The story of
The Impact of U.S. Aerial Reconnaissance
during the Early Cold War (1947-1962):
Service & Sacrifice of the Cold Warriors

Chapter 2
Page 4 of 5 Pages

The Need to Know
Cold War Aerial Reconnaissance Begins

First Reconnaissance Missions:

The first F-13 missions were flown to conduct photo intelligence (PHOTINT) mapping and charting and visual reconnaissance. After WW II, SAC’s F-13 photo-reconnaissance aircraft helped capture the airborne data from the U.S. atomic tests at the Bikini Atoll. Later, it was called upon to begin PHOTINT missions in the Arctic and along the Northern Soviet Coast. This effort, named Project NANOOK, was the Cold War’s first Top Secret reconnaissance effort. As reported by one of the participants, Fred Wack:

At first, our job was to look for land, number one. If we found land and could claim it on behalf of the U.S., we could get forward bases closer to the USSR....according to General LeMay, and many other authorities, if there’s going to be a third World War, it will start over the pole. Another job was to photograph the land for mapping. Most of the maps those days were great blank spaces, even the Canadian archipelago, and we had no maps of the Soviet Union, the coastal regions and the northern areas. (33)

As national leaders became more concerned about the threat of Soviet attack from Siberian bases, the AAF flew additional PHOTINT missions from Alaskan bases. Intelligence reported the Soviets had developed a new generation of bombers which could bring the U.S. under direct air attack if flown from these Siberian bases. On 8 April 1948, the first Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, sent a short note to General Spaatz:

A pretty queer looking map was sent to me along with a memorandum I was sending to Secretary Marshall on what we know is across from the Bearing Straits. I asked that the map be looked into, found it was wrong in some places, and attach it. In addition, however, I also found that there were no pictures of any kind of these airfields. Isn’t there some way we could take pictures. (34)

Beyond this request from the Secretary of the Air Force, SAC needed to know about Soviet defenses in the region for war-planning. As a result, the 46th (renamed the 72nd) Reconnaissance Squadron (RS) began a series of PHOTINT missions along Chutskoi Peninsula under Project LEOPARD. This unit later expanded to other missions code-named RICKRACK, STONEWORK, and COVERALLS. By October 1949, over 1,800 pictures had been produced. (35)

Some of these reconnaissance missions used oblique, side-looking high-powered cameras which enabled the reconnaissance aircraft to look into the Soviet Union as the reconnaissance mission flew a few miles over the international boundry–usually along the coast. Some of these RB-29’s had their gun turrets and armament stripped off to allow the aircraft to reach airspeeds in excess of 350 mph while still at 25,000 feet. (36)

Figure 2. 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron
F-13/RB-29 on Ladd Field Ramp, Alaska,
Source: Ken White, World in Peril publication, accessed
via Internet URL htpp//, 2/2/03

Yet other missions were configured to begin ELINT collection along the Soviet coast. These early ELINT missions were ordered as the PHOTINT mission verified increased Soviet activity and construction in the Soviet Far East and Siberian areas. SAC ordered specially-configured ELINT RB-29 aircraft which could sample the area for signs of improved Soviet radar defenses.

The first completely ELINT–configured RB-29, named “Sitting Duck” by its crew, began missions along the northern Soviet coast in June 1949. Between June and August, the aircraft flew eight operational missions totaling over 100 hours. (37)

Fig. 2.5 RB-29 Crew of the “Sitting Duck” prepare to step up and make their mark in the evolving history of aerial reconnaissance.

In July 1949, Paul R. Horton flew out of Ladd AFB, Alaska on some of these missions as an electronic countermeasures officer aboard an RB-29 of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW). He recalled:

We were officially on ‘weather recon’ missions. Tail numbers were removed, and no identifying logos were permitted to be painted on the fuselage. Our missions took us all up and down the Kamchatka Peninsula, up into the Bearing Sea and down off Sapporo, Japan. We were careful to stay out of radar range, so we could record operating characteristics of the Soviet sites without being detected. These tactics were successful, because we were never intercepted by Soviet aircraft. (38)


(33) Fred J. Wack, The Secret Explorers: Saga of the 46th/72nd Reconnaissance Squadrons (N.p., 1990),
(34) Lashmar, 28.

(35) Richelson, 219-220

(36) Lashmar, 29.

(37) Alfred Price, The History of U.S. Electronic Warfare, Volume II, The Reconnaissance Years: 1946-64 (N.p.: The Association of Old Crows), 34.

(38) Kolb, 2.

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