U-2 Pilots


INTERVIEWER: Martin, can I ask you the hardest one of all - can we have your name and your title?

MARTIN KNUTSON: My name is Martin Knutson, and I'm chief of flight operations at NASA Haines Research Center.

INT: Thank you. Martin, can I ask you: what were you busy doing towards the middle and the end of the Fifties?

MK: I was employed by the CIA as a U-2 pilot, doing over-flights of denied territory.

INT: What was it like... Russia was the biggest enemy ever faced by the West - what was it like to suddenly be asked to fly into Russia?

MK: When I was asked to take that job on a volunteer basis, I was really quite excited about it. I'd been a fighter pilot for some years; it just looked like a very challenging thing to do.

INT: Martin, can you tell me what happened to you as a Lieutenant in the Air Force?

MK: In 1955 I was asked by the CIA to volunteer for a programme, which later turned out to be flying the U-2 over Russia. And I looked upon it as very challenging, exciting; it was kind of like a fighter pilot's dream to go over this huge alien country. It was very challenging.

INT: Was it frightening?

MK: I don't believe I was frightened at all at the time - remember I was only 26 years old then, probably not long on brains. (Laughs) But I think "exciting" is a better word than frightening.

INT: What was the U-2?

MK: The U-2 was the first ever sustained high-altitude flight air plane, not dissimilar to a powered glider; very ungainly-looking beast, long-winged, very fragile; no redundant systems on it. The target was minimum weight. And that air plane... the missions were flown successfully; and the amazing thing is that air plane is still flying today, in modified versions.

INT: What was so special about it? Why was the U-2 capable of flying over Russia, where no other planes were capable of it?

MK: The U-2 was the only air plane I know of that was capable of flying over Russia, due to its extreme altitude capability. At that point in time, 1956-57, late Fifties, there were no surface-to-air missiles capable of getting to those altitudes, 65-70,000; certainly there were no fighters capable of that. I can remember squadrons of fighters underneath the U-2 trying to reach up and knock it down, and the U-2 was the only thing able to fly at those altitudes.

INT: So... the Russians knew you were there when you were flying, did the Russians know you were there, flying over Russia?

MK: Going into this affair, we all believed, I would say, and going up to the hierarchy in Washington, that the U-2 would not be seen and the Russians wouldn't know we were there. That fallacy lasted until the first penetration of denied territory. It turned out, in retrospect, the U-2 was really quite invisible to American radar, but Russian radar were a little different - better, you might say.

INT: So what happened when you were detected? What was the Russian response when they saw you over-flying Russia?

MK: The Russian response was active fighter participation in trying to shoot the air plane down. That continued for years, until we got into the missile age...

INT: So what was the Russian reaction when they detected the U-2 coming over?

MK: The Russian(s), of course, weren't happy with the penetration of their territory by the U-2 aircraft, and they actively, for years, tried to pursue it, shoot it down with fighters of various models. I'm told they also made diplomatic protests to the United States. They were very embarrassed by this, and therefore did not publicise that they knew about it; and in fact, I think they even today would say that the U-2 was not penetrating deep into Russian territory.

INT: How deep was the U-2 flying? Did you ever fly over any of the capital cities?

MK: Yes. The U-2 penetrated, over the years, to every Russian capital city that I believe existed, starting missions over Leningrad, places like that. One of the very earliest missions went right over Moscow. And as the years progressed, just prior to the shooting down of Frank Powers, the targets were more the cities on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains.

INT: Could you explain a little more to me what the U-2 actually did? There you were, flying over Russia. What was your purpose once you got to the middle of Russia?

MK: Each U-2 flight had a plethora of specific targets that the pilot was shown on a map at the last minute before take-off, with the exact track to fly. In the earliest days, 1956, these targets generally were in the type of airfields, type of aircraft on the airfields, trying to get a total count of the Soviet air forces. As the years progressed, these targets became more various missiles, intercontinental and surface-to-air missile sites.

INT: How important was the information that you were bringing back?

MK: The U-2 provided information that was probably the most important intelligence coups that had ever been done by aerial reconnaissance, in my estimation. It proved the fact that there was no bomber gap in the early flights; and in the later years, late Fifties, it proved that there was no missile gap as well, and this information was totally unobtainable by other means.

INT: Can you talk me through 1957 specifically? I mean, one of the photographs that you were involved in taking was the one over the Engels airfield base. Can you just talk me through that particular mission - what you saw and what you thought it meant, and your general feelings as you were doing it?

MK: In the earliest part of the programme, '57, again all the targets were trying to determine the existence of a bomber gap. The belief in the United States military was that the Russians had scads and scads of bombers, and in fact we were building up our air defence forces in the United States to be able to counteract that threat. One of the flights I was on, I came across the so-called Engels airfield, and much to my surprise and joy it was loaded with Bison bombers. I can't remember the exact count, but many, many; the entire field was full of Bison bombers. I knew right then that I had found that there was a bomber gap, that this had to be the most important picture ever taken by a reconnaissance pilot. I kind of expected Congressional medals of honour when I landed. However, it turned out that what I'd taken a picture of was not just a portion of the entire Russian bomber fleet, but in fact I'd taken a picture of the entire Russian fleet, and there really was no bomber gap; they were all on that airfield at the same time.

INT: Can I just go back... I know you didn't write it, but in a book there's quite an eloquent description of what it was like to fly a U-2 so far into Russia. Could you just give me a bit more of what it was like to look down at Russia at 75,000 feet - what would you see in front of you?

MK: In flying over Russia, I personally had... maybe two comments I could make. First of all was this exhilarating feeling of "Here I am over the middle of the Evil Empire." In those days, you know, we knew nothing about Russia - we just knew, man, that was bad. And here I was, sitting over the middle of it, after all the years I had trained as a SAC fighter pilot to go on missions in the event of nuclear war. Here I was - that's quite a feat. It didn't last long, though, in a U-2, because the little U-2 was the highest workload airplane I believe ever designed and built, and your opportunities to carry on fleeting thoughts in flight are very short-lived: you're wrestling with the airplane and operating the camera systems at all times, and there's very little thought to worry about whether you're over Russia or you're flying over southern California. You're fully occupied at the time.

INT: Were you told much about what you were doing at the time? Did you know... apart from the things like the Engels airfield, did you know the targets that you were looking for, and why you were looking for them?

MK: As a pilot of one of the U-2 missions, you had very little knowledge of the intelligence value of the targets you were after. They were simply marks on a map with lines drawn that you were handed just a few hours before flight. However, in general you knew, in the early years, that they were really trying to get a count on the air force power of Russia; and then, a few years later, in the days of Sputnik, the capability of the Russian missile production and the quality of the missile production.

INT: When we talked earlier this morning, you said that one of the points was that if you were ever shot down, it was better to be dumb. Could I just get you to repeat that for me? Let me rephrase the question. Why were the pilots given so little information as to the flights that they were doing?

MK: I believe that the pilot was given minimal information on the targeting that he was after, on the basis that, you know, if you went down and didn't return, the dumber you were, the better off you were going to be and the better off the United States would be.

INT: What was supposed to happen to you if you were shot down?

MK: In the event of a mishap in denied territory, all the pilots were very extensively trained on escape and evasion and survival, with the hope they could get out of the country they were in. How realistic is that, is maybe open to debate. But if captured, everyone I know was briefed to tell them everything that they knew, because they didn't know much about the targeting, they didn't know very much to tell.

INT: There's been a lot of discussion, throughout the various books I've read, on the suicide pill, the poison needle. Was that apocryphal, or did you really carry a suicide pill?

MK: The information that's come on out in the various press media on suicide mechanisms to carry with you - pills, needles is probably true. I don't honestly remember ever carrying a pill - that may be a function of old age causing that. I do remember the needle the needle that was embedded in a coin, kind of like the stem of a watch. I believe it was coated with curare on the end of the needle. And yes, I carried one, but it wasn't for the purpose of suicide: I thought it would make a very handy little tool in case I needed an escape from being incarcerated some place. You knew they were going to get the guns and things like that away from you, but they might just leave a coin in your pocket.

INT: Could you just tell me a bit more about the coin that you used to carry?

MK: All the pilots had the option of carrying many survival and escape and evasion pieces of hardware with them on a flight, one of which was a coin with a needle in it, tipped with curare. But much has been made in the press about it as a suicide mechanism for the pilot. I don't know of any pilot that had ever planned to commit suicide in the event of capture. Some of them carried the coin, some didn't. I carried one, to use as an aggressive weapon should I be incarcerated some place, and it was my only way out, assuming that they let me keep it in my pocket.

INT: Martin, can you describe to me what a mission was? Where did you take off from, how far did you fly, and where did you come back to?

MK: All the missions that were flown in the U-2 were always long, the maximum duration of the aircraft. They operated out of different spots. Many were flown out of Germany, many were flown out of Turkey; and getting on towards 1959 and 1960, we were actually flying missions out of Peshawar, Pakistan. The flights normally would come back to the base they originated on, but not necessarily. To maximise the range of the air plane over certain targets, the plane may, for instance, take off in Turkey and land at Pakistan, or vice versa. When I say "long", these were in the duration of probably a normal mission, eight hours. I believe the longest one I ever flew was about nine hours, and I don't think anybody flew any longer one than that, because I don't think I had any fuel left when I landed. I was about out.

INT: So... there was no part of Russia that you couldn't go to, or would you concentrate on the west side?

MK: I don't believe there was any part of Russia that were desired to have observation over certain targets that couldn't be accomplished. I believe that also was the reason that the flight in which Frank Powers was shot down, the flight was take-off from Pakistan and land in Norway, and that would enable the air plane to cover targets everywhere from Sverdlovsk all the way to Murmansk on one flight. However, we could get those targets by operating out of other bases.

INT: Can I ask you specifically, then, on May the 1st in 1960, can you tell me what happened from your perspective?

MK: May the 1st certainly will stick in my memory, and most of the world's, as the day that Frank Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, in an agency U-2, with the intention to land at Bodo, Norway. I personally was at Bodo, awaiting the air plane, and pre-breathing oxygen, getting ready for my pressure flight suit. I was going to take the air plane out of there and immediately fly back to Turkey with it. Frank Powers obviously didn't get to Bodo. I spent most of the light of a day breathing oxygen, and finally disconnected myself, knowing he couldn't possibly get there anymore with the fuel he had on board.

INT: When did you find out what had happened to him?

MK: At Bodo, Norway, awaiting Frank's flight, we had no knowledge of anything actually having happened to the air plane. We knew first that he'd gotten airborne, and that's when we started making preparations to turn the aircraft around once it arrived. And then, later that day, we got the word: "Get out of Norway." No knowledge of the reasons why, but of course it didn't take much intelligence to figure something had gone drastically wrong.

INT: Can you tell me, what did happen to Frank's flight?

MK: Frank, of course, returned to the United States after that incident and the Russians let him loose. I knew Frank very well and talked to him many times about it. What happened to Frank... I wasn't there, I can only relate what he told me, and I believe every word he said - and that's that a missile, surface-to-air missile, one of the that were believed fired, went off; it was a near-miss, and the shock wave of the missile exploding fractured the structural integrity of the aircraft, and he ended up bailing out.

INT: Martin, can I ask you again: what happened to Frank Powers?

MK: There are many stories told about how Frank Powers got shot down. The one I believe is the one Frank told me himself many times after he returned from Russia. That is, a surface-to-air missile, one of several, got a near-miss on him, and the shock wave of the exploding missile blew the tail off the aircraft and he ended up bailing out. Interestingly enough, as Frank was coming down, again according to him, he observed another parachute, and I understand that what had really happened was, there were also several Sukoy fighters that were trying to attack him, and one of the Russian missiles also shot down one of their own air planes.

INT: Were you surprised that Frank was captured alive, given the circumstances of the incident?

MK: When I finally found out that we had lost an air plane over Russia, I wasn't really too surprised that Frank had gotten shot down. I think all the pilots at that time were very well aware of the advances the Russians had made in missiles, intercontinental, surface-to-air, and we certainly knew that the risks attendant with flights over Russia had increased considerably. I don't think any one of us individually ever worried about it being himself, because, you know, once again dumb fighter pilots always think it's the other guy that's ggoing to get hit.

INT: Do you remember hearing when Khrushchev said at the Paris peace conference in 1960... do you remember that situation suddenly becoming public? What was the attitude amongst yourself and your colleagues?

MK: When the press started really giving good coverage to Mr Khrushchev's statements, and the various media of all the countries were putting out conflicting stories, I think most of the pilots were disenchanted with the coverage the press was giving. In my mind, Frank Powers was being persecuted and prosecuted simultaneously, and we had no belief... I certainly knew Frank personally, and he was a very fine gentleman, and as tough as they come, and he wasn't about to do some of the things that the press was accusing [him] of: being a traitor to the United States.

INT: Could you tell me just a bit about what his flight was intended to do? As we said earlier, it was supposed to be the longest flight... one of the longest flights, wasn't it? Because it was going to go straight across. Could you just explain to us where he was supposed to take off, the rough area he was supposed to cover, and where he was supposed to land?

MK: Frank's flight on May 1st was airborne out of Peshawar, Pakistan, and from my memory, proceeded essentially due north to the Sverdlovsk area, which had been a hot site of interest for the agency; I myself had flown to that region three, four, five weeks prior. Contrary to my flight, where I came back out of the southern side of Russia, Frank was to proceed on generally north-west, to the Murmansk area, and come out the north-west corner of Russia, skirt the Scandinavian countries, and come in and land in Bodo, Norway.

INT: Was that a longest flight a U-2 ever would have done?

MK: If that flight had been completed as planned, it probably would have been a toss-up for the longest flight that had been done in that air plane. It turned out it wasn't a very long flight, and I think the flight I had made several weeks before stands as the longest flight.

INT: So what happened? You were told to get out of Norway in a hurry, but what happened to the U-2 mission as a whole at that point?

MK: On May 1st, when our world kind of came apart on us as agency pilots, we kind of regrouped down at Turkey. There were many weeks of inactivity, and eventually orders were given to pull the whole unit back out of Turkey, back to the United States. That probably was accomplished about four months after May 1st.

INT: Did any flights continue on over Russia at all after that period?

MK: To my knowledge, the May 1st flight of the U-2 was the last flight ever made over Russia by a U-2.

INT: Martin, can I take you back a bit again to 1957? At this time, in October, Sputnik was launched by the Russians. Did it come as a surprise to you and your colleagues, and what was the reaction?

MK: In about 1957, we were at that time just coming into Turkey for consolidating the various units at Turkey, and the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite. This came as a great surprise to all the pilots there, and a lot of respect grew amongst us for the Russian technical capability. I can remember we'd all go out on a clear night and stand outside and... maybe with a glass of beer in our hands, and we'd watch this bright light go across the sky, and there's no getting around it, in our minds the risks had gone up with our careers.

INT: ... Do you remember one of the things which you said earlier is the fact that they were flying far higher than the U-2. So I'll just ask you that one more time. What happened when you saw Sputnik going overhead?

MK: It certainly didn't take long for the thought to sink in that that was flying a lot higher than the 70,000 feet of our max altitude in the U-2s, and if they could fly around up that high, our risks had increased considerably in flying the U-2 over Russia.

INT: Martin, can I ask you, what was your worst moment in the history of the Cold War, both as a civilian and as a pilot? Did you ever think that it was going close to the brink?

MK: I've got to think about that.

INT: Sure.

MK: The worst moment... (Pause) I believe the worst psychological time I had in the U-2 programme, was post - the May 1st shoot-down of Frank Powers, when President Eisenhower announced to the world and we were ordered to not do any more over flights of Russia. I was very disturbed about that, because I thought we were producing a tremendous amount of good intelligence that could help with the defence of the United States, and very disappointed in our Government for stopping this effort. Looking back on it now, I might have different thoughts, but that was my thoughts at the time.

INT: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I know you can't talk much about it, but how important was the role that the U-2 played in the Cuban missile crisis?

MK: Years later, [in] what they called the Cuban missile crisis, the U-2 played a key role in the discovery of those sites. They produced the data, turned into photographs, that President Kennedy showed the world. I believe that without the U-2 having discovered those missiles at the time, it might not have ended as peacefully as it did.

INT: Overall, looking at its amazing history as a plane, how important would you rate the U-2 in the whole psyche of the Cold War?

MK: The Cold War went on for many years, and of course had many facets to it, from both sides. I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that the U-2 would certainly have to be ranked amongst the top, as one of the greater, more successful efforts that occurred during the Cold War.

INT: Do you think that the shooting down of Frank Powers, though, contributed to... "lengthening" is the wrong word, but do you think that if Powers hadn't been shot down, it would have not escalated as it did towards Cuba, or is that irrelevant?

MK: I can't attach any particular politics of the later years to the shooting down of Frank Powers. I believe maybe the importance, in looking back, wwas that did cause a tremendous rupture between Russia and the United States. Whether that was good or bad, I have no opinion on.

INT: I think almost the final question. One more time, going back to one of our earlier questions: when you looked down through your upside-down periscope and you saw below you and you saw Leningrad below you, just tell me the first time that happened to you?

MK: I think one of the excitmoments I remember on some of the early flights is coming over Leningrad and looking down through the viewfinder, as we call it, kind of an upside-down periscope or bomb-sight, and I suddenly realised that where my cross hairs were pointing was the very target I'd had as a nuclear fighter pilot on Strategic Air Command, and you know, I had seen pictures of 20 years ago, on old driving maps of the area, and here I was looking at the real thing, and that was quite a sensation.

INT: Could you see at the time... were you aware of what retaliation the Russians were attempting?

MK: On most of the flights, '56-'57-'58, there was usually a constant stream of Russian fighters below you. In fact, at times they got so thick that the analysts back in the United States, looking at the film, were trying to figure out some way to get pictures without air planes spoiling all of the data that they were trying to look at.

INT: And all of those pilots had one aim, wasn't it?

MK: All of those fighters underneath had one target in mind, and that was your tail-pipe.

INT: Given it was such a high-risk venture, the U-2 programme, why was it undergone?

MK: I think it's hard for people to remember back, and a lot of people weren't born then. Back in 1955, '54, we were terribly paranoid in the United States. There was this great Evil Empire on the other side of the world, the Russian Bear. We had no knowledge of anything going on in that country since World War II, and not much during World War II. Imaginations run away with everybody, and we were flat, flat paranoid; the military was paranoid, the public was paranoid. We were building nuclear bomb shelters in back yards back then. A lot of people can't remember that. Was it the right thing to be paranoid? I don't know, but we were.

INT: OK, last question then, Martin. It was a such a high-risk mission. Why did the U-2 programme go ahead?

MK: In the mid-Fifties we were very paranoid about Russia. There was the vast Evil Empire, the Russian Bear. There'd been no intelligence about their capabilities or intentions come out since World War II, and probably not much during World War II, so we were paranoid. We had to find out if they were jeopardising the future of the United States. Was it right to be paranoid? I don't know - but I was. We were building nuclear bomb shelters in back yards then.

INT: Did you ever think that there would be a nuclear war?

MK: I think that in those years I was very concerned at the reality of the nuclear war. I believed I would do anything I could do personally to help prevent that.

INT: Martin, thank you very much indeed...

Click on the description text to view the photograph.
  1. Marty Knutson at a NASA desk - November 1990.
    Courtesy NASA.

  2. (L-R) Carmine Vito and Marty Knutson in Wiesbaden - 1956.
    Courtesy NASA.

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Updated: December 6, 2003