Espionage in the Air: A Comprehensive Guide to Spy Planes

Aircraft are a technological marvel of the modern age which have almost no peer in complexity, in utility or impact to our everyday lives. Heavier than air flight has made possible an untold number of modern miracles. From allowing you to appear on the opposite side of this planet in a matter of mere hours, to transporting delicate cargo in rapid time, airplanes are without competition, the single greatest invention of the human species since the sailing ship. Of course, this technology can be coopted for the purposes of death and destruction. There isn’t a military anywhere in the world which doesn’t use some form or type of aircraft to deliver death and destruction. But not every aircraft in a military arsenal is used to bomb and blast enemy combatants.

1. So What?

This article is a sort of vignette of a particular class of non-lethal airframes, aircraft used to monitor, to survey, to collect information and at times, keep the peace. ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) aircraft are the backbone of military intelligence. They act as the spinal column holding up much of a military’s intelligence gathering efforts. Espionage efforts in the air are themselves a product of modern warfare, but also, a defining characteristic of modern warfare. More importantly, however, ISR aircraft have helped keep the peace during some of the most incendiary moments of the last century.

The first U-2 captures of Soviet nuclear sites in Cuba.

2. What is a Spy Plane Anyways?

Not every surveillance aircraft is a “spy plane”. So what exactly is a spy plane anyways? Is a spy plane any type of aircraft used in an intelligence gathering capacity? Not entirely. For example, if I were to tape my iPhone underneath a Cessna 172, paint it black and fly it over a Chinese naval base, does that make it a spy plane? What if I glued a radio receiver to a hot air balloon? Form and function don’t always align. A spy plane cannot simply be any aircraft which is used to gather intelligence, because that broad brush would render the term “spy plane” essentially meaningless.

A Curtis SOC Seagull recon plane, one of the early maritime recon aircraft (taken in 2 July 1939)

Likewise, you may notice that surveillance and reconnaissance drones are notably absent from this guide. That is by design. This article covers manned areal systems in their traditional sense of an aircraft. Spy drones, or spy UAV’s, are such a broad and encompassing family of technologies that they are deserving of an article in their own right. The same applies for the family of aircraft used in maritime patrol capacities.

3. A Brief History of the Spy Plane

Areal reconnaissance has been practiced since the Napoleonic Wars. A well developed practice, it matured during the great episodes of bloodletting on the Western Front in WWI. We have written extensively about these early efforts. But, the actual form and function of what can be considered a “spy plane” is truly a product of our modern age and the Second World War.

A reconnaissance photo of Auschwitz Concentration Camp (dated around 1944)

In November of 1925, the famed aerospace innovator George Goddard quite literally lit up Rochester, NY. Around 11:00 PM, Goddard dropped an 80 pound bomb packed with flash powder over the city, lighting up Rochester. In doing so, then Lt. Goddard produced the very first night time areal photograph [source]. Goddard’s experiment created a city wide panic. Put yourself in the shoes of an average Joe awoken by a blast of light in the dead of night.

The panic soon subsided in the morning when the newspapers printed the astonishing night time images. The Army took notice and Goddard’s commanding officer sent him a dispatch reading “from now on let the people know before you scare the hell out of them…and congratulations for a terrific job” [source].

3.1 The First Spy Planes

Clearly, Goddard’s very overt method of creating nighttime photographs cannot be qualified with the word spying in any sense, but the point was made. Night time reconnaissance could provide valuable data. Even so, right up until the end of the Second World War, air reconnaissance was mostly a day time activity. Even the fabled U-2 Dragon Lady snapped its voyeuristic photo’s of Soviet nuclear sites during the daylight.

The Crew of an ELINT Capable B-24 “Alectronix” (no relation to the author)

In 1943, the US Army Air Corps preformed the first recorded ELINT mission over Kiska Island in the Aleutian Archipelago. Using a modified B-24, the US mapped out Japanese radar stations across Kiska [source]. Depending on who you ask, the use of ELINT equipment in aircraft had varied effects against the Axis powers in WWII. The US deployed similarly equipped B-24’s as a jamming platform against German radar in the European Theatre [source]. Regardless, the underlying technology was still in its infant stages. A massive undertaking was needed to bring it up to speed beginning in 1953 [source].

3.1 Spy Planes and the Nuclear Age

In 1949, a lone WB-29 on routine patrol over the Northern Pacific detected a bizarre radiation anomaly. The WB-29 had been modified to carry special weather monitoring equipment as well as radiation detectors [source]. At a certain level, the US must have had some degree of fear that the Soviet’s would imminently test a nuclear device. Otherwise, equipping the WB-29 with radiation detectors would be somewhat pointless. The radioactive debris picked up by the WB-29 was indeed resultant from the Soviet Union’s first nuclear test. After additional confirmation and tests at Los Alamos, the US established conclusively that the USSR detonated a nuclear device [source].

In other words:

  • A specially modified aircraft used special equipment (MASINT or otherwise) to detect actionable intelligence at long range.

  • This intelligence was of strategic value to US-USSR relations.

  • At any rate, the Soviets were unaware that a WB-29 had picked up evidence of their nuclear test.

3.2 Development of the Spy Plane

The advent of nuclear weapons vastly increased the need for reliable recon/spy aircraft. In fact, it is not unfair to say that without the presence of nuclear weapons on either side of the Iron Curtain, the development of long range strategic spy planes would have taken a backseat smaller, less complex systems. In quick succession, the US put to service the U-2 Dragon Lady, the A-12 Oxcart and of course, the fabled SR-71. These aircraft each on their own took an enormous amount of effort, engineering talent and financial wherewithal to produce. This, of course, is another defining feature of spy planes; they tend to be fairly expensive pieces of machinery.

An A-12 Oxcart takes off from Groom Lake (Area 51)

3.3 The U-2 Dragon Lady

The development of the U-2 was directly tied to the inability of the US to gleam meaningful intelligence about the Soviet nuclear program. Ask anyone old enough to have been alive during the early 1960’s. The sheer level of fear and insecurity felt by the American public is difficult to communicate to any audience who thankfully missed the era of nuclear brinksmanship. It was in this atmosphere of fear that engineers at Lockheed were tasked with engineering a truly unique aircraft.

In 1953, the US Military funded a study known as ‘Bald Eagle’, the purpose of which was to prove the ability of an aircraft to achieve sustained flight at 70,000 feet. That number was crucial. 70,000 feet was well above the service ceiling of Soviet interceptors [source]. Lockheed answered that call with an ambitious response. Within 8 months, a spectacular turn around time, Lockheed had a working model for the Air Force [source].

The very first U-2 at Groom Lake (Area 51)
3.3.1 From Air Force to CIA

Some of the more historically astute readers might be wondering why Lockheed delivered the design to the Air Force. Indeed, the U-2 is widely known as a CIA managed aircraft. The U-2 program was absorbed by Langley from the Air Force after a great disagreement over Lockheed’s first design.

The brain child of the great Kelly Johnson (whose greatest hits include the SR-71, F-117 and F-104), the initial design for the U-2 was essentially a bastardized XF-104 [source]. The design was poorly received by the Air Force, and with good reason. Johnson envisioned an aircraft with jettisoning landing gear, turning the aircraft into a jet powered glider. Obviously, telling a group of pilots that their aircraft would be gear-less won’t get you very far. On top of this, Johnson’s design was single engine. The Air Force was dead set on a dual engine aircraft [source]. So, the Air Force trashed the concept and threw in the towel.

The U-2 with all of its various payloads.

By 1954, however, the situation was becoming untenable. President Eisenhower was becoming increasingly anxious at the lack of American capabilities for long range strategic reconnaissance. Lockheed saw an opening. Taking the design directly to Alan Dulles, the director of the CIA, Lockheed sidestepped the Air Force. Dulles was convinced and directed the CIA to secretly sponsor the program under the auspices of Project Aquatone [source].

3.3.2 The U-2 in Service

The decision to do so without the Air Force later lead to serious coordination issues between the CIA and Air Force personnel working on the U-2 [source]. One dispatch between the project’s director to the project contracting lead paints a rather dire picture. In many cases, the Air Force had only learned on the very existence of the U-2 as late as January 1956.

From the CIA’s FOIA library, the U-2 presented coordination issues for the CIA and the USAF.

By 1957, the U-2 was ready for action. Launching from a variety of sites across Europe and Asia, the U-2 conducted high altitude reconnaissance flights over the USSR with stunning results. It is estimated that nearly 90% of all intelligence on Soviet nuclear capabilities during this time period came from the Dragon Lady [source]. The design was so remarkable and timeless that the Navy even explored adapting the U-2 for carrier operations [source].

Capt. Powers in front of a U-2 Dragon Lady.

But the grand time the CIA was having with overflights of Soviet territory would soon come crashing down. U-2 pilots increasingly reported attempted interceptions by Soviet fighters, indicating that the USSR’s radar technology was beginning to improve [source]. Then, on 1 May 1960, the Soviet Union finally scored a hit on a U-2, shooting down Capt. Francis Gary Powers and capturing him alive. The U-2 flights stopped immediately afterwards.

4. Enter the Spy Satellite

The U-2 Incident of 1960 destabilized the whole narrative surrounding spy planes. Now all of a sudden, there was a very real possibility that even the most limited of airspace incursions could cause a serious international incident. A new way of gathering intelligence was needed. This new method was made possible by advances in rocketry, spearheaded by patriated German scientists whose experience on the V-2 rocket proved to be invaluable. We have an in depth article about this sudden explosion in satellite technology here.

We won’t go into the exact progression of the spy satellite, but we mention it here only to call attention to a series of implications posed by the advent of spy satellites:

  • Do spy satellites render spy planes obsolete?

  • Do spy satellites compliment spy planes?

  • Why do we continue to fly the U-2 even with the benefit of modern satellite technology?

In actuality, the advent of spy satellites did not have an immediate and noticeable effect on the development of spy planes. The SR-71 for example, was only retired in 1998. Still today, we can readily observe any number of ELINT aircraft in flight on open source plane trackers patrolling the eastern fringes of NATO airspace. Space flight is extremely expensive, and aircraft are sometimes the better option for any number of given circumstances.

5. Soviet Produced Spy Planes

For one reason or another, the Soviet Union never produced any aircraft comparable to the pinnacle of American engineering, the SR-71. But, to totally write off the history of Soviet reconnaissance aircraft would miss the larger picture. Between the 1950’s and 1980’s, the USSR produced a number of aircraft which could fairly be qualified as spy planes. We will outline several examples in Section 7.

The USSR did come close to beating out the US in developing an SR-71 like spy plane. In 1957, the Tsybin Design Bureau put to the skies the Tsybin RSR, Russia’s first attempt at a long range, Mach 3 capable strategic reconnaissance aircraft [source]. Very few images and videos survive of this plane. Inexplicably however, Khrushchev axed the program in 1961. It was a strategically ill advised course of action. The Soviet leadership at the time had an unhealthy obsession with all things missile related and space programs took precedence [source].

6. General Configuration of Spy Planes

During the Laotian Civil War, clandestine American air support allowed for Laotian artillery men to better target their Pathet Lao opponents. Most of the US forward air controllers (known as Ravens) flew in O-1 Bird Dogs, small single engine aircraft that appear to be better suited to cropdusting than to artillery support. The Bird Dog does not qualify as a spy plane, just because it was used to gather battlefield intelligence. So what are some common characteristics of spy planes?

A Spy Plane is Any Aircraft:
  • An aircraft used to gather intelligence (IMINT, SIGINT, ELINT etc.)

  • An aircraft which uses some form it its design to subvert enemy detection.

  • An aircraft which is designed to deliberately avoid enemy air defense.

  • An aircraft designed to provide strategic intelligence as opposed to real time tactical information about a battle space.

To be a spy plane, no aircraft needs to fit exactly all of these categories, but should meet at least a majority. As such, this article is not about the myriad aircraft involved in tactical level reconnaissance operations. This article is about the big league, big name legends of areal espionage.

7. Notable Examples of Spy Planes

The following is a list of notable spy planes. This is not an exhaustive list of all aircraft used in reconnaissance operations, but rather a small glimpse of the type of aircraft which has been historically deployed by major military powers. 

Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady

The fabled Dragon Lady of the CIA is perhaps the best known American spy plane of the last century. But, did you know that the Taiwanese Air Force operated a number of U-2’s from 1961 to 1971. The 35th Black Cat Squadron flew hundreds of missions over the communist mainland with varied success. The PRC shot down at least 5 U-2’s over that 10 year period. A number of those Taiwanese pilots shot down over China survived, and were held in captivity by the Chinese until 1983 [source].

Ironically, the version of the U-2 you see here is the TR-1, a tactical reconnaissance variant.
  • Crew: 1
  • Dimensions: 19.20 m x 31 m x 4.8 m
  • Propulsion System: 1 × GE F-118-101 turbofan (producing 76 kN of thrust)
  • Speed (Max): 500 mph
  • Range: 11,280 km
  • Endurance: 12 hours

Compliment: 

  • Variable
  • Model B – U2 Camera
  • Atmospheric testing suite (NASA)

Operators: United States (CIA, NASA), Republic of China (Taiwan) 35th Black Cat Squadron

Lockheed A-12 Oxcart

The aircraft you see pictured below was tragically lost during a training accident in the South China Sea. The aircraft suffered an overheating engine, leading to its break up. No wreckage was ever located, nor was the pilot, Jack Weeks. Weeks was awarded several medals for his service, but his role in Operation Black Shield was so secretive that his widow never received them for a whole 6 years [source].

An A-12 bearing USAF markings.
  • Crew: 1
  • Dimensions: 30.96 m x 16.94 m x 5.64 m
  • Propulsion System: 2 x Pratt and Whitney J58-1 after burning turbojets producing 91 kN thrust each, 145 kN with afterburners.
  • Speed (Max): Mach 3.3
  • Range: 4,600 km
  • Endurance: Variable (Depending on use of afterburners)

Compliment: 

  • Electronic Counter Measures Suite
  • Photographic Reconnaissance Payload

Operators: United States (CIA)

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

The venerated Blackbird. Its primary means of avoiding enemy air defenses was simply to speed up. With a long service history over Indochina, North Korea, Laos and elsewhere, this spy plane is perhaps the most successful in the genre. While 12 Blackbirds were lost over its service life, only one pilot died during these incidents.

  • Crew: 1 (2 seater trainer version)
  • Dimensions: 32.74 m x 16.94 m x 5.64 m
  • Propulsion System: 2 x Pratt and Whitney JT11D-20J after burning turbojets producing 110 kN thrust each
  • Speed (Max): Mach 3.3
  • Range: 5,230 km
  • Endurance: Variable (depending on use of afterburners)

Compliment: 

  • 1,588 kg of variable mission payloads
  • SIGINT suite
  • Nose borne radar

Operators: United States (USAF, NASA)

Martin RB-57 Canberra

Pictured below is Tropic Moon III RB-57 over northern Vietnam. Operating out of Danang and Tan Son Nhut, the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing flew this aircraft in an effort to identify regular PAVN and VC positions for targeted air strikes. This aircraft visibly carries an early FLIR sensor and LLLTV nose mounted radar.

  • Crew: 2
  • Dimensions: 20.0 m x 19.5 m x 4.25 m
  • Propulsion System: 2 × Wright J65-W-5 turbojets each producing 32.1 kN of thrust
  • Speed (Max): Mach 0.79
  • Range: 1,530 km approx.
  • Endurance: 4,380 km

Compliment: 

  • FLIR sensor
  • LLLTV nose mounted radar
  • 4 x 20 mm M39 Cannon with 290 rounds

Operators: USAF, NASA, Pakistan, ROC (Taiwan)

Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star

The EC-121 came into its prime during the Vietnam War. The PAVN had a slight advantage in terms of early warning radar coverage, whereas the USAF was largely blind to incoming Mig fighters. The EC-121 closed that gap and allowed for safe and successful overflights during Operation Rolling Thunder.

VAQ-33 (GD 12) NC-121K (BuNo 141292) on it’s last flight to Davis-Monthan AFB for retirement in April 1982. This was the last “Connie” to serve the Navy. Photo by Robert Lawson.
  • Crew: 6 flight crew, 11-25 radar operators
  • Dimensions: 35.40 m x 38.45 m x 7.54 m
  • Propulsion System: 4 x Wright R3350-34 turbos with 18 radial cylinder supercharged engines (3,400 hp each)
  • Speed (Max): 481 km/h
  • Range: 6,843 km

Compliment: 

  • Top Radome
  • Bottom Radome (below fuselage)
  • SIGINT collection suite

Operators: USN, USAF

Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint

In 2022, an RAF RC-135 on patrol was nearly shot down by a pair of Russian Su-27 when one of the Russian aircraft inadvertently deployed an AA missile in the vicinity of the aircraft. The location of the incident was squarely over international waters [source].

  • Crew: 4
  • Dimensions: 41.53 m x 39.88 m x 12.70 m
  • Propulsion System: 4 x CFM International F-108-CF-201 turbofans producing 98 kN of thrust each
  • Speed (Max): 933 km/h
  • Range: 5,552 km

Compliment: 

  • 4 Electronic Warfare Officers (Ravens),
  • 14 Intelligence Operators
  • 4 Airborne Systems Engineers
  • Various classified systems

Operators: RAF, USAF

Yakovlev Yak-25 ‘Mandrake’

The Yak-25 was a supersonic swept wing interceptor developed in the 1950’s. The “Mandrake” is the reconnaissance version that was developed from earlier tactical reconnaissance variants. Overall, the aircraft preformed poorly and was just barely a supersonic vehicle.

  • Crew: 2
  • Dimensions: 15.665 m x 10.964 m
  • Propulsion System: 2 x RD-5A Turbo Jets producing 19.6 kN of thrust each
  • Speed (Max): 1,090 km/h
  • Range: 2,700 km

Compliment: 

  • Sensor Pack embedded in wings
  • Unspecified sensor arrays
  • 2× 37 mm Nudelman NL-37 cannon with 50 rounds per gun

Operators: USSR

Ilyushin Il-20M

Deployed widely to support Russian forces in Syria, an Il-20M was shot down in 2018 by an SDF operated S-200 AA missile near Latakia [source]. The Il-20M is the Russian Federation’s typical ELINT and COMINT collection aircraft.

  • Crew: 13
  • Dimensions: 35.9 m x 37.42 m x 10.17 m
  • Propulsion System: 4 x Ivchenko AI-20 turboprops producing 4,250 hp each
  • Speed (Max): 675 km/h 
  • Range: 6,200 km

Compliment: 

  • COMINT package
  • ELINT package
  • SLAR underneath fuselage

Operators: USSR, Russian Federation,

Tu-214ON

A variant of the Tu-204, the Tu-214ON is the newest spy plane in the Russian arsenal, debuting in 2011. During the days of the Open Skies Treaty.

  • Crew: At least 5 crew on flight deck
  • Dimensions: 46 m x 42 m x 13 m
  • Propulsion System: 2 x Aviadvigatel PS-90 or 2 x Rolls-Royce RB211
  • Speed (Max): 850 km/h
  • Range: 4,340 km 

Compliment: 

  • A-84ON panoramic camera
  • AK-111 topographic camera
  • 2 x AK-112 digital aerial cameras
  • IR line scanning system

Operators: Russian Air Force

Yakovlev Yak-28

A truly versatile aircraft, the Yak-28 was initially conceived as a subsonic fighter-bomber/interceptor. Under certain conditions, it could transfer into supersonic flight at high altitude. It was used extensively by the USSR to patrol the Iron Curtain. In April of 1966, a lone Yak-28 experienced an engine failure over Berlin. The pilots, Captain Boris Kapustin and Lieutenant Yuri Yanov, lost control over the aircraft and flew into West Berlin. Unable to land the plane, the two elected to remain in the aircraft rather than ejecting. Their actions prevented collision with a packed apartment complex, saving countless lives [source].

  • Crew: 2
  • Dimensions: 21.6 m x 12.5 m x 3.95 m
  • Propulsion System: 2 x Tumansky R-11 turbojet engines producing 46 kN thrust each (62 kN (with afterburner)
  • Speed (Max): 1,840 km/h
  • Range: 2,500 km

Compliment: 

  • 2 x R98M Kaliningrad K-8 AAM
  • 2 x K13A Vympel K-13 AAM
  • Initsiativa-2 Radar
  • SPS-141 or SPS-143 radio/radar jammer

Operators: USSR, Russian Air Force, Ukrainian Air Force

Myasishchev M-55

The Soviet U-2 Dragon Lady knock off, the M-55 Geophysica is a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. As of 2023, according to the UK MoD, the Russian government is attempting to return the M-55 into service for use over Ukraine [source].

  • Crew: 1-2
  • Dimensions: 22.867 m x 37.46 m x 4.8 m
  • Propulsion System: 2 x Soloviev D-30 low bypass turbofans producing 93.192 kN each
  • Speed (Max): 750 km/h
  • Range: 4,965 km
  • Endurance: 6.5 hours (17,000 m)

Compliment: 

  • Typically carries earth sciences payloads
  • Unknown conversion kit for recon missions over Ukraine

Operators: USSR, Russian Federation

8. The Future of Spy Planes

The future of spy planes is firmly in two main areas: Space and UAV Technology. The lessons presented by the Francis Gary Powers incident are enduring. Satellites are hard to shoot down, and drones are easily replaced, whereas pilots are not so disposable. It is more than likely that the family of aircraft broadly operating under the term RIVET JOINT will continue to be useful well into the 21st century. But the age of Mach 3 capable spy aircraft may well be coming to an end.

All the better for some, since the thought of a vastly expensive enterprise such as the Blackbird or Tsybin can make the public balk at the sheer costs. Whatever the future, holds, these aircraft will stand as a testament to the engineering brilliance of aerospace and defense pioneers.

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