Yes, the CIA Flew U-2 Spy Planes From Aircraft Carriers
Big-wing spy planes once operated from America’s flattops—but not easily
On May 1, 1960, the Soviet Union shot down a CIA U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. It was an international crisis for America’s intelligence agencies.
A planned summit between Pres. Dwight Eisenhower and Premier Nikita Khrushchev was scuttled, much to Eisenhower’s embarrassment and to the fury of the Pakistanis, from whose territory the flight had been launched.
First flown in 1957, the 63-foot-long, jet-powered U-2—capable of flying as high as 70,000 feet—is still used by the U.S. Air Force. But after the Powers incident, basing the plane in foreign countries became problematic. Their mere presence caused heartburn in diplomatic circles. Time-sensitive targets could be lost to prolonged negotiations over basing rights.
One solution was to put the U-2, nicknamed “Dragon Lady,” on aircraft carriers. After all, as the U.S. Navy often puts it, an aircraft carrier is four acres of sovereign American territory anywhere in the world it sails.
In fact, the idea of deploying U-2s from carriers was brought up as early as May 1957, only a year after the aircraft’s secret debut. However, U-2 development and operations were joint efforts by the CIA and the Air Force, and the idea was shot down by the flying branch on grounds that adequate land bases were available.
It’s not clear why three years passed between Francis Gary Powers’ shoot-down and the revival of the U-2 carrier-launch concept. During that time, the U-2s were kept busy spying on the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.
Documents declassified in the last decade allow us some insight into the project. On May 25, 1963, Lt. Gen. Marshall Carter, the deputy director of the CIA, received a memo he’d requested from James Cunningham, the deputy assistant director for the CIA’s covert Special Activities Division, regarding U-2 carrier operations.
While the advantages of such operations—no foreign entanglements and timely stealthy deployment—were salient, the problems were notable.
First, was it even possible to launch and recover such a broad-winged from a windy, heaving carrier deck? Second, how easily could the big planes be integrated into existing Navy operations? Third, could such secret planes and their missions be kept secure from the carrier’s busy crew?
To address the first problem, Carter went straight to the source, the man who designed the U-2. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson assured Carter that the aircraft could be modified relatively easily and cheaply for carrier operations by beefing up its landing gear and adding an arresting hook, among other changes.
Flying conditions off and around carrier decks, while challenging, appeared to present no fundamental barriers to U-2 pilots, and carrier commanders were certain the ships could be maneuvered to compensate for the plane’s flight characteristics. However, the CIA pilots had to become qualified for carrier ops and that would involve a lot of Navy-based training and testing.
Carriers, spy planes … and the CIA
Lockheed, which makes the U-2, already had some solutions in hand for dealing with the big planes aboard ships. A special dolly was sometimes used to maneuver U-2s around when moving on their own power was not an option.
The dollies—plus a special sling—would be used to position the spy planes on the flight deck. Given the U-2’s 103-foot wingspan, these tools would be essential.
The carriers selected for the project had extra compartments available for on-board processing of reconnaissance films and quarters for the CIA crews. They also carried some 4,000 sailors each with eyes, ears and mouths that needed corralling. It was decided that the Office of Naval Research would provide the cover for the test program, dubbed Project Whale Tale, and the two planes selected for the project would carry ONR insignia.
On the morning of Aug. 2, 1963 the carrier USS Kitty Hawk steamed out of San Diego Harbor for the first U-2 carrier tests. The aircraft had been loaded and stored in the dead of night and its handlers and crew were designated as either “Lockheed employees” or “ONR staff.”
If anyone failed to get the hint, Capt. Horace Epes reinforced the need for security in his announcement to his crew.
“The details of this program, and today’s test,” Epes said, “are classified because of the obvious far-reaching implications of this program with relation to [REDACTED]. In this regard it is important that there be no discussion or disclosures of this test to unauthorized persons. This means anyone who is not aboard today.”
As no unauthorized disclosures came to light, Epes’s order was apparently obeyed, and no leaks occurred during later operations.
Lockheed test pilot Bob Schumacher got the jet glider off the deck using its enormous lift in a little over 320 feet—a dramatic climb that stunned the sailors below. Landing proved more of a challenge and Schumacher settled for a touch-and-go before taking the U-2 to land at Lockheed's Burbank airfield over a hundred miles away.
But the point was proved: the Dragon Lady could launch from a carrier.
Carrier flight training training began in earnest for the CIA pilots at Pensacola and Monterey Naval Air Stations. The CIA aviators were already crack airmen—now training with one of the most difficult and demanding aircraft ever flown. Given their already impressive aviation skills, training focused on the specifics of carrier ops. By February 1964, two groups were qualified and the carrier USS Ranger was positioned offshore from Southern California, commencing all-up U-2 takeoffs and landings.
The three newly-designated U-2Gs featured special flaps, beefed-up landing gear, internal stiffening and a tail hook covered by a jettisoned shroud. The Ranger changed out its standard arresting cables for thinner ones less likely to rattle the delicate plane.
Operation Fish Hawk
On the first landing test, everything worked. But when the tailhook caught the wire, the aircraft bounced and pitched nose-down, resulting in some minor damage which was repaired aboard. Given the U-2’s challenging landing behavior, this was a remarkable testament to the CIA’s aviation skills. Further tests smoothed out the procedures and the seaborne U-2s were ready for action.
Despite all this effort, the U-2Gs were only deployed once—and not against an enemy.
After Algeria won its independence from France, it permitted continued French nuclear testing on its soil until the Gerboise Vert test of 1963 vented radioactive fallout across the desert. France was forced to find a new nuclear test site and chose to follow the earlier U.S. test program out into the vast Pacific Ocean. Paris selected the remote Polynesian atoll of Mururoa for the test site.
The U.S. was prevented by the Partial Test-Ban Treaty from further atmospheric nuclear tests. At the same time, the Pentagon was interested in spying on the independent French nuclear program.
In May 1964, following signals intelligence of an impending French test, the Ranger sailed to the South Pacific with only half her usual complement and a CIA detachment for Operation Fish Hawk. The U-2Gs flew onto the carrier separately from California via Hawaii amid strict secrecy.
The weather was favorable—calm winds and clear skies—as the Ranger moved to her station 800 miles from Moruroa and launched two reconnaissance flights in three days. After preliminary processing, agents rushed the film to Rochester, New York, where Eastman Kodak technicians under CIA supervision worked on the imagery.
France remained unaware of the American surveillance. Later, Paris tacitly allowed maritime spying by the U.S. on French nuclear tests. By the 1970s, the seagoing Dragon Ladies had left the roost. The CIA placed larger U-2Rs in standby for possible carrier operations.
“From 1973 to 1974, two U-2R airframes were modified with a forward-looking radar and infrared detection system for use in the ocean surveillance role,” Jeff Scott notes at Aerospecweb.org. “These U-2EPX aircraft were to downlink radar data to surface ships to be melded with information from other land- and space-based sensors. However, the project was deemed too expensive and unnecessary given the evolution of satellites.”
The big manned spy planes never again went to sea, but their legacy lives on in the giant MQ-4C Triton drone. With its tremendous endurance, the Triton has no need for a floating airfield.