Looking at Earth

The Sky Spies

One of the major uses of aerial photography is the gathering of military intelligence. Usually unsung and unrecognized, photointerpreters and reconnaissance pilots play a vital role, often spelling the difference between success or failure, accuracy or blunder, readiness or surprise.

Early Techniques and Equipment

de Havilland DH-4
The versatile de Havilland DH-4 played many roles in both military and civilian capacities. In addition to its bombing activities in World War I, the DH-4 was an observation and photoreconnaissance aircraft. Between the Wars, the "Liberty Planes", as the DH-4s were called, took on many different jobs, including forest patrols and geologic reconnaissance. For 10 years they served as the Army Air Service's standard airplane for aerial mapping and photography.

The DH-4 was introduced in England in 1917. Because of the War, time for new aircraft development was limited, so an American version of the already existing aircraft was produced in this country. More than 4000 DH-4s equipped with the American Liberty Engine were manufactured in the U.S. by 1919. The Air and Space Museum's aircraft is the first of these to be built.

Aerial cameras in the DH-4 could be hand-held or mounted either inside or outside the rear cockpit. The aircraft on display contains a Kodak L-4 camera positioned within the cockpit to take photographs through a small window in the floor.

The mannequin in the DH-4 is holding an A-2 camera. The A-2 was developed by Kodak and was used for aerial photography in World War I.

The K-1 Camera was designed by Eastman Kodak for use in World War I. It used 15-cm (6-inch) film and had a built-in magazine.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Early aerial cameras were sometimes mounted rigidly on the outside of an airplane to obtain vertical views. Aircraft vibration, however, proved a serious problem.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

In the 1920s, Sherman Fairchild designed the K-3, a revolutionary new aerial camera. Electrically driven, the K-3 had a new shutter and magazine which advanced the technology of aerial photography. Fairchild later started an aerial survey and map making company (one of many Fairchild companies to come).
From the Sherman Fairchild Collection

Photographer preparing to take high altitude oblique shots with a 61-cm (24-inch) focal length K-3 camera.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

This K-3 camera was used between the Wars for experiments in long-range aerial photography.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

The K-5 camera was another version of the handheld oblique aerial camera.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Bagley Three-Lens Camera
James Bagley of the US Army Corps of Engineers developed the 3-lens camera around 1917. The three lenses, one vertical and two oblique, provided expanded ground coverage without adding the distortion produced by the wider angle lenses of the day. Operated manually, the camera recorded the three exposures simultaneously on one roll of film.

As technology advanced, more and more lenses could be added. Fairchild developed a 5-lens camera around 1926. Actually five separate cameras linked together, the T-3 produced one vertical and four oblique images simultaneously.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Prints from a T-3 5-lens camera.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Photos from the 3-lens camera.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Portable Photo Lab
To provide quick access to reconnaissance photography, portable labs were sometimes towed into the field. Shown here is an 5-meter (18-foot) long processing laboratory equipped with separate rooms for developing and printing. Inside the lab, which was equipped with its own generator, as many as 200 prints could be processed per hour.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Flying Photo Lab
Rapid photo processing was taken a step further by portable labs carried right on board reconnaissance aircraft.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Flight Lab
This World War II portable darkroom was used for immediate processing of film right on board reconnaissance aircraft. Sometimes swift acquisition of photo intelligence was so important that photo interpreters went along on the reconnaissance mission to radio in instantaneous analysis of the film developed in flight.

George W. Goddard

George Goddard is one of America's foremost pioneers in aerial photography. He started his training at the Officer's School in Aerial Photography, U.S. School of Military Aeronautics at Cornell University in 1917, and later rose to such positions as Director of the Army Photographic School at Chanute Field, Illinois, Chief Photographic Officer in Charge of Aerial Photographic Research at Wright Field, Ohio, and Aerial Reconnaissance Chief of NATO. His work greatly advanced the technology in many fields of aerial photographic science including night reconnaissance photography, in-flight processing, high altitude and long-range lenses, and the use of infrared film for distinguishing camouflage.

George Goddard with a K-7 camera designed for high altitude photography. Goddard foresaw the need for high quality, long focal length lenses to provide detailed long-range reconnaissance.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center.

Goddard (left) with another variation on the K-7.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Goddard pioneered the development of nighttime reconnaissance photography. One night in 1925, he stunned Rochester, N.Y., by igniting an 80-pound flash powder bomb to light up the whole city. The result was the first aerial night photograph. Pictured here is one of his first attempts at recording an aerial view of Rochester at night.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Goddard's technique was used to photograph this night view of an anti-aircraft position camouflaged by smoke pots.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Night photograph of New York City in 1931.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center