The U-2 was developed and deployed in slightly over a year thanks to CIA spymaster Richard Bissell and Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson (The USAF predicted a six-year development plan)

USAF predicted a six-year U-2 development plan but thanks to CIA spymaster Richard Bissell and Lockheed Aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson it was deployed in slightly over a year

By Dario Leone
Feb 29 2024
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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Richard Bissell

Richard Bissell, the senior Government official who took responsibility for the Central Intelligence Agency’s failed attempt to topple the Castro Government at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in April 1961, died on Feb. 7, 1994 at his home in Farmington, Conn. He was 84.

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As a special assistant and later the deputy director of plans for Allen Dulles, the CIA chief, he guided the clandestine program for building the high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, as Linda Rios Bromley explains in the book Pigs, Missile and the CIA Volume 1 From Havana to Miami to Washington, 1959-1961.

The U-2

In the early 1950s, President Eisenhower had requested more accurate intelligence information on the Soviet Union. The Central Intelligence Agency determined the development of a high-altitude aircraft with outstanding photographic capability could meet the needs it required. The US awarded the Lockheed Corporation of California the contract which had an unspecified budget but a short deadline.

Originally designated CL-282 AQUATONE, the Air Force decided to call the new aircraft the U-2. The specifications of the camera system for the U-2 would be the backbone of the reconnaissance mission: Capable of photographing ground areas from altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet, weigh less than 500 pounds and compact enough to fit inside the equipment bay. The image on the film produced a picture 18 inches square. Lockheed ultimately developed the aircraft for only $1 million USD and refunded $2 million USD to the government.

The U-2 was developed and deployed in slightly over a year thanks to CIA spymaster Richard Bissell and Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson (The USAF predicted a six-year development plan)
Richard Bissell

One of Richard Bissell’s first projects in the Agency was oversight of the development of the U-2. The US Air Force had tried to control the aircraft development, predicting a six-year development plan. Bissell, working with Lockheed Aircraft engineer, Kelly Johnson, delivered the plane in slightly over a year and remarkably under budget.

Photographic analysts proudly showed film captured on the plane’s first flight over the Soviet Union on Jul. 4, 1956. The extraordinary clarity of the film showed the Winter Palace in Leningrad, the Kremlin in Moscow and even cars on the streets. At Bissell’s request, the U-2 could identify the number of missiles deployed by the Soviets, troop movements and construction at military sites.

Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 shoot down

The U-2 was developed and deployed in slightly over a year thanks to CIA spymaster Richard Bissell and Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson (The USAF predicted a six-year development plan)
Kelly Johnson and the U-2

To add more tension in an already-troubled world, on May 1, 1960 a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers, came into the crosshairs of Soviet Air Defense Forces. While photographing aerial reconnaissance deep inside Soviet territory, his aircraft was hit by an S-75 (NATO reporting name SA-2 “Guideline”) surface-to-air missile and crashed near Sverdlovsk (present day Yekaterinburg). The US acknowledged the aircraft to be a civilian weather research plane operated by NASA.

However, when the Soviets presented the captured pilot and photographs taken of its military bases, the US was forced to admit the mission’s true purpose. Put on trial for his crime, the Soviet Union convicted Powers of espionage and sentenced him to three years in prison and seven years hard labor. He was released after two years on 10 February 1962 in a prisoner exchange for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel who had been held in the US.

The incident occurred two weeks before Eisenhower and Khrushchev were scheduled to meet at the East-West Summit in Paris. The US experienced international embarrassment and deterioration of already-strained relations with the Soviet Union. When President Eisenhower arrived at the Paris Summit, Khrushchev demanded he apologize. Eisenhower adamantly refused and the summit collapsed when Khrushchev walked out.

U-2 print
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Richard Bissell, the father of high-altitude photographic reconnaissance

Besides guiding the U-2 program, Bissell guided the clandestine program for its supersonic successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the first orbiting spy satellite, Corona. For this, he became known in aviation circles as a pioneer of aerial reconnaissance.

Richard Helms, a former Director of Central Intelligence, told to The New York Times that Bissell would “be remembered in the intelligence community as one of the fathers of high-altitude photographic reconnaissance, which, as it developed, did much to improve intelligence during the cold war.”

Pigs, Missile and the CIA Volume 1 From Havana to Miami to Washington, 1959-1961 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

U-2
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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin, CIA and National Reconnaissance Office


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Dario Leone

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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