Secret Tales Of A U.S. Spy Plane

A U-2 preps for takeoff in Germany in 1956 | Bob Jones photo

I had a short but very special overseas assignment with the U.S. Air Force in 1956, but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about it upon penalty of a long prison term.

I was a U-2 man. No, not with the Dublin rock band of Bono and company.

The other U-2 – the espionage-plane kind nobody knew about until 1960 when Gary Powers was shot down in one over the Soviet Union.

Four years earlier, the Air Force had moved one U-2 to Wiesbaden and another to Giebelstadt, a short distance from Würzburg, in what was then Bavarian West Germany.

We needed to know more about what the Soviets were up to in East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia – but without them knowing what we could see from the air.

I worked the Giebelstadt U-2 operation as the height-radar operator, monitoring the super-secret flights at 70,000 feet. I’d watch the East German MiG fighters scramble to check out our plane, only to crap out at around 35,000 feet.

Our U-2 sat in a no-windows hangar guarded by U.S. civilians who’d shoot anyone – yes, even me – who tried to get near the plane. We could only see it from 50 yards away when it was hauled onto the runway for launch.

It was a strange bird with extra-long wings. No ordinary landing gear. Just two wheels under the cockpit, rear wheels for takeoff control, and little wheels on sticks called “pogos” near the wingtips that fell off as the plane launched and had to be reattached on landing or it would tip on one wing. One pilot in a sort of space suit. It would roar a short distance down the runway, stand on its tail and head for 12 miles of altitude.

Flying was tricky. The U-2 would stall out at just 10 knots under minimum airborne speed.

And there was no bailing out at 70,000 feet.

Its cameras were so sophisticated, they could record license plate numbers on the ground!

It was one of the greatest and certainly most secret accomplishments of the Lockheed Corporation.

We “program specialists” lived in old German barracks that had been bombed during World War II, and 20 feet beyond my second-story cot was a gaping nothingness covered with tarp. When the military finally left and civilians took over they found huge ordnance burials right by my building.

Back when our U-2 was there, Giebelstadt was simply listed as a “strategic reconnaissance” base for NATO.

Nobody ever breathed a word about the U-2 program, so it was a bombshell in 1960 when Powers’ plane was hit by one of the first Soviet missiles that could go that high.

These days – looking at all that bin Laden raid leaking – somebody surely would say, “I know a secret …”