By Lt Benjamin M. Ernst, 47th Student Squadron
/ Published March 28, 2013
LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
The year was 1957, and a young company grade officer, Lieutenant Buck A. Young, was setting up residence in the mobile home park across Highway 90 from Laughlin Air Force Base, when he was suddenly ordered to come off leave to attend the Base Commander's staff meeting. In his memoirs, he recounts how officials at Laughlin that year were speeding up the base's transformation from an open to the public, laid-back Air Training Command (ATC) base to a controlled-access, fast-moving Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. In his words, these changes were "exemplified by the fact that no photography was permitted on the flight line... and the senior commanders wore side arms." Indeed, times were changing fast!
The five-year period during which Laughlin AFB was operated by SAC represents one of the most fascinating eras in the base's storied history. From 1957 to 1962, Laughlin was home to the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW), whose mission was to "provide a reconnaissance capability and gather meteorological data from high altitudes for operational forecasting in the U-2 and RB-57 aircraft." During this brief chapter of the Cold War, the 4080th SRW made history several times, culminating in its vital role in reconnaissance missions in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Much of this was due to its pioneering of the brand new, highly-classified U-2, affectionately known as the Dragon Lady, a revolutionary aircraft designed to operate at altitudes above 70,000 feet and retrieve signals intelligence, especially aerial photography, from high above hostile countries.
Developed in Burbank, California, by Lockheed Skunk Works, the U-2 Spy Plane project was propelled from its conceptual stages to operational readiness in just 17 months. This innovative platform was instrumental in achieving a whole host of U.S. objectives in the Cold War. According to Colonel Stan Beerli (ret.), "[The U-2's] development, operation and exploitation may well have prevented the nuclear holocaust of World War Three. The U-2 truly represented a revolution in intelligence, and paved the way for advanced reconnaissance systems such as the SR-71 and satellites."
That same year, the Air Force developed another reconnaissance aircraft used by the 4080th by converting the B-57 light bomber into the RB-57 Canberra. Many 4080th pilots, such as Del Rio resident Colonel Victor Milam (ret.), began on the RB-57D before transitioning to the U-2. Colonel Milam, a veteran of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and other classified missions in the Far East, married locally and is the only U-2 pilot of the 4080th living in Del Rio. He and his wife, Luene, have a ranch in West Texas. Though not a native son of Del Rio, he is pleased to report he first got here when "they hadn't poured the lake, yet."
Colonel Milam remembers the odd-looking pressure suits that newspapers would describe as "long underwear" once they were declassified. He chuckles, recounting how the U-2 pilots were flown up to the Northeast to get fitted for them at a brassier factory, sometimes bringing back additional merchandise for their wives.
The U-2's Risky Infancy
Especially in the early days, the U-2 was extremely difficult and dangerous to fly and land. In its first year at Laughlin, the 4080th SRW lost several U-2 aircraft and their pilots in operational accidents. One reason for its difficulty landing was that its shape and weight made it a "bad crosswind plane." In order to land, pilots would wait for the signal by a "chaser" vehicle speeding down the runway with them. The signal was given when their plane was two feet above the ground. They would then eject a "drag chute," forcing it to stall and drop onto the runway. The U-2's peculiar bicycle alignment of its landing gear meant that it would eventually tip onto one of the wings. According to Colonel Milam, pilots were always proud when able to bring it to a complete stop before the tip of the wing touched the pavement. Due to the challenges associated with flying and landing this airframe, about forty of the sixty U-2s produced in the 50s and 60s would be lost on missions or operational accidents.
During one incident over Laughlin in 1957, U-2 squadron commander Colonel Jack Nole test-flew a plane which had been having trouble with one of its flaps. At an altitude of about 53,000 feet, the nose suddenly pitched down, and the plane entered a dive. Colonel Nole went through several procedures to regain control of the aircraft, ¬¬but to no avail. The engine was on fire, and the plane went inverted. He issued a Mayday call and decided to bail out. The U-2 airframe did not have ejection seats at that time, so he had to exert a lot of energy just to thrust himself out of the cockpit, fighting the slipstream that tried to pin him inside. Through considerable effort, Colonel Nole managed to eject himself from the plane, bailing out ten miles above the ground--something that had never been attempted. Not able to find his emergency oxygen valve, his vision slowly began to fade. He was forced to open his chute much earlier than the 14,000 prescribed feet in order to open the valve, but this action dangerously delayed his touchdown. It would take him twenty-two minutes to land. His emergency oxygen supply was exhausted before reaching 20,000 feet, requiring him to remove his mask and suck in deep gasps of air to remain conscious as he descended into more oxygen-rich altitudes. He landed in the arid wilderness outside of Del Rio, recalling, "I came down right over a rolling Texas hill with a flat-topped rock on one side. As I drifted over the hill, my body swung back--and my dangling seat pack caught on the rock, bringing me easily to the ground. I struggled to my feet, unbuckled my harness and clambered to the top of the hill just as a helicopter settled down nearby."
Later on, he was told that he might have suffocated, had he not been swinging like a pendulum on the way down, causing his parachute to spill air and quicken his descent. From ten miles up, his parachute ride could have taken over thirty-three minutes, in which case all bets would have been off. In the report that followed, Air Force doctors concluded that "Colonel Nole survived through an act of God." He was one of the fortunate ones.
Because of the large number of accidents, SAC removed 4080th Commander Colonel Zemke, a World War II ace who had been with the Wing from its inception. Brigadier General Austin J. Russell took his place.
In addition to the challenge of taming the U-2's difficult handling, the 4080th SRW's early days at Laughlin also found it performing hazardous experimental operations in the High Altitude Sampling Program. These operations involved collecting fallout samples from nuclear tests conducted by the United States, as well as (covertly) from the USSR. These samples were helping researchers learn how nuclear fallout affected the atmosphere. The Wing dubbed these missions Operation Crowflight. Many U-2 "hot sampling" missions were flown over northeastern Russia to intercept fallout from Soviet nuclear tests being conducted there. While conducting the sampling, there was a special warning light set to come on if the radiation exposure got too high, and if the dosimeter ever registered a "hot" count in one of these operations, the pilot would be grounded and the plane would have to be washed down with soap and water upon returning to base before aircraft maintainers could service it. In March 1960, the 4080th was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for meritorious service for completing these missions, the first of four such awards it would receive. It was also recognized for its implementation of new flying safety policies and procedures, which had reduced the accident rate to an unheard of zero, even while accumulating over 12,000 hours of operational flight time. Later that summer, the wing's name was shortened to the 4080th Strategic Wing.
Operations over Cuba
Probably the most consequential contribution made by the 4080th was its role in what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October 1962, Major Richard S. Heyser took off from Laughlin to conduct a reconnaissance operation over Cuba when he obtained the first photographic evidence of Soviet missiles on the Latin island. In the international crisis that followed, the 4080th played a crucial role, providing timely intelligence to U.S. leaders in the now-famous stare down between Kennedy and Khrushchev. The 4080th suffered the only combat casualty in the Crisis when Major Rudolph Anderson Jr. was fatally shot down in Cuban airspace while flying a reconnaissance mission.
Major Anderson was posthumously awarded the very first Air Force Cross, as well as the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart and the Cheney Award.
But Major Anderson was not the only airman to make the ultimate sacrifice in operations related to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the autumn of 1962, three RB-47 Stratojets of the 55th SRW crashed, killing a total of eleven crewmembers. Seven more airmen died when a C-135 Stratolifter delivering ammunition to Naval Base Guantanamo Bay stalled and crashed on approach on 23 October.
A month after the Crisis, President Kennedy awarded a second Air Force Outstanding Unit Award to the 4080th Strategic Wing for missions accomplished in Cuba. The next summer, the last of the U-2s left Laughlin, as the Wing was moved to Davis-Monthan AFB. Laughlin was returned to ATC, and the 3646th Pilot Training Wing was reactivated.
Even after the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis expired when the Soviets backed down, reconnaissance flyovers of Cuba were far from over. Over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, SAC was still sending U-2 overflight missions to Cuba to ensure the Soviets did not reattempt missile installations in the United States' sphere of influence. One such U-2 pilot sent to Cuba in 1963 was Captain Joe Hyde. On November 20, 1963, Captain Hyde took off out of Barksdale AFB, executing a zigzag flight pattern over Cuban territory to bring back photographic intelligence on Communist activities there. Captain Hyde's son, who grew up to fly for the Air Force as well, operating B-52s and spending ten years of his career at Laughlin as a T-38 instructor pilot, tells his father's story. He writes, "That morning, 40 miles south of Key West, ground radar following the mission watched in horror as the U-2C plunged almost vertically and disappeared from radar. Within eight minutes, search and rescue aircraft spotted an oil slick at the location the plane disappeared from radar."
Captain Hyde had been an F-86 fighter pilot before being assigned to Laughlin as a T-33 instructor. After a year of applying to get in, he was accepted into the U-2 program in 1960, receiving a permanent change of assignment at Laughlin to what he called "the first team." After three years in that program, his spy plane went down in the tropical waters south of Florida.
For ten days, search and rescue teams looked in vain for Captain Hyde, whose body was never found. He was 33 years old when he died. Of his memorial, his son writes, "The U-2 community has a poem that is read as a tribute to comrades who had died while flying the dangerous plane. It goes like this:
They were born of the Sun
They flew for a short while towards the Sun
And left the sky burning in their memory"
He writes, "The skies above Laughlin AFB burn in the memory of my father and all that have slipped through the clear, blue air above Southwestern Texas sagebrush while serving this country on the 'first team,' as aviators who are summoned to defend this wonderful land. I hope we will never forget that. I think my dad would have it that way, too."
At a reunion of the 4080th forty summers later, it was said in the welcoming speech that "the 4080th Strategic Wing represents a unique period in Laughlin's history when operational U-2 sorties comprised the mission of the day. And although the period was known as the 'Cold War,' pilots routinely flew dangerous reconnaissance missions over hostile territory. The information gathered during these missions provided our nation's leaders with the facts necessary to make the right decisions at a critical moment in time." Laughlin Heritage Foundation Historian Jim Long notes that "They were a unique unit... They served their country outstandingly well, and they kept their mouth shut for more than 50 years."
When asked what was the most memorable part of flying the U-2, Colonel Milam responds without hesitation: "The scenery." His eyes sparkle as he reminisces, "You're 14 miles away from the earth. Boy, you can see forever on a clear day... the sight-seeing is fantastic."
Although it only hosted Strategic Air Command and the 4080th Strategic Wing for five years, Laughlin AFB quietly made history through the completion of the Wing's mission. To achieve that mission, intrepid airmen flew the soaring, untamable Dragon Lady.