Big Safari: The US Air Force’s Marriage with Private Acquisition


    1.0 Introduction:

    In the world of military aviation, innovation and adaptability are essential to maintaining an edge over potential adversaries. The United States Air Force (USAF) has consistently pushed the boundaries of technology, and one program that has played a pivotal role in achieving this is the Big Safari program.

    Founded in 1952, Big Safari has been at the forefront of the rapid acquisition and modification of aircraft, enabling the US Air Force to respond quickly to emerging threats and operational requirements. The purpose of Big Safari was to marry talent and technology from private industry with the US Air Force’s evolving portfolio of requirements during the Cold War.

    Big Safari was very much a product of the contest between East and West. It gave birth to aircraft which are fascinating in their own right and have become household names. In this article, we will explore the success, development and controversies surrounding Big Safari.

    2.0 Mottos, Symbols and Patches:

    The following is a cursory overview of the mottos, symbols and patches associated with Big Safari. There are two variations of patches associated with Big Safari, one blue and one tan. The tan one is illustrated below.

    The Big Safari Patch

    There is no official motto printed on the Big Safari patch. Overall, there is no official motto associated with Big Safari. After the program was reactivated in 2006 as the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, the US Air Force still did not award the program a motto. The emblem was officially approved by the Pentagon in 2021 [source]. On top of this, there is no official explanation of the symbolism of the patch.

    3.0 History:

    In 1952, the United States found itself in an increasingly crowded threat environment. Although the fight against fascism led the United States into a brief partnership with the Soviet Union, the spirit of amicability dissipated rapidly. Soon, the USSR imposed an Iron Curtain across the breadth of Europe and the Korean Peninsula turned into a shooting gallery. The nucleus of what eventually became Big Safari began with USAF Brig. General Walter Wise [source]. General Lauris Norstad, then the commander of US Air Forces in Europe, found himself in need of an aircraft which didn’t exist. In order to peer across the Iron Curtain, General Norstad needed a totally new reconnaissance aircraft capable of performing intelligence-gathering capabilities. In order to quickly develop this new aircraft, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg convened a series of meetings with high-level Air Force officers to develop a system which would allow the Air Force to procure the needed systems to rapidly give birth to special projects. To quote one of the Air Force generals involved in the inception of the Big Safari program, George Rhodes:

    “There wasn’t anything common with what we were doing. We sat down and said OK: if we are going to do this, the first thing we have to do is to have procurement procedures that permit us to designate the contractor”.

    The need to quickly procure contractors for special projects was at the heart of Big Safari’s purpose from the very beginning. The effort was initially envisioned as a 5-year program [source]. Rhodes established 8 separate guidelines which would govern the procurement of contracts and acquisition of new technology. Two of these guidelines stand out above the others. The first was that was not to be any set limit to budgets. The second was that every special project would be closed off to general personnel of the USAF [source]. In early 1952, responsibility for carrying out these tasks fell to the Air Material Command, under which Big Safari was initially organized.

    General Lauris Norstad, an early progenitor of Big Safari

    3.1 Later History and Reorganization:

    The program was reorganized in 2004 and officially activated as a part of the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group in 2006 [source]. During its history, Big Safari went on to create the Rivet Joint program of reconnaissance aircraft and support ELINT, MASINT, IMINT and GEOINT intelligence collection efforts throughout the Cold War [source]. A major early contracting partner with the Big Safari program was Convair. Per Rhodes’ guidelines, all development took place at the Convair plant in Fort Worth from 1952 to 1961 [source]. Throughout the duration of these efforts, US Air Force personnel were absent from production efforts. Big Safari is probably the best example of private industry and military necessity for this reason. The Pentagon appears to have fully delegated the task of developing mission-critical aircraft. In this sense, it could very well be described as the origin of what President Eisenhower contemporaneously called the military-industrial complex.

    4.0 Organization:

    The Big Safari program was initially placed under the direction of the Air Material Command. The AMC was a major command of the newly formed USAF which handles the procurement, logistics and technical requirements of USAF aircraft. During the Kennedy Administration, the Department of Defense underwent a reorganization through a process similar to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) system [source]. The AMC was split into the Air Force Logistics Command and the Air Force Systems Command. Big Safari worked closely onwards with Systems Command [source].

    In 1992, these 2 commands were once again recombined into the AMC. Big Safari was eventually reactivated in 2005 after a hiatus of unknown length, though it is likely that the program was inactive from the late 1970s till the late 1980s [source]. It was in 2005 that Big Safari explicitly became the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group. The 645th is subordinated under the 303rd Aeronautical Systems Wing. Reportedly, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center provides a certain degree of input into the decision-making process at Big Safari [source].

    5.0 Notable Aircraft:

    There are literally hundreds of aircraft which were developed by Big Safari or received some degree of input from the program. They are too numerous to list in exhaustive form here. Rather, we will focus on a select number illustrating the program’s driving mantra. The program almost exclusively focused on reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft.

    5.1 PIE FACE:

    PIE FACE was the very first aircraft which fell under the Big Safari umbrella. The Air Force initially partnered with General Dynamics – Convair in order to streamline the procurement of aircraft for special ISR missions, and PIE FACE was the first dry run of this effort. What General Norstad realized in early 1951 was that the USAF’s ISR platforms were not well equipped to image East German and Soviet military formations and equipment moving into Berlin. While we do not know the specific limitations of the Air Force’s previous imaging equipment, given the nature of what was developed in PIE FACE, we can surmise that image resolution was far too poor for the purpose. The Air Force tasked an engineering team at Harvard University to develop a monster of a camera.

    A PIE FACE crew in the 1950s (photo via USAF)

    The team at Harvard developed a 20-foot-long camera lens, equipped with a pair of reflective mirrors and a huge F-8 lens. At the time, this was the largest camera installed in an aircraft [source]. A camera of that size would need a comparable airframe. The 2 units, known as Bertha and Betsy Mae, would come to use the largest roll of film ever ordered from Kodiak in the entire history of that company [source]. The only aircraft which was suitable at the time to host this immense array of optical equipment was the KC-97A. The aircraft was upgraded with structural modifications that could support the enormity of the camera. The PIE FACE aircraft was also equipped with 3 K-17 optical instruments [source]. PIE FACE went on to fly multiple ISR missions along the Berlin Air Corridor.

    5.1 SARA JANE:

    In 1954, Soviet premier Khrushchev visited the United States in an effort to thaw growing tensions and East-West rivalry [source]. American intelligence officials were reportedly convinced that Khrushchev’s Tu-114 was being used to photograph American military installations as it flew in [source]. Even if it was or was not true, it gave birth to the concept of SARA JANE. The idea was to convert C-54E VIP transport aircraft into ISR platforms that could fly over enemy installations in plain sight and under the guise of a diplomatic mission.

    The entire project was obscured in an extra level of secrecy at Convair’s facility in Texas [source]. In total, 14 P2 cameras were fastened into the wings of the aircraft in fuel-tight pockets. These P2 cameras were complimented by a suite of additional lenses manufactured by Fairchild. Rather ingeniously, engineers added a mechanism that would dump fuel if the panels covering the cameras were removed. The design was designed to be totally covert, so much so that if if anyone ran an X-Ray over the wing, the mechanism would be hidden. The pilot was able to trigger pneumatic doors which covered the lenses from the cockpit, allowing the flight crew to activate the ISR suite at their discretion [source].

    A USAF C-54 Skymaster

    The two SARA JANE aircraft were stationed across West Germany and were probably utilized as Embassy support aircraft. One aircraft was used to fly supplies to the US Embassy in Moscow. According to retired USAF Colonel Dan Gareri, a Soviet officer accompanied the crew on this flight. By use of a covert inter-phone panel installed in the crew cabin, US personnel were able to secretly trigger the ISR suite without the knowledge of the Soviet minder [source].

    5.2 NANCY RAE:

    Beginning in the early 1960’s the need for large, heavy strategic bombers to deliver nuclear payloads over Soviet or American cities was beginning to wane. This was due in part to the addition of two new arms of the nuclear triad, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Commensurate with that shift, however, was the growing need to monitor Soviet ICBM tests with highly advanced sensors aboard intelligence aircraft. NANCY RAE was an early attempt to fill this intelligence gap. The aircraft initially was an unmodified KC-135 which underwent extensive upgrades at the Big Safari facility in Texas [source].

    The sensors aboard NANCY RAE can be broadly classified into 2 different varieties, optical sensors and ELINT sensors. These sensors would measure not only the trajectory and irradiance of the ICBM’s reentry but also ground communication from Soviet naval assets or ground forces. According to one crew member on NANCY RAE, the crew practically lived on the aircraft while it was deployed in Dakar, Senegal [source]. Col. Bill Grimes, a major figure in the Big Safari saga, was deployed on NANCY RAE during it’s later flights.

    NANCY RAE was eventually developed into RIVET BALL, pictured here in Greenville Texas. (King Hawes, Team-2 Rivet Ball)

    NANCY RAE had a prolific career. It’s 40-strong crew gained the title “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”. This name reflected the uncanny ability of NANCY RAE to grab sensitive Soviet communications. The aircraft’s mission profile was so successful that President Kennedy was given weekly briefings on the data gathered by the aircraft [source].


    SPEED LIGHT BRAVO provides an excellent glimpse into exactly why the Big Safari program existed in the first place. On 9 August 1964, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued an alarming proclamation. He asserted that the USSR was fully capable of building and detonating a 100-megaton nuclear bomb. This was a shocking amount of destructive firepower. In order to prove his claim, he announced that the USSR would conduct a test of a warhead at a 50-megaton yield. Reportedly, this announcement caught the immediate attention of researchers at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico [source].

    The team at Los Alamos had a sensor array capable of monitoring the gigantic explosion, but no suitable aircraft to carry it close to the detonation site. A request was put in with Fort Worth and Big Safari to load this sensor array onto a JKC-135A. This particular aircraft had been outfitted with lead lining in limited areas, making it suitable to monitor the single largest explosion in human history [source].


    Between 22 and 27 October, 1964, SPEED LIGHT BRAVO was received and outfitted with the relevant sensors, a mere 5 days [source]. This is probably the best example which highlights the purpose of the Big Safari program. A team of researchers identified a need. The military stepped into the connect their technology with a private contractor, in this case Convair, and the contractor delivered a finished product in less than a week. Reportedly, the Air Force was told to push the project through and deal with the paper work later [source].

    On 30 October, a Soviet Tu-95 bomber dropped a nuclear payload over Sukhoy Nos on Severny Island. This payload was dubbed BIG IVAN, but it is better known as the Tsar Bomba. The device was intentionally blunted so that it would only detonate at 50 megatons. The detonation was so massive that the nuclear blast created a shockwave the repelled against the earth, such that the fireball never actually reached the ground [source]. SPEED LIGHT BRAVO was damaged by the sheer heat of the event and totally irradiated, although the crew appeared to be unaffected by the extreme radiation [source]. Nevertheless, the aircraft was eventually scrapped after it was deemed un-airworthy. SPEED LIGHT BRAVO unintentionally flew far to close to the blast zone [source].

    The fireball created by BIG IVAN

    5.4 PEE WEE 1-3:

    The PEE WEE program stands out amongst other Big Safari endeavors due to the close cooperation of the Pakistani Air Force in it’s implementation. Originally a set of B-57 Canberra bombers, these aircraft played a vital role in surveillance of Soviet missile launches out of Kaputsin Yar. The US Navy had a poor track record of honoring commitments made to Pakistan and India, repeatedly crossing over into restricted airspaces of either country. Accordingly, Islamabad told the US Navy it was no longer welcome in Peshawar [source].

    After a series of discussions with the Pakistani’s, the United States ultimately came into a comprised arrangement. Pakistan would allow for the resumption of intelligence gathering air operations with aircraft piloted by Pakistani officers. Moreover, the Pakistani’s would be responsible for the upkeep of the aircraft [source]. The bomb bay of the aircraft was fitted out with a sensor capable of receiving missile telemetry and the nose cone was elongated to accommodate a dual set of phased array S-band antennae [source]. Sensors were installed for radiation detection [source]. PEE WEE I and PEE WEE II were operational for little more than a year until the introduction of PEE WEE III.

    PEE WEE III (via

    When the USSR shot down Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane in 1960, President Eisenhower instituted a moratorium on high-altitude reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. PEE WEE III attempted to reinstate that mission profile. PEE WEE III was a complete redesign of the B-57’s airframe. The wingspan was doubled to an impressive 121 feet. Two additional engines were added, a set of Pratt and Whitney TF-33-P-11 Turbofan engines. These were far more powerful than the previous Wright J-65 Turbojets. To complement this increased power, two Pratt and Whitney air-started J60-P-9 turbojets were mounted under each wing and could be detached from the cockpit [source]. In addition to this, the cockpit was modified to fit two crew members wearing purpose-built pressurized suits to sustain the crew at high altitudes. A newer ejection seat system was also installed. Because of the high importance that this program entailed, Big Safari was given free rein to avoid cumbersome regulations and bureaucratic fancies to finish the aircraft on time [source].

    Alongside Soviet missile tests, it is probable that PEE WEE aircraft were used to collect intelligence on Chinese nuclear activities as well. At least one PEE WEE III aircraft was significantly damaged during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War [source].


    With the introduction of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in August of 1963, the global environment was given a respite from the deleterious effects of atmospheric nuclear testing. However, Cold War paranoias meant that the United States never fully trusted the Soviet Union to adhere to the terms of the treaty. The ‘Readiness Program’ was started in order to rapidly re-activate nuclear test monitoring aircraft if the Soviet Union decided to violate the terms of the treaty. The EARLY DAY/RIVET DIGGER aircraft were the answer to that need.

    Three NC-135A aircraft were set aside for the project. Each was ‘sponsored’ by a different scientific organization. Overall, the KC-135 family of aircraft has undergone numerous modifications and adaptations to fulfil a wide range of specialized roles [source]. These variants have showcased the platform’s flexibility and longevity, allowing it to remain a vital asset in military operations, aerial refuelling, intelligence gathering, and experimental research. RIVET DIGGER probably stands out amongst all of the other variants due to its bizarre features. The aircraft was crewed by personnel from the Air Force Special Weapons Center but complemented by a scientific contingent from each of the sponsoring scientific bodies. Evidently, military personnel found it difficult to manage the larger-than-life egos of the science teams from Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories [source].

    A RIVET DIGGER aircraft, with an ionization sensor outboard. (via Robert Hopkins)

    These aircraft were designed to conduct intelligence gathering on atmospheric nuclear tests, but when they were not used in that capacity, they were deployed for scientific data collection flights. These induced studying solar eclipses and cosmic rays [source].

    6.0 Phoenix Ghost UAV

    This April, the White House officially announced the existence of a new UAV during an announcement of a new aid package to the Ukrainian military. Among the various items, the US was sending 120 Phoenix Ghost suicide drones. Likely very similar to the Switchblade UAV, the Phoenix Ghost is reported to have a certain degree of ISR capabilities. The entire project was managed and sourced through Big Safari [source].

    The Ukrainians have already begun intensive training with the platform and it’s possible that the system has already been deployed in the Donbas [source]. It is still too early to truly assess the impact of this new UAS, but the public will almost certainly be able to catch even a cursory glimpse of its performance in Ukraine given the shower of information and media which is posted online regularly.

    7.0 Big Safari and L3 Harris:

    Big Safari initially started out with a special relationship with General Dynamics – Convair. Over time, relationships have shifted. Currently, one of Big Safari’s major partners is L3 Harris. This relationship has not been without a degree of turbulence. The Inspector General of the Department of Defense has investigated L3 over the transfer of ISR platforms to the Kenyan government [source].

    In 2017, L3 and Big Safari came under intense scrutiny from two GOP members of the House of Representatives. According to two USAF Majors, L3 was awarded a contract for the sale of aircraft to Yemen at an excess of $15 million more than the next competitor, IOMAX in 2014 [source]. In the case of the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s investigation, it was alleged that L3 was awarded a contract to manufacture border security aircraft for the Kenyan government despite having little to no experience in actually designing or manufacturing aircraft to the required specifications [source].

    8.0 Other Controversies:

    While the US Air Force’s Big Safari program has been lauded for its contributions to the rapid acquisition and modification of aircraft, there have been some controversies associated with the program. These controversies mainly revolve around issues such as cost overruns, lack of transparency, and concerns about accountability. Here are some of the controversies surrounding Big Safari:

    Budgetary Concerns: One of the primary controversies surrounding Big Safari is the issue of cost overruns. Critics argue that the program has experienced significant budgetary challenges, with projects exceeding initial estimates and timelines. This has led to increased scrutiny of the program’s financial management and calls for improved cost-control measures. For example, a contract went to L3 over IOMAX, $15 million above IOMAX’s stated price [source].

    Lack of Transparency: Some critics have raised concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the Big Safari program. As it operates in a classified environment, there is limited public visibility into the program’s activities, decision-making processes, and project outcomes. This lack of transparency has led to questions about accountability and the potential for misuse of resources [source].

    Contracting Practices: The contracting practices associated with Big Safari have also faced scrutiny. Critics argue that the program relies heavily on sole-source contracts, limiting competition and potentially resulting in higher costs. There have been calls for greater competition and increased oversight to ensure fairness and efficiency in the acquisition process [source].

    Impact on Traditional Acquisition Programs: Another controversy arises from the perception that Big Safari’s rapid acquisition and modification capabilities may divert resources and attention from traditional acquisition programs. Some argue that the focus on quick solutions through Big Safari may hinder the development of long-term, sustainable systems and technologies [source].

    Ethical Considerations: The nature of Big Safari’s operations, often involving sensitive technologies and classified information, raises ethical considerations. Critics question the program’s adherence to legal and ethical standards in areas such as privacy, data collection, and potential implications for international norms, agreements and the laws of war [source], [source].

    Congressional Oversight: Controversies surrounding Big Safari have prompted increased congressional oversight. Lawmakers have called for more rigorous monitoring, accountability, and reporting on the program’s activities to ensure proper use of taxpayer funds and alignment with national defence priorities [source].

    It is important to note that the controversies surrounding Big Safari should be viewed in the context of the program’s mission and the challenging nature of rapidly acquiring and modifying aircraft in a dynamic operational environment.

    9.0 Conclusion:

    The history of the US Air Force’s Big Safari program is one of continuous innovation, adaptation, and collaboration. From its early focus on electronic reconnaissance to its involvement in developing stealth aircraft and supporting special operations, Big Safari has consistently pushed the boundaries of airborne capabilities. By bridging the gap between traditional acquisition processes and operational needs, the program has played a pivotal role in ensuring the US Air Force remains at the forefront of airborne innovation and rapid acquisition capabilities. Very recently, the US Space Force announced the establishment of the ‘Space Safari’ program through the Space and Missile Systems Center Special Programs Directorate. Space Safari will play the exact same role as Big Safari for USSPACECOM [source].

    These partnerships demonstrate the importance of collaboration between the US Air Force and industry leaders in driving innovation, leveraging expertise, and delivering cutting-edge capabilities for the Big Safari program. By combining the resources and knowledge of these partners, the USAF can rapidly respond to emerging operational requirements and maintain a technological edge in the ever-evolving landscape of military aviation.

    Alec Smith
    Alec Smith
    Alec Smith is a graduate of the MSC International Relations program of the University of Aberdeen and holds an LLB in Global Law from Tilburg University. He works in the private sector in field investigations and security.

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