Looking at Earth

The Flyers

Reconnaissance pilots and other flight personnel, often unarmed and alone, are the unsung heroes of many a battle and campaign. The invaluable information they gather on an opponent's position, movement, strength, and intentions, provides knowledge for informed decisions, assurance of treaty compliance, and warning of dangers to come.

Because of the classified nature of their work, flyers of many nations go unheralded and unrecognized. Here are but a few Americans who have braved hostile skies in the hopes of collecting that one vital photo that makes all the difference.

Karl Polifka

One of the most famous and daring American reconnaissance pilots was Karl Polifka, who flew missions during both World War II and the Korean conflict. Throughout his career he photographed vital targets in the South Pacific, the Mediterranean, and Korea. When in his mid-thirties and thought too old to fly dangerous missions, he would put himself down in the records as "Lieutenant Jones" and fly anyway. In 1951, he was killed on a reconnaissance sortie to Kaesong, Korea, when his plane was shot down and his parachute caught on its tail.
Department of Defense Photograph

Elliott Roosevelt

Elliott Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin Roosevelt, presenting a reconnaissance briefing to Dwight Eisenhower in North Africa in 1942. In that year Roosevelt was made commander of a photographic unit of the 12th Air Force. While in command, he voluntarily went along on innumerable reconnaissance flights, handling such jobs as photographer, observer, navigator, and radio operator. In 1943, he took command of Allied reconnaissance operations for a large area of the Mediterranean. A Brigadier General by 1945, he received many decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Dicing Shot of the Normandy Beaches
"Dicing" was the term used for the low altitude daredevil sweeps required to obtain close-up oblique views of reconnaissance targets. The term is thought to originate from the phrase "dicing with death."
Courtesy of CIA

Commander William B. Ecker

Cmdr. William B. Ecker took the first low altitude close-up shots of the missiles in Cuba.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Major Rudolf Anderson

Maj. Rudolf Anderson, Jr., the sole casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis, lost his life on October 27, 1962, when his U-2 aircraft was shot down during a photo reconnaissance run. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Cheney Award, and the Air Force Cross.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Wreckage of Major Anderson's U-2 aircraft which was downed by a surface-to-air missile.
Courtesy of CIA

Francis Gary Powers

Francis Gary Powers was flying a U-2 reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union when he was shot down in May 1960. He was later released in February 1962, in exchange for a Soviet agent.

The story of Francis Gary Powers occupies a central place in the history of the Cold War. The U-2 incident came at a time when East-West tensions were easing, or so it seemed. The abortive U-2 flight became one of the issues that canceled the summit conference between President Eisenhower and Premier Khrushchev, which was scheduled for May 16, 1960. The U-2 came to symbolize high-risk U.S. intelligence efforts and the fragility of peaceful coexistence during the Cold War.
Photographs courtesy of CIA

Francis Gary Powers: Imprisoned

Powers spent almost 21 months in prison in the Soviet Union. During that time, he openly kept a diary of his daily activities. In November 1960 he began secretly writing a journal, which opens with a detailed recounting of the downing of his U-2. When released, Powers hid the diary and journal in a rug he had embroidered while in prison and carried them out of the Soviet Union.
These items are a gift of the Powers family, unless otherwise noted

U-2 Pilot Survival Kit

U-2 pilots were equipped with an amazingly complete yet compact kit for survival in the field. Here is just some of the equipment they carried:

Lip Balm
Desalinization Kit
Shark Repellent
Water Purification Tablets
Sun Goggles
Insect Repellent

Sharpening Stone
Sun Screen
Survival Manual

Fishing Kit
Water Bag
Sea Dye Marker
Signal Mirror

U-2 Pressure Suit

This high-altitude partial pressure suit was worn by Francis Gary Powers while test-piloting U-2s for Lockheed after his return from the Soviet Union. First designed in the 1950s, U-2 flight suits were developed to protect against the physiological effects of high-altitude flight. Further improvements to U-2 high-altitude garments were due in part to innovations from early spacesuit development.
Photo by Eric Long

The "Capstan Principle" The U-2 flight suits were the first to employ the "capstan principle"—using inflatable tubes and cross-stitching to tighten the suit against the pilot's body. This produced mechanical pressure to counteract the expansion of gases and fluids in the body at high altitude.

Lt. Col. James R. Brickel

Lt. Col. James R. Brickel (top), one of the top reconnaissance pilots of the Vietnam War, is shown here on March 10, 1967 after a photo mission over the Thai Nhuyen steel mill (bottom). During the flight, his aircraft was hit by a 85mm shell which damaged the left engine and aileron.
Photographs courtesy of General James Brickel