Aviation History

The urban legend of the brown bag with $30 million in cash delivered to Kelly Johnson to pay for the first six CIA U-2 spy planes

There’s an urban legend surrounding the contract for the first six U-2s purchased by CIA.

David Peters is a SR 71 pilot who was excepted to the program in 1976 he flew until 1986 when he retired. He is originally from Tacoma, Washington. When he first saw the SR 71 it was 1967, he was flying the F-4’s had a fuel problem and had to land at Navy Fallon in Nevada. It was there that he saw something he had never seen before. An SR 71, it just so happened that John Storie and George Bull (both SR 71 pilots) where flying the” B “model and also had a fuel problem and had to land. Dave said to his backseater, “Someday I’m going to fly that plane.”

The following is a very interesting story that Dave told me that I just have to share.

In complete secrecy, a team headed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” in Burbank, Calif., designed and built the U-2 to fly surveillance missions. With sailplane-like wings suited for the thin atmosphere above 55,000 feet (over 70,000 feet for later models), this single-engine aircraft made its first flight in August 1955. Entering operational service in 1956, its use remained secret until May 1, 1960, when a surface-to-air missile shot down a civilian-piloted U-2 on a reconnaissance flight over Soviet territory.

David Peters in SR-71’s cockpit

There’s an urban legend surrounding the contract for the first six U-2s purchased by CIA.

Kelly Johnson was at his office and got a call from the CIA. He was told to meet a man at a certain restaurant in downtown Georgetown. They said he would be in the back and he would have a pink carnation one his lapel. They gave him a date and time. So, Johnson showed up and sure enough there is a shady looking character sitting in booth in the back.

The guy has on a fedora and a trench coat with a pink carnation in the lapel.

So, Johnson says he goes over and sits down and the guy just stares at him for about a minute. Then he says “we will take six for 30 million.” They just stare at each other then Johnson feels something against his leg and looks down. There is a large brown paper bag under the table and when he looks up the guy is gone. So, he looks in the bag and is bundles of 100,000 dollar bills. Johnson said his first thought was “Kelly you’re a*s is dead.” Downtown Georgetown (Washington DC) brown bag with 30 million in cash.

Above: Initial U-2 testing was done at a remote dry lake in Nevada nicknamed “The Ranch.” Disassembled aircraft were airlifted in pieces from Lockheed’s Burbank, Calif., plant to the Ranch and assembled there. Note that these CIA aircraft carry fictional National Advisory Council for Aeronautics (NACA) insignia and numbers. Top image: Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, chief designer at Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” facility, initially designed the U-2 around the F-104 Starfighter fuselage. 

The CIA Director was the only federal government employee who can spend unvouchered Government money.

Peters recalls; ‘I obviously can’t prove the story but Kelly told it to me when I was just starting the program. He and Bill Parks were there for a ceremony dedicating Kelly Johnson Street at Beale. My backseater Ed Bethart and I were assigned to escort them. The only time he was under control was the actual ceremony. So, Ed and I had the unbelievable pleasure of escorting them anywhere Kelly wanted to go for about nine hours. The majority of that time the four of us alone.’

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and David Peters

Linda Sheffield Miller

Grew up at Beale Air Force Base, California. I am a Habubrat. Graduated from North Dakota State University. Former Public School Substitute Teacher, (all subjects all grades). Member of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolutionary War). I am interested in History, especially the history of SR-71. Married, Mother of three wonderful daughters and four extremely handsome grandsons. I live near Washington, DC.

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