Cold War Era

The story of the French Air Force Mirage III that buzzed a U-2 flying at 65,000 ft on a mission to spy on France’s nuclear facilities

Equipped with the SEPR 841 rocket booster, the Mirage III literally soared into the skies, though not with the aim of actually shooting down the U-2.

The U-2 is still considered today to be one of the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built. It’s development in 1954 was shrouded in great secrecy since its primary role was strategic reconnaissance. Designed to fly for long periods at very high altitudes, it is essentially a powered glider with a sail-plane-like wing and lightweight structure.

The aircraft was designed and used for high-altitude communications intelligence and electronic intelligence and was capable of day or night all-weather surveillance. The U-2 has been configured with an array of cameras, electronic intelligence equipment and radar-homing and warning systems, depending upon its mission.

Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other US decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability. In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis.

However, as told by Krzysztof Dabrowsky in his book Hunt for the U-2 Interceptions of Lockheed U-2 Reconnaissance aircraft over USSR, Cuba and People’s Republic of China, 1959-1968, whoever might think that the U-2 was deployed to fly reconnaissance missions over the USSR, People’s Republic of China (PRC) or their allies only, is deadly wrong. Indeed, the jet is known to have seen ‘action over several ‘allied’ nations, just like its predecessor, the RB-57.

In July 1963, a pair of the then brand-new Dassault Mirage IIICJ interceptors is known to have intercepted an RB-57A of the USAF and forced it to land at Lod International Airport, in Israel.

The high-flying reconnaissance aircraft was underway from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and involved in monitoring the construction of the Israeli nuclear complex in Dimona.

In June 1967 – a year after French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew his country from NATO – early warning radars of the French Air Force detected a U-2 underway in the direction of one of the country’s nuclear facilities.

A Mirage IIIE of the 2nd Fighter Wing (2ème Escadre de Chasse) was promptly scrambled from Dijon Air Base, with the task of intercepting the intruder.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. U-2S Dragon Lady “Senior Span”, 9th RW, 99th RS, 80-329

Equipped with the SEPR 841 rocket booster, the interceptor literally soared into the skies, though not with the aim of actually shooting down the US aircraft – but to photograph it: photographs were of crucial importance for enabling Paris to provide evidence for a violation of its airspace in the case of the US denial.

After climbing to an altitude of 45,000ft (13,716m), the French pilot engaged his SEPR booster, which accelerated his Mirage to Mach 1.8, and enabled it to reach an altitude of 65,000ft (19,812m). While slightly decelerating to Mach 1.7, the French pilot caught with the U-2 as this was underway at Mach 0.9 and almost directly above Dijon AB.

Although wearing the bulky and uncomfortable high-altitude suit, he managed to take a photograph with an ‘average civilian camera,’ before nearly colliding with his ‘target’ while keeping it centred in his camera’s optical visor. Critically short on fuel after such a high-speed climb, the Mirage pilot then switched off the booster and glided back to base.

While it is certain that the US pilot was warned about being intercepted, because all of the U-2s were equipped with advanced ECM-systems, it flew no evasion manoeuvres.

French sources think that the U-2 pilot was quite shocked by what happened next – first by the supersonic shock wave of the French interceptor, and then the Mirage flashing by underneath his nose.

What is certain is that the US subsequently stopped all overflights of France and would not return until years later – and then with Mach 3-capable Lockheed SR-71As at an altitude of 75,000 ft (22,860m)!

Hunt for the U-2 Interceptions of Lockheed U-2 Reconnaissance aircraft over USSR, Cuba and People’s Republic of China, 1959-1968 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: French Air Force via FAST Museum Twitter Account and U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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