More Cold War Airborne Spying Missions Revealed

During the Cold War, U.S. airborne spies didn't all fly fast, stripped-down bombers or exotic reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 and SR-71. Many were packed into cramped compartments tucked into converted transport aircraft.

While the actual count is unknown, many of the spying missions were flown by groups of specialists -- electronic snoopers and photographers -- who were strapped into specially modified variants of the C-97,T-29 and C-130. The aircraft were specifically picked for their size so the missions would appear innocuous and, it was hoped, unworthy of notice by Soviet-bloc fighter pilots and air defense gunners.

 Map Intelligence gathering aircraft from Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main AB, Germany, flew four regular tracks during the Cold War:
  1. East Germany and the Baltic
  2. Czechoslovakia and the Balkans
  3. Eastern Mediterranean
  4. Black Sea

The disguise didn't always work, but usually such aircraft were at least tolerated. A now-retired U.S. Air Force Cold War aviator from one of these units was recently on board a Russian cruise ship in the Antarctic. When the captain found out he was a former military aviator, the Russian introduced him to one of the crew who was a retired Soviet fighter pilot.

"He had been stationed in East Germany for 10 years, and I had had nine years in West Germany," the airman said. "He spoke a bit of English [that he] had learned in survival school which for a Russian air crew member was six-months long. I explained I had been stationed in Wiesbaden and flew to and from Berlin almost every day. With that, his face lit up and he said, 'Which you fly, the electric bird or the picture bird?' (meaning photo or electronic intelligence gathering aircraft). He had been stationed at Zerbst in the 1950s-60s flying MiG-19s and MiG-21s. [The Russian] said what we were doing was common knowledge and they used to fly a high-altitude escort [above the U.S. spy aircraft] just hoping [we] would get out of the corridor so they could get a shot."

C-97 The CIA-run C-97 (foreground) was configured for clandestine Berlin Air Corridor ELINT flights. To the right is a C-97 with a belly tub of antennas for peripheral border flights.

Throughout the 1950s, tensions over Berlin were high. In 1958, when the Air Force started flying their newly received C-130s through the Berlin Air Corridor, officials decided to try a mission at 20,000 ft. which was double the informally agreed to 10,000-ft. ceiling. The protest from the East was loud. "The Soviets went bananas," said a second USAF aviator. "We backed off. This [Soviet] pilot was part of the massive reaction."

Even though the Cold War is over, such spying continues in small clandestine U.S. military and civilian aviation units in the battle against narcotics as well as the illegal weapons development and arms trade.

In 1952, the various small aerial reconnaissance missions that had sprung up in Europe beginning in 1948 were combined into the 7499th Support Sqdn. stationed at Wiesbaden AB and later at Rhein-Main AB, Germany. It had two tasks initially: to fly along the Berlin Air Corridor taking pictures of East Germany's defenses (AW&ST October 9, p. 103), and to patrol the periphery of the Eastern European countries such as East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic states and the Balkans. Later, the missions expanded into the eastern Mediterranean.

On early missions the crews flew with plain flight suits or in civilian clothes. Near the end of the Cold War, security lightened and patches were worn that ranged from the revealing "Semper Vigallus" to the whimsical "Eat Ice Cream or Die" -- referring to mid-mission lunch breaks in Berlin -- to the glandular "Beer, Broads, Berlin."

In 1955, the unit was expanded into the 7499th Support Group with three squadrons -- the 7405th, 7406th and 7407th Support Sqdns. -- each with a separate mission and skills.

The 7405th flew the Berlin Air Corridor mission and engaged in both photographic and electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering.

CT-29 Just above and forward of the national insignia is an exhaust port and stains that give away the secret photo compartment in this CT-29.

"The ELINT targets were mainly air defense radars, particularly those of the emerging surface-to-air missile systems," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Bessette who flew with the 7405th. Such intelligence (including pulse repetition frequency, wave forms, frequency bands and other technical parameters) was later converted into data to operate electronic warfare defenses. These were installed on U.S. aircraft to protect, or at least warn, them of attack. One C-97 dedicated to that collection role was managed by the CIA to get information about the high-altitude SA-2 surface-to-air missiles that threatened U.S. aircraft over North Vietnam. The data also was being used to help design the SR-71.

Collecting SAM and other air defense data were also undertaken by U.S. Air Forces Europe in the mid-1960s. "CREEK FLUSH" involved photographic missions and their products were designated "CREEK MISTY." Later "CREEK FLUSH" missions involved the use of specially modified C-130s carrying side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), said Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence specialist and author of The U.S. Intelligence Community. Nearly all of the aircraft were specially modified through the Air Force's Big Safari reconnaissance program which is still in operation at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio (AW&ST July 24, p. 176). The contractor for many of the projects was Raytheon's (then E-Systems) Greenville, Tex., facility.

The 7406th was a signals intelligence unit. One of its C-130s (a Project Sun Valley variant) was shot down in 1958 by Soviet MiGs when it mistakenly flew into Armenia on a routine patrol. Intelligence crewmen on the aircraft were National Security Agency (NSA) associated Security Service personnel attached to Detachment 1 of the 6911th Radio Group Mobile, according to NSA documents.

Sometimes U.S. flights were designed to trigger Soviet air defenses. As the defenders went into operation, notifying each other and superiors of the intrusion, the electronic reconnaissance and communications interception aircraft such as the Sun Valley C-130s would monitor these activities. Later, analysts would piece together an order of battle for the Soviets and determine how best to disable them in the event of combat.

The 7407th flew long-wing RB-57s on photographic reconnaissance missions. One aircraft disappeared in 1965 during a Black Sea mission. It is thought, by Air Force officials, to not have been the victim of a Soviet attack although the exact cause is unknown. During the 1960s, the 7405th settled into a routine of sorts. In addition to the almost daily flights along the Berlin Air Corridor, they flew a couple of missions a month in the Baltic, and several missions per week along the periphery of East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Another track took the unit down the Adriatic to Athens. A third mission would troll the Eastern Mediterranean for intelligence on the Middle East. The fourth was launched from Incirlik AB, Turkey, to fly a zig-zag route across the Black Sea.

During the Baltic flights the slow-flying reconnaissance aircraft were regularly intercepted by Soviet aircraft. In the 1960s, Fresco-Ds, the all-weather variant of the MiG-17, flew out of Latvia. MiG-19 Farmer-Es and Yak-28P Firebars were launched from the Kaliningrad area.

A Soviet MiG-23/29 pilot who later flew out of Siauliai AB, Lithuania, said they monitored such flights about once a week. These were supplemented by RC-135 Rivet Joint and SR-71 flights during Soviet naval exercises. He was ordered to stay a mile from U.S. aircraft.

In 1970, the 7405th stopped flying the peripheral ELINT missions. These were transferred to larger, specialized RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence-gathering aircraft that were operated by Strategic Air Command. Now the role is assigned to Air Combat Command's 55th Wing. However, C-97s (later C-130s) continued to fly ELINT and photo missions in the Berlin Air Corridor until the 1990 reunification of Germany.

Specially modified C-130s (including the C-130E-II) flew most of the photo and ELINT missions in the 1970s and 1980s, but two earlier aircraft types were important -- the C-97 and the CT-29A.

At least five C-97Gs were operational in the 1960s. Tail numbers 52-2639 and 52-2686 were modified for peripheral ELINT with protruding tubs on the aircraft's belly holding direction-finding antennas. The bottoms of these aircraft were painted black to make the tubs harder to see.

Aircraft 53-0106, the CIA-run "Creek Flea" aircraft, conducted covert ELINT in the Berlin Air Corridor so it had no tub but it did have a row of antennas along the top and bottom of the aircraft. Two other C-97s were "Eager Beaver" (52-2688) and "Flintstone" (52-2687) photo reconnaissance aircraft.

A group of four CT-29A aircraft were active beginning in the late 1950s, according to 7499th Group members. The three survivors (49-1910, 49-1912 and 49-1933) were retired from reconnaissance flying about 1968.

Doors that concealed the CT-29s' cameras and electronic equipment portals were never opened except in flight or in a closed hangar. The only external clues were black patches on the bottom rear of the aircraft to help obscure the doors, observation blisters on a few of the windows and an exhaust vent on the rear, right side of the aircraft's fuselage. "Someone familiar with the T-29 would notice the exhaust [port and stains] that shows just in front of the national insignia," the navigator said. The exhaust was part of the air conditioning system that kept the equipment and the small, closed compartment in the rear of the aircraft -- habitable for the two-man photography crew -- cool.

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