Remembering the Dragon Lady
World War II ended with the explosion of two atom bombs. Each wiped out a Japanese city, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peace reigned supreme in the subsequent years, until 1948. That is when the Communist government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) exploded their first atomic bomb. The arms race was on!
Throughout the 1950s, the U.S. government worried that the U.S.S.R. would develop long range delivery platforms, first by manufacturing huge bombers and then Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that could threaten the security of the U.S. with their nuclear bombs. However, the U.S. had no way of confirming exactly what kinds of bombs, airplanes or missiles they had, or how many.
During the height of the Cold War, a small group of elite pilots, navigators and support personnel flew sorties all over the world collecting indispensable information about adversaries of the United States at great personal risk to themselves. One of those groups was a unit known as the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing based at Laughlin AFB, near Del Rio, Texas. They flew the highly classified U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane.
“Toward the Unknown” was their motto. The U-2A was capable of reaching altitudes in excess of 67,000 feet. The U-2C, with an updated engine could fly higher, up to 74,000 feet. Airlines today rarely fly over 40,000 feet, and for anyone to fly over 50,000, federal regulations require a pressure suit.
According to Chris Pocock, a British historian who has spent a lifetime studying the U-2, the plane was originally built for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fly covertly over the Soviet Union in the 1950s. It was indispensable in gathering intelligence about the Soviet long-range aviation capabilities. It photographed the Soviet bombers and nuclear bomb manufacturing facilities. The pictures and data that the original CIA U-2 pilots over flying the USSR collected gave the free word its only glimpse into what the Soviet Union was accomplishing militarily.
In 1957, the U.S. Air Force founded its own U-2 program that operated in parallel with the CIA’s. Air Force leaders needed a capability for overt collection of intelligence for the Strategic Air Command, the major command of the Air Force that was responsible for nuclear deterrence. Primarily, SAC wanted data on Soviet above ground nuclear bomb tests. But the command also wanted the flexibility to spy on potential targets.
If the Soviets launched their nuclear-armed bombers and missiles at the U.S., SAC’s mission was to deliver a fierce counter-strike via bombers and missiles, to prevent the aggressor’s ability to wage war (that is, to launch a second strike). SAC’s motto at that time was “Peace is our Profession.” If nuclear war ever broke out between the two superpowers, SAC’s mission would have failed. To perform this mission, aggressive collection of threat data and target intelligence was paramount.
The SAC-assigned U-2s collected atmospheric data to determine the magnitude, or size, of the nuclear bombs the Soviet Union developed. Specially equipped U-2s could fly at high altitudes downwind of Soviet above ground nuclear testing, scoop in the high altitude particles, and return the samples to U.S. scientists who would determine the size and type of nuclear explosions. The program was called the “High Altitude Sampling Program,” or HASP. Other than launching from exotic places, including Alaska, Puerto Rico, Australia, Buenos Aires, and Panama, the HASP mission was fairly routine and boring.
In October 1962, SAC’s U-2s stationed at Laughlin were tasked with photographing the Communist nation of Cuba from high altitude. It was Laughlin U-2s that discovered that Castro had allowed the Soviet Union to deploy medium range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads on them, aimed at the U.S. Because of their proximity to the U.S., these missiles shifted the advantage to the Soviet’s favor to launch a surprise nuclear attack and destroy cities and military targets along the U.S. Eastern seaboard. Without warning, Soviet missiles could have disabled our country to the point that we couldn’t deliver a backbreaking counter-strike. Hence deterrence against nuclear war could no longer be assured. This was called the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The 4080th SRW left Laughlin AFB in July 1963 and moved the U-2s to Davis-Monthan AFB near Tucson, Ariz. But before they left, the pilots of this distinguished unit had time to make many lasting memories of their time in Del Rio and Texas and of the dangerous missions they flew.
“We were volunteering for something we didn’t know what we were volunteering for. All we knew we were going to Del Rio, Texas, but that was all we knew. If I had any apprehension, it was something to look forward to, because it was something we had to achieve,” says Eddie Dunagan, a former U-2 pilot with the 4080th.
SAC selected their initial cadre of U-2 pilots to report to Laughlin AFB out of the soon-to-be-retired SAC fighter wings. According to U-2 pilot Pat Halloran, when SAC’s bombers all transitioned to the nuclear role, they no longer needed fighter escort. And while they kept the fighters around for a while in a fighter-bomber role with the F-84, by the mid-1950s, those pilots were looking for something else to fly.
Tony Bevacqua was also one of those dinosaur SAC fighter pilots, though at the time of his becoming a dinosaur, he was only a First Lieutenant, and perhaps the youngest of the bunch. “One of my roommates in Albany, Georgia (Turner AFB) was Francis Gary Powers, as was Vic Milam. He lives in Del Rio now, but back then he was in the RB-57,” Bevacqua recalls.
Halloran was at Tinker AFB near Oklahoma City when he heard of the program. “We had a lot of rumors going around. We had some people who were disappearing from the scene. We learned there was a big high-powered program going on, but we didn’t know what it was. Except that it was something really exotic,” he says. Bevacqua adds, “Francis Gary Powers disappeared in 1956 [not from a shoot down, but to join the CIA U-2 program]. We didn’t know where he went, and later found out he was in the CIA program flying the U-2.”
Bevacqua was flying the F-84 when he was asked if he wanted to volunteer for something exotic. “And contrary to my mother’s suggestions, I volunteered. We didn’t know what we were getting into. They sent us on a series of interesting TDYs [temporary duty assignments],” says Bevacqua. “We went somewhere up north to get sized for our pressure suits, then to Wright-Patterson AFB for the [altitude] chamber, and then later on to Fort Worth, to Carswell AFB for the chamber there.”
Not knowing what they may be flying is a recurring theme with the initial cadre selected by SAC to spearhead the U-2 program. But Halloran remembers the excitement of being selected. “What got our attention about it was that we knew enough about it to say it was single engine, one pilot, extreme altitude, there was going to be space suits. So we thought we were going to be astronauts!” Halloran recalls.
Buddy Brown recalls the five to seven day physical. “They didn’t know what they were looking for, so they pricked and poked at everything,” he says.
Even after they were selected there weren’t any airplanes at Laughlin. In 1957, Tony Bevacqua and several others were dispatched to California to be among the first SAC pilots to fly the U-2.
“We went to Groom Lake. It’s also called Area 51 today. But back then, we called it ‘The Ranch.’ We’d live at March AFB near Los Angeles. Every Friday afternoon a plane would land and pick us up, it was a Gooney Bird at the time [C-47 or the military version of the DC-3], and later a C-54. And on Friday afternoon we’d fly to The Ranch. I didn’t see a bunch of planes, because there weren’t a bunch of planes. A C-124 would ship the U-2s in to get assembled. It was flown [first] by an employee of Lockheed, and then it was accepted by an Air Force person as ready to go. And then we flew them,” Bevacqua says.
Flying an airplane that hasn’t gone through the rigorous Edwards AFB flight test program is unheard of today. But SAC wanted to get the program off to a fast start. According to Bevacqua, they didn’t even have technical orders.
“We had a checklist that was on an 11”x17” piece of cardboard. It had the route of flight on the backside and a normal curve for oxygen and for fuel, and every half hour you’d put a dot on each curve to tell yourself where you were, up or down, or on it. And then below that was our emergency checklist,” Bevacqua says. On the way back to Laughlin, Bevacqua says he stopped by Oakdale, Calif. to obtain Dash-1s, or the technical manuals, for the 4080th.
Before leaving The Ranch for Laughlin, Bevacqua was involved in a crash in the U-2.
“My first landing on the runway at The Ranch was in [tail number] 696. As soon as I stalled out, the left wing went right down to the ground, and I started sort of a ground loop, only while slightly airborne. So I pushed up the power, got the wings back up, and the mobile said, ‘shut her down!’ And so as soon as I shut it down, the left wing went right back down,” Bevacqua says. The wing caught the side of a creek bed and whipped him around. Fortunately, he walked away from the accident and the airplane was repaired.
U-2 pilots and mechanics are fond of mentioning each aircraft by tail number because they were all different in one aspect or the other. “Don’t forget each U-2 was handmade. Every one of them was different. Everyone of them had its own personality,” says Bevacqua.
Arriving at Laughlin
Bevacqua was one of the first six pilots to bring the initial six U-2s to Laughlin. Pat Halloran had just arrived at Laughlin and was awaiting their arrival so he could start training to fly.
They encountered the same challenges instructor pilots and students do to this day with the airfield on the border: Mexico.
“We had six U-2s built, so six of us came to Laughlin in two three-ship formations and we managed to fly over Mexico arriving here,” Bevacqua says. “We were just following the leader, and he was lost. And of course we got chastised by the US. Mexico probably didn’t know we were there.”
After training at The Ranch, all six initial pilots were qualified to be instructors and functional check pilots. They set forth the task of training their colleagues.
“We noticed that the sides of the runway at Laughlin had been graded. It was all fresh dirt. When we asked ‘why did you do that,’ they said, well you’ll find out when you land. Most of you will end up there,” recalls Halloran. Checking out in the U-2 in those days required experienced pilots. There were no simulators and no two-seat versions of the plane. Your first flight was solo.
And that first flight was an occasion to be celebrated, usually. Buddy Brown remembers his initial solo flight all too well. “About a week before I got checked out [went solo], we were out watching a guy named Paul Haughland, he was about a mile out on final and he rolled over and went straight in, in his U-2. So they held the aircraft from flying for a while, making sure there wasn’t any sabotage,” Brown says. “So when I finally went up on my first solo flight, I was thinking that I had to be very careful, make sure my wings aren’t heavy or anything, and be safe.” He was the first pilot to check out after that crash.
The U-2 would take off in just 1500 feet. For comparison’s sake, the T-38 requires a mile of runway to launch. Dunagan recalls fondly, “My first thoughts about the U-2 was watching it take off. I have never had seen an airplane takeoff using as little runway and climb at such an angle into the sky. You took off at a reduced power setting, and had to get used to the very steep climb,” he says.
Tall Tales of Aviation Prowess
Dunagan says he was fortunate not to have any crashes. But the airplane did scare him more than he’d been scared in his flying career when he encountered severe turbulence over the Rocky Mountains at 70,000 feet.
“Your heart gets in your throat and you wonder why you are there, when you are up to your waistline in alligators,” he says. “And literally the wings on that thing were flapping like a bird. It was up and down, and of course [the wing tips] weren’t hitting [each other] on the bottom and the top, but I thought they were. It was one of those aspects of flying where it’s something you get into, but certainly wish you were somewhere else,” he says.
Halloran experienced hypoxia when his oxygen hose was accidentally disconnected at 70,000 feet. The pressurization system kept the cockpit pressure altitude at 29,000 feet, giving you only a few minutes of consciousness without a supply of oxygen.
“And I know that I am in deep, deep serious trouble. And a whole bunch of things flashed through my mind really quick about what I could do to get down, I even thought about bailing out,” Halloran says.
“And I thought maybe I could get the autopilot to start a descent, but if I passed out, I couldn’t control the airspeed, so that was not an option. And while I am looking around the cockpit trying to figure out what to do, I happened to look up in the rearview mirrors and saw that my oxygen hose had become disconnected,” he says.
After connecting the hose, he performed the “gang load” procedure with 100% oxygen and regained composure. “I was on a west bound heading out over Pecos and had I not made it, that airplane would have flown my unconscious self out over the Pacific Ocean, I suppose, before I ran out of gas,” he says.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The 4080th SRW was selected to photograph the island of Cuba in October 1962. Some pilots had traveled to North Edwards AFB in California to check out in the CIA’s more advanced model, the U-2C. Maj. Steve Heyser was one of those who launched his Cuba mission from California. But the others stayed behind and launched the first sorties from Laughlin.
U-2 pilot Charlie Kern remembers launching five aircraft on a dark, stormy early morning on October 14, 1962 for Cuba. Kern was working the mobile that morning launching his buddies.
“It was the worst storm I’ve ever seen. Torrential rains. There was lightening all around,” he says.
One of the pilots that launched from Laughlin was Buddy Brown. “In the headlights of the mobile [car, that lead them to the runway,] you could see the rain blowing sideways from the left. It was one heck of a crosswind. I didn’t think there was any way they [higher headquarters] would execute this mission. But they said ‘takeoff!’ and off we went,” he says. “Somebody was looking over us that night.” The aircraft took off in five-minute intervals.
Once out of the thunderstorms, the pilots all flew successful missions. “We went to a common point west of Cuba and split up. Some of us went over Havana, others went to the central part, and more on the eastern side of the island. We covered 90 percent of that island,” Brown recalls.
Brown recovered his aircraft at McCoy AFB in Florida (now Orlando International Airport). The others returned to Laughlin. Heyser’s sortie from California was the first to land and had the first film downloaded and developed identifying the SOviet SS-4 MRBM offensive nuclear missile site. Kern and other pilots followed them to McCoy the next day in a C-124. Eventually the entire Cuba mission was being operated out of McCoy.
None of the pilots admit they were afraid of Castro’s new SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. Nor did they believe the threat would interfere with their daily over flights of Cuba. “You don’t think about that, you are immortal. You don’t think it will happen to me. It may happen to Pat Halloran but not to me,” Brown says. Although he is joking, there is a certain truth to the way Brown expresses what they felt at the time. Fighter pilots all think they are ten feet tall and bulletproof.
While Laughlin’s pilots were busy photographing Cuba, the international crisis deepened. President John F. Kennedy demanded that Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev remove the offensive nuclear missiles. SAC’s bombers and missiles had their alert status elevated to “DEFCON 2,” the highest state of readiness before a nuclear war broke out (“DEFCON 1” is nuclear war).
Two weeks into the crisis, tragedy struck the 4080th. Major Rudy Anderson, flying a U-2C was shot down by a SA-2. Some of the fragments of the missile’s exploding warhead penetrated his pressure suit and killed him.
Pilots at McCoy awaited his return, but they never saw him again. “I remember we were out on the golf course and Rudy never returned when we expected him. You could always see him in the traffic pattern from the golf course,” Brown recalls.
“When Rudy Anderson was shot down we all went ‘gulp,’” Brown says.
After the incident, SAC’s U-2s were ordered to stand down while politicians in Washington decided what to do. Should they risk more lives with overflights?
Five days later, orders came down to step up the overflights. Charlie Kern recalls, “We were going to launch five sorties, five minutes apart, and saturate that island again. We were trying to say, ‘there’s yours Castro! There’s five more for you!”
But the missions never got over their target. “An RC-121 monitoring the area called out over the radio, ‘green arrow, green arrow, green arrow!’ That was our signal to turn around. I guess they saw some sort of signal that required us to abort,” Kern says.
Flame Out Over Havana
Two days later, the pilots were ordered to fly just two missions, covering the same ground tracks as the aborted missions. And this time, they weren’t recalled. But Kern experienced a horrifying experience over Havana.
“Just as I got over Jose Marti Airfield at 72,000 feet, which is also known as Havana International, I looked down through the drift sight and I saw two MiGs taking off. I called GCI [Ground Control Intercept] and reported the two MiGs. They said, ‘no problem. We’ve got you covered,’” Kern says.
Then his autopilot unintentionally disengaged and his yoke stowed. The surge disrupted the airflow over his engine and it flamed out. The U-2 required a descent to 35,000 feet to facilitate a relight of the engine. So there Kern was, losing altitude, gliding, with MiGs in hot pursuit, right on top of Havana.
“I cut to the south [of Cuba] rather than to the north through that heavily defended area around Havana,” Kern says. “Meanwhile, I am trying to keep track of these MiGs. I had them in my drift sight. And I wasn’t conning [producing contrails] because my engine wasn’t on.”
When the engine flamed out, Kern lost his canopy defogging system. The canopy iced over. All he could see to navigate by was what was visible in his downward-looking drift sight. He flew a box pattern around the western shore of Cuba while descending to 35,000 feet for a relight. “I got a relight on the north shore of Cuba,” Kern recalls.
Meanwhile, Kern had called GCI again and requested fighter coverage from the Florida bases. He learned later that there was almost a mid-air collision between fighters scrambling to get their first kill of a Cuban MiG.
Kern aborted his mission and returned to McCoy. “When I got back, I quickly went to my intel briefing and I got out of there. I figured [wing commander Col. John] Des Portes was going to chew my ass. The funny thing about it is that I never heard a word about it ever,” Kern says.
Overflights of Cuba continued for many years after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I’m not sure when you could say the missile crisis was really over. We moved the operation to Barksdale [AFB, near Shreveport, Louisiana] and still flew monitoring missions over Cuba for many years after that,” says Brown.
Having Fun All Wrong
Modern aircraft of today have every navigation tool available to them, including sophisticated instrument landing systems and Global Positioning Satellite receivers to make sure pilots never get lost. This was not the case with the early U-2s. It didn’t even have the most basic of navigational aids, a VOR receiver!
“For the most part, you navigated by pilotage. We’d just use the drift sight. You had a map in front of you, and you’d just follow the railroad track or wherever you were going to go [through the drift sight]. And if it were at night or in an area across the ocean, you’d use the celestial navigation. That was a very, very difficult and time-consuming way to navigate. And it wasn’t all that accurate. It would get you in the ballpark,” says Halloran.
One of Halloran’s first operational missions was a deployment. “I lead a flight of three airplanes, the first deployment of the U-2 overseas,” he says.
“We took off in 15-minute intervals just to ferry the airplanes down to Puerto Pico. And I had been there before flying fighters so I knew the lay of the land. There was an island called Goat Island off the west coast, 10 or 15 miles off the end of the runway. So I told the guys we will descend to 3,000 feet and I will orbit Goat Island, and you guys come and join me. We’ll have a three-ship formation, and well arrive at Ramey AFB on a Sunday afternoon and give them a real air show.
“Now this [airplane] was all top secret stuff back then. No one was supposed to even see the airplane. But anyway…
“We crossed the golf course and it was packed with people, flew down the runway in formation, and did the whole Thunderbirds arrival, with the two wingmen breaking away from each of my wings like a bomb burst. It was a spectacular arrival,” Halloran recalls.
But the detachment commander didn’t appreciate the entertaining arrival. They were supposed to sneak into Puerto Rico.
Leaving Del Rio
In July 1963, the 4080th SRW relocated its operations to Davis-Monthan. Pat Halloran flew the last U-2 from Laughlin to Arizona.
“I was going to make a little pass down Main Street on departure. And what I didn’t realize was that the mayor of Del Rio had recently passed away and that was the day of his funeral. So when I approached downtown to do my flyby, I went right over the cemetery and they said, ‘isn’t that nice, they made a quick flyby for the mayor.’” Halloran says with a chuckle.
Dunagan missed the brand new Capehart Housing at Laughlin. “We moved from air conditioned quarters on Laughlin to the swamp cooler in Arizona. My kids were as irritable as a cat and dog. Tucson gets hot!” he says.
But the men of the 4080th were ready for the next chapter in their lives. Overflights of Cuba continued, but from a deployed detachment from Arizona at Barksdale AFB. The unit was soon deployed on a heavy basis to Vietnam. But the fond memories of Del Rio hardly faded.
“We learned to love it here. We lived with great people, had great neighbors. We had a great time the full term from 1957 until we left in 1963,” says Bevacqua.
Author’s Note: If you enjoyed these stories, a new book titled appropriately, “Remembering the Dragon Lady” was published in May 2008. Compiled by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Gerald E. McIlmoyle, a U-2 pilot in the 4080th and Linda Rios Bromley, it features over 80 authors and 500 pages of first person accounts of the U-2’s history. Click here to get it on Amazon.
For an interactive history of the timespan discussed in this article, The Martin Agency created this digital experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis for the JFK Library titled "Clouds Over Cuba."