The story of
The Impact of U.S. Aerial
during the Early Cold War
Service & Sacrifice of the
Cold Warriors

Chapter 4
Page 1 of 5 Pages

Seeking Answers:
Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid?

We have reached a period in history when our peacetime knowledge of the capabilities, activities, and dispositions of a potentially hostile nation is such as to demand that we supplement it with the maximum amount of information obtainable through aerial reconnaissance. To avoid political involvements, such as flying in friendly airspace, or – a decision on this permitting – from vehicles whose performance is such that they can operate in Soviet airspace with greatly reduced chances of detection or interception. (84)

Recommendation in the Beacon Hill Report
Beacon Hill Study Group, 1952

Aerial Reconnaissance Developments Leading to the U-2

As illustrated earlier in this paper, through 1954 the magnitude of U.S. aerial reconnaissance efforts coupled with the USSR’s ever-increasing air defenses resulted in a growing number of reconnaissance aircrew casualties. If the U.S. wanted to continue exploiting the great amount of intelligence it was receiving from the skies over and around the Soviet Union prior to 1950, it needed to develop better aircraft or techniques.

Soon after President Eisenhower was inaugurated in January 1953, he expressed dissatisfaction with the quantity and quality of intelligence being collected on Soviet strategic intentions and capabilities. Because of this, he created the Intelligence Systems Panel in July 1953. This panel outlined the various programs under development and proposed which of them would allow the U.S. to collect much needed intelligence from aerial reconnaissance platforms. Some of these efforts included: (85)

  • Use of high-altitude, camera-equipped balloons

  • Development of a conveyance system by using a large aircraft to carry a smaller high-speed jet aircraft to target areas

  • Remodification of current RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft or of B-52 or B-58 aircraft in development, to function in a reconnaissance role

  • Development of reconnaissance versions of the unmanned NAVAJO and SNARK missiles

  • Search for a new high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

Of all the proposals mention in the ISP, many of these projects were simultaneously explored or developed and all required technology just emerging in the mid-1950’s. One of the most promising of these options was the use of balloons and cameras in Project GENETRIX. Not only did scientists deem these balloons to be out ot the reach of Soviet fighter aircraft, they also presented the least aggressive vehicle to collect intelligence.


On 17 December 1955, President Eisenhower approved the balloon project (called Project GENETRIX) and the Air Force began launching the first series of balloons from Western European locations from January through February 1956. (86) Problems with this effort immediately surfaced with: balloon cameras not working at the appropriate times; some balloons drifting off course and crashing; and still other balloons being intercepted and shot down when some of the automatic altitude mechanisms malfunctioned.

Of a total of 516 balloons launched, only 46 were eventually recovered. Of these 46, only 34 produced photographs that were of intelligence value. (87) Not that this small portion was worthless, but the protests made by the USSR and other Soviet Block countries convinced President Eisenhower to end the program. The intelligence value gained was not worth the political price paid in damage to international relations. When the USAF Chief of Staff requested a second round of balloon launches in March 1956, President Eisenhower had his chief military assistant (General Andrew J. Goodpaster) tell the Air Force Chief, “the President was not interested in any more balloon projects.” (88)

Fighter-Conveyance (FICON) Program:

At the same time GENETRIX was being developed, the USAF explored a concept by which the high-speed of a jet fighter could be combined with the long-range of a bomber to create a dual reconnaissance platform. Originally, the Fighter-Conveyance (FICON) Program was based on the lessons of the Korean War (where our slower bomber-type reconnaissance aircraft were too susceptible to Soviet fighters). It would be adapted to fit the requirements of long-range strategic reconnaissance in the far northern and eastern reaches of the USSR.

The B-36 (Peacemaker) was initially designed to meet the need for a transoceanic bomber should the Army Air Force have to initiate missions from the continental U.S. against Germany and Japan. After World War II, the bomber was the center of inter-service rivalry and a budgetary fights as the navy fought for its super-carrier (and own capability for strategic nuclear strike) and the USAF fought for its existence after becoming a separate service. Congress sided with the USAF and the B-36 long-range (heavy) bomber that had entered the USAF inventory in 1948. It would later be configured to carry four atomic weapons and also serve in a reconnaissance capacity – the nations first “pure” intercontinental aircraft. (89)

But even with intercontinental range, the B-36 found itself increasingly vulnerable to improving Soviet air defense radars and jet fighters. The dilemma posed to the survivability of the B-36 was similar to that experienced by WW II’s B-17 bombing missions prior to the modification and use of P-51 fighter escorts over Germany. The Air Force’s solution to this same problem in the 1950’s was to try to bring the fighter escort along with the bomber, thus the FICON program was born. By 1951, the USAF began modifying this program from fighter escort of long-range bombing missions to a reconnaissance fighter extension of the RB-36 platform (90)

The first bomb bay of the (now redesignated) GRB-36 was modified with a cradle mechanism used to lower and launch an RF-84K reconnaissance jet fighter. After the RF-84K’s mission was completed, the same cradle was used to catch and raise the jet back up into the bay of the larger reconnaissance aircraft for the journey back to its base. Thus teamed up, the RF-84K (with its 5 cameras and 4 machine guns) extended the range of the RB-36’s capability an additional 1,200 miles and could provide additional protection to the GRB-36. (91)

Figure 5. GRB-36 and RF-84K Fighter-Conveyance (FICON)
Source: Jacobsen, Meyers K. and Ray Wagner, B-36 in Action
(Carrollton: Squadron/Signal Publication, Inc. 1980). Back Cover

By February 1953, FICON test aircraft had completed over 170 aerial launch and retrievals and a contract was awarded to modify a number of these FICON systems. In December 1954, the 91 SRS (now designated as a Fighter Squadron after the Korean War), was activated at Great Falls AFB, Washington. (92) The modified GRB-36’s were stationed at nearby Larson AFB, Washington. The first operational hookups took place in December 1955 and in the following months the units began FICON missions on a regular schedule. (93)

Although the FICON GRB-36/RF-84K successfully completed a number of missions, several near accidents occurred. Not only was the launch and recovery procedure difficult to perform, but the fighter pilot’s access into and out of the fighter cockpit had to be made through the B-36’s open bomb bay – a dangerous maneuver. Due in part to this degree of difficulty and danger, but more because of the success of initial U-2 development, the FICON program was suspended and then terminated. The 91st SRS exchanged its RB-84K’s for regular RF-84 reconnaissance aircraft in late 1956.

Editor’s Note: A USAF Colonel who was directly involved in the
final determination of this program has offered this added note:

“In addition to the degree of difficulty of the hookup, a most important
reason for recommending terminating the program was because the
B-52 program was well on track to replace the RB-36s. That would
have left one bastard RB-36 squadron of the 99th SRW at Firchild AFB
at Spokan Washington. In addition, the FICON program was adding
very little to SAC’s plans in the event of war with the USSR.”


(84) Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach, The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974 (Wash DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency), 17.
(85) Memorandum for the CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence (Robert Amroy, Jr.), meeting of the Intelligence Systems Panel of Scientific Advisory Board, USAF,” 26 August 1953, CIA Archives.
(86) Attachment to Memorandum for Director, Central Intelligence (Allen Dulles), “Project GENETRIX Summary, 15 Feb 1956, CIA Archives.
(87) Final Project 119L Report, 1st Air Division (Meteorological Survey), SAC, 5 Mar 1956, D-582.
(88) Andrew J. Goodpaster, Memorandum for the Record, 13 March 1956, Eisenhower Archives.
(89) Polmar, 231-232.
(90) Jackson, 57.
(91) Meyers K. Jacobsen and Ray Wagner, B-36 in Action (Carrollton: Squadron/Signal Publication, Inc., 1980), 45.
(92) Jackson, 60..
(93) Infield, 182.

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