene “Buster” Edens one of the original U-2 pilots, was killed when his U-2 spiraled to the ground near Edwards Air Force Base in California. Buster had dodged death in an earlier incident when he crash-landed a U-2 at Edwards in 1961. In this first incident, the plane – while on final approach – stalled 50 feet short of the runway and slammed into the ground. The plane caught fire. Another pilot – who happened to be nearby – pulled the semiconscious Buster out of the aircraft moments before it exploded.

In April 1965, however, Buster did not have the same fortune. As he made his approach to the runway, he had a problem with a wing. He applied power and climbed. The aircraft began a spiraling descent at 3,000 feet from which it could not recover. Buster ejected at 400 feet, not high enough to permit his chute to fully deploy, and was killed when he hit the ground.

Walter Ray

By late 1965, a newly designed strategic reconnaissance aircraft had begun testing. It was intended as a replacement for the U-2 and would be flown over the Soviet Union and Southeast Asia. The project was known as OXCART; the aircraft was designated the A-12.

In December 1966, while still in a test phase, the A-12 set flight records for speed and distance unapproachable by any other aircraft. Two weeks later, however, 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 Walter’s body was recovered a day later. He was survived by his wife.

Remembering the Men

The CIA honored Wilburn, Frank, Howard, Buster, and Walter with stars on the CIA Memorial Wall in 1974. All five men served in the CIA’s Directorate of Plans, now known as the Directorate of Operations. They are remembered for their bravery and dedication, and all five pilots have their names inscribed in the CIA Book of Honor.

Former CIA Director General Hayden, speaking at the dedication ceremony for the A-12 OXCART at CIA Headquarters in September 2007, summed up the legacy of these brave Agency pilots. The U-2 and A-12 were extraordinary achievements in science, technology, and innovation. But our admiration for these planes go well beyond what they achieved operationally. It’s the people behind the planes. The people like Wilburn, Frank, Howard, Buster, and Walter who sacrificed their lives in service to their country, and whose impact is still felt today.

The planes and the pilots that flew them tell a truly inspirational story—a story that says a lot about CIA and its commitment to mission—from which every officer serving today can draw important lessons.

As General Hayden so eloquently stated, those lessons are: That pioneering scientific achievement requires not only genius, but patience and discipline. That a willingness to take risks—intellectual, technological, and physical—is the foundation for success. And, most of all, that talented men and women, drawn together by their shared desire to protect America, can and do achieve extraordinary things.

More CIA Heroes

Eugene “Buster” Edens
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Pete Ray, Leo Baker, Riley Shamburger, Wade Gray