We know that U-2 spy planes were designed and built by Lockheed Aicraft for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the early 1950s, to conduct clandestine overflights of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and other denied areas of the world. At that time, these planes became our most important source of intelligence on the Soviet Union. Public knowledge of the U-2 came crashing into the world's collective consciousness on May 1, 1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down, while flying in his U-2C over Sverdlovsk, USSR.
Within days of the shoot-down, Dr. Hugh Dryden, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), reiterated the agency's May, 1956, statements that the U-2 aircraft was a new research tool for high-altitude atmospheric and meteorological research, flown with the logistical and technical support of the United States Air Force.
Historians have pointed to these and subsequent statements by NASA and its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as the U.S. government's first "cover story" to mask the covert operational use of these new U-2 aircraft.
Subsequently, declassified government documents now reveal that at the time Dryden made those proclamations, in May 1956, the first U-2 aircraft were just becoming operational. Within a month, the CIA conducted its first operational overflights of Poland and East Germany. By July 4, 1956, the CIA had flown three more overflights of eastern Europe, including the very first clandestine overflight of the Soviet Union. It is important to note, that the U.S. Air Force would not receive its first five U-2 aircraft until June 1957, and NASA would not get its first two U-2 aircraft until June 1971.
Looking back to when Dr. Dryden announced the peaceful scientific research purposes of the U-2 to the press in May 1960, after the Powers shootdown, it is now evident that he was not actually lying. By that point, Air Force U-2s were conducting peaceful, high-altitude atmospheric and meteorological research flights throughout the world and would continue to do so until 1968.
U-2 Research Aircraft
Almost from the beginning of the clandestine spy plane program, early U-2 aircraft were utilized for atmospheric sampling and high-altitude weather research. Slightly more than a year after the CIA received their first U-2 the U.S. Air Force received some of its own U-2 aircraft, which became operational in October 1957, and were assigned to the High-Altitude Sampling Program (HASP). Running between 1957 and 1963, the HASP could detect and monitor the scientific advancements being made in Soviet nuclear weapons development and testing. The U-2 was incorporated into this mission with several aircraft specially modified and equipped to collect atmospheric air samples to detect radioactive debris at high-altitude. Known as Operation Crow Flight, five U.S. Air Force U-2As were modified with nose radomes, encompassing a hole or air intake valve mechanism to permit the capture of air gasses for sampling.
Unofficially known as WU-2A, and operating under the guise of weather sampling aircraft, these particular U-2s were additionally equipped with air scoops mounted on the port and starboard sides of the fuselage to collect radioactive particulate debris in the upper atmosphere.
One of the U.S. Air Force's early strategic reconnaissance squadrons, the 4028th of the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, was involved in flying the U-2 HASP flights. Detachments from the 4028th deployed all over the world, flying HASP missions from bases in the United States, Europe, Alaska, Australia, and Puerto Rico.
HASP sampling flights actually originated with CIA U-2, beginning in 1956, in support of the (then) Armed Forces Special Weapon Project or AFSWP-(later) Defense Nuclear Agency.
These ultra-secret flights, even within the CIA, not only supported monitoring of Soviet nuclear weapons programs, but also supported the establishment of AFSWP worldwide nuclear fallout pattern charts that were developed in association with future nuclear weapons policies and planning.
CIA U-2s carried out covert HASP missions throughout the 1960s, inclusive of the one-known Project Seeker mission, to collect nuclear intelligence data during the French nuclear weapons tests carried out on Mururoa Atoll, French Polynesia, in May 1964.
The Air Force's U-2 HASP flights ended in March 1963, with the signing of the Above Ground Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the USSR. In the subsequent U-2 aircraft investigation, in the wake of the Powers shoot-down, congressional scrutiny revealed that more than 200 U-2 Flights were conducted between 1956-1960, under the auspices of the NACA/NASA weather research "cover" missions.
Although a portion of these 200 flights (including twenty-four overflights of the USSR) were covert CIA flights, the remaining majority of the flights were mostly atmospheric and meteorological research flights flown by the CIA and Air Force for various U.S. government organizations.
Some of these U-2 research flights included milestone high-altitude missions over the tops of typhoons and hurricane in support of the Air Force's Air Weather Service (AWS) and the U.S. Weather Bureau.
U-2 Typhoon Flights
On November 14, 1957, a U-2 over-flew the top of typhoon Kitt, in the western Pacific Ocean, just north of the Philippine island of Luzon. The aircraft photographed the typhoon's...