<<

. 6
( 118 .)



>>

place a new agency to be largely hidden from Congress, the public, and
the world. Early on the morning of November 4, as Truman was leaving a
voting booth in Independence, Missouri, the National Security Agency
came to life. But few gave the new agency much hope. "The 'smart
money' was betting that the new organization would not last much longer
than AFSA," scoffed one official.
That night, Dwight David Eisenhower was elected the thirty-fourth
president of the United States.


CHAPTER THREE NERVES


JFKH WRXSHN WRLFGJN USKH FXZHQNL EFI (IFYX) OZL NJYFI,
ENXTNL ISHROTNN, PWFMT WSENT UJIFHR MSERW OSJV MSPJOV
MJQ IBM NGNM NZIIJ JZK KA JZII NZIIHAYZ KA JHWZDHZ
GCCIWHGKWADJ HAYC. EOYHWCFO QWPSOLSL KOCSMZH RQ PUOW
ZRYYMGMOF LOWEMCZ UPSO ZNLKIYA DYAAKID LNVYV;
VYCABZGKID XKTTC ZTKIABI'C UYYGYIW NDYIWN




29
Alongside Greenland's North Star Bay, thick with pack ice, the RB-47
taxied up to a 10,000-foot runway. Strapped into the left-hand seat, the
command pilot looked over and saw his detachment commander flash
the green light for three seconds: he could start his engines.
Nicknamed the Strato-Spy, the RB-47 was the Ferrari of electronic
spy planes during the 1950s and early 1960s, with a speed of over 500
miles per hour and a ceiling of about 41,000 feet. Using the basic frame
of a B-47 bomber, it was designed from the ground up strictly for
eavesdropping. Its sleek silver wings, swept back at a 35-degree angle,
were so long and heavy the tips drooped close to the ground. Weighing
them down were six powerful turbojets capable of producing 6,000
pounds of thrust each. Like giant training wheels, landing gear extended
from the two engines closest to the bullet-shaped fuselage. And to get off
a short runway in a hurry, its fuselage was designed to accommodate
thirty-three powerful rockets that could produce an instantaneous 1,000
pounds of thrust each.
For listening, the plane's shiny aluminum belly was covered with an
acnelike assortment of discolored patches, bumps, pods, and
appendages, each hiding a unique specialized antenna”about 400 in all.
A twelve-foot-long pod containing even more antennas and receivers was
occasionally suspended from the right side of the aircraft.
The airborne electronic espionage operations, known as ferret
missions, were so secret that the crews were forbidden from mentioning
their aircraft, unit, or home base, or saying anything about their
operations. "We usually snuck into our deployment base under the cover
of darkness," said one RB-47 veteran, "and were hidden away on the far
side of the field or in an isolated hangar well away from all other
activities." Some detachment commanders forbade the crews even to be
seen together in public. And, to avoid tipping off any spy that they were
about to activate, crews would occasionally wear civilian work clothes
over their flight suits when going to the flight line for a mission.
Ten minutes before takeoff at North Star Bay, the command pilot saw
the green light flash twice for three seconds, clearing him to taxi out to
the active runway. His engines gave an ear-piercing whine as he slowly
turned into takeoff position. Once aboard the aircraft, the crew would
maintain absolute radio silence in order to frustrate any Soviet electronic
monitoring equipment. Even communication with ground control before
takeoff was restricted to these brief light signals.
In the center of the plane, separated from the cockpit by a narrow
crawlspace, were the three "Ravens"”Air Force officers who were
specialists in electronic intelligence. Packed in the tight space of what
would normally have been the bomb bay, and surrounded by bulky
electronic equipment, a Raven could be "excruciatingly uncomfortable,"



30
said former Raven Bruce Bailey, a veteran of hundreds of missions
against the Soviet Union. On a typical flight, he said, the idea was to
"stuff" the Ravens "into unbelievably cramped, noisy, dangerous hellholes
and assure that they have a pressurization/air-conditioning system that
doesn't work, ample fuel leaks, no acceptable method of escape, and can
not move around in flight."
The Ravens were confined for up to a dozen hours in a compartment
only four feet high. "Not only was it impossible to stand," said Bailey,
"there wasn't even enough room for a good crouch. Most movement was
made on your knees or in a crawl." Noise was also a major problem. "The
compartment had no insulation and its thin aluminum walls were
nestled right between and slightly behind the six engines. In addition . . .
antennas and pods attached to the fuselage caused the skin to buffet
and vibrate badly, adding to the noise."
Finally, as the aircraft leveled off, fuel would occasionally puddle in
the compartment, filling the space with fumes. "With all the electrical
gear and heat in the cabin, raw fuel made it a potential bomb," the
former Raven pointed out. "When fuel was discovered, you immediately
turned off all electrical power and depressurized the cabin. Then you
hoped to get [the plane] on the ground before it blew up." Bailey, a retired
Air Force lieutenant colonel, called the RB-47 Strato-Spy "an ugly,
overweight, underpowered, unforgiving, uncomfortable, dangerous, and
noisy airplane." Nevertheless, he added, "all of us who flew in it
eventually grew to love it."
The entrance to the Raven compartment was a two-foot-square hatch
on the bottom side of the fuselage. Once the three Ravens were aboard,
the hatch would be sealed from the outside with forty-eight large screws.
Squeezed together in the small space, all facing aft, the electronic spies
were surrounded by scopes, receivers, analyzers, recorders, and controls.
Raven One, the commander of the group, sat in the right forward
corner of the cabin. In addition to banks of equipment in front and to his
left, he had a wide array of analog, video, and digital recorders stacked
tight along the wall to his right and behind him. During the flight, he
would keep his ears finely tuned for airborne-intercept radar signals from
hostile Soviet fighters. From the sound and the wavy lines on his scopes,
he could tell just how threatening those fighters might be. Raven Two,
who listened for Soviet ground control and intercept radar systems,
would be the first to know when the Strato-Spy was being tracked. Raven
Three was responsible for analyzing the Soviet early warning and missile
guidance signals, one of the principal objectives of the mission.
With two minutes to go, his preflight checks completed, the navigator
began the countdown to takeoff. He was seated facing forward in the
black nose of the plane, just below and in front of the pilot. His cabin



31
was darkened so he could better see his radarscopes; his only natural
light came from two small windows above his seat.
At one minute to takeoff, a steady green light signaled to the
command pilot that he was cleared to fly the mission. With a deafening
roar, he eased forward on the throttles, bringing his engines up to 100
percent power. By then the brakes were bucking and straining as they
fought to hold back 36,000 pounds of forward thrust. The pilot carefully
stabilized the engines.
Ten seconds before the zero mark the pilot flipped the water-alcohol
injection switches, giving the plane a powerful boost so that it suddenly
jumped forward briefly, like a lion about to pounce. From the half-dozen
turbojets, thick clouds of heavy black smoke filled the sky.
At exactly ten o'clock the spy plane shuddered and let out a loud
scream as the pilot released the brakes. Lumbering at first, the quarter-
million pounds of steel and flesh were soon racing down the long frozen
runway at nearly 200 miles per hour, leaving behind a gray trail of
smoke and mist. A "ground lover," the heavy bird required well over two
miles of surface for liftoff. As the concrete began to run out, the pilot
pulled firmly back on his yoke and the aircraft knifed gracefully skyward.
In the spring of 1956 perhaps the most serious and risky espionage
operation ever undertaken by the United States was launched. President
Eisenhower authorized an invasion of Russian airspace by armed
American bombers carrying eavesdropping gear and cameras instead of
nuclear weapons. Details of the operation are still wrapped in great
secrecy.
Nicknamed Project Homerun, the operation was staged from an air
base near the frozen Eskimo village of Thule, Greenland, a desert of ice
and snow 690 miles north of the Arctic Circle. In the purple-black of the
polar winter, aircraft mechanics labored in ”35° temperatures to
prepare the nearly fifty bombers and tankers that would play a role in
the massive incursion, one of the most secret missions of the Cold War.
Housing for the flight and maintenance crews consisted of temporary
buildings that looked like railroad refrigerator cars.
The mission was to penetrate virtually the entire northern land-mass
of Russia, a bleak white 3,500-mile-long crescent of snow-covered
permafrost stretching from the Bering Strait near Alaska to Murmansk
and the Kola Peninsula in European Russia. At the time, little was
known about the vast Soviet Arctic region. Yet, because a flight over the
North Pole was the shortest way for Russian bombers and missiles to
reach the U.S. mainland, it was the most likely battleground for the next
war. At the same time, it was also the most likely route for an American
invasion of Russia. Thus any Soviet radar operator seeing the bombers
would have no way of knowing that the mission was espionage and not


32
war. Despite the enormous risks of igniting World War III, President
Eisenhower approved the operation.
On March 21, 1956, a group of RB-47 reconnaissance bombers took
off for target locations within Russia. Almost daily over the next seven
weeks, between eight and ten bombers launched, refueled over the North
Pole, and continued south across the Russian border to their assigned
locations.
They flew in teams of two. One RB-47H ferret would pinpoint and
eavesdrop on radar, air bases, and missile installations. Nearby, an RB-
47E photoreconnaissance plane would gather imagery. Their
assignments included overflying such sensitive locations as Novaya
Zemlya, the banana-shaped island where Russia carried out its most
secret atomic tests. From moment of takeoff to moment of landing,
absolute radio silence was required, even during the occasional chase by
a MiG. "One word on the radio, and all missions for the day had to
abort," said Brigadier General William Meng, one of the officers who ran
the penetration operation. "But that never happened; not one mission
was ever recalled."
As in a Fourth of July fireworks display, the most spectacular mission
was saved for the end. On May 6, they began the single most daring air
operation of the Cold War, a "massed overflight" of Soviet territory. The
point was to cover a great deal of territory, quickly. Six armed RB-47E
aircraft, flying abreast, crossed the North Pole and penetrated Russian
airspace in broad daylight, as if on a nuclear bombing run. They entered
above Ambarchik in western Siberia, then turned eastward, collecting
valuable intelligence as they passed over key Russian air bases and
launch sites on their way toward Anadyr on the Bering Strait. Nearly a
dozen hours after it began, the massed overflight ended when the spy
planes touched down at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
Within minutes of the landing, the recording tapes were sent by a
special courier flight to NSA for analysis. They revealed no Soviet radar
signals”proof that, at least for the time being, Russia was blind to an
over-the-pole attack by American nuclear bombers. The vast sweep of
frozen tundra making up Russia's northern frontier was virtually radar-
free. Nevertheless, no one dared speculate on how the mission might
have ended if hidden Soviet radar installations had picked up the
incoming bombers and believed that they were sent on an American
surprise attack. With only seconds to spare, the Russians might well
have launched a counterattack, with devastating results.
In all, 156 eavesdropping and photo missions were flown over Russian
airspace during the almost two months of Project Homerun without the
loss of a single aircraft”and without a nuclear war. Nevertheless,
Moscow was well aware of the air invasion. Eight days after the massed



33
overflight, a protest note was delivered to the American ambassador in
Moscow. Publicly, however, the Kremlin said nothing; the humiliation
would have been too great.
Throughout the 1950s the ferrets, like mosquitoes hunting for an
exposed patch of skin, buzzed the long Soviet border. They were
searching for holes in Russia's vast fence of air-defense radar sites. At
the time, the Soviet military had not yet completed work on a nationwide
network. Nor was much of the interior protected.
As a CIA report points out, human spies had effectively been put out
of action. "The stringent security measures imposed by the Communist
Bloc nations," said the study, "effectively blunted traditional methods for
gathering intelligence: secret agents using covert means to communicate
intelligence, travelers to and from target areas who could be asked to
keep their eyes open and report their observations later, wiretaps and
other eavesdropping methods, and postal interceptions. Indeed, the
entire panoply of intelligence tradecraft seemed ineffective against the
Soviet Bloc, and no other methods were available."
But while the Communist governments of Eastern Europe and Asia
could draw impenetrable iron curtains around their countries, hiding
such things as the development of nuclear weapons and missile
technology, they could not build roofs over them. Nor could their armed
guards halt the continuous streams of invisible signals escaping across
their borders.
While the eavesdropping bombers occasionally flew deep into Soviet
airspace, other ferret missions engaged in the dangerous game of fox and
hounds. Probing and teasing the hostile air defense networks, they would
dart back and forth across sensitive borders, daring the Soviets to react.
There was no other way to force the missile batteries and border defense
installations to turn on their secret tracking equipment and thus enable
the American signal snatchers to capture the precious electrons. Once
analyzed, the information enabled war planners to determine where the
holes were and how best to build equipment to counteract the radar and
fire control systems.
It was a time and a place where spy wars were fought with armor-
piercing bullets and heat-seeking missiles rather than with whispered
words over cocktails or bulky envelopes deposited under dead tree
trunks. Unlike the U-2 spy planes, the converted bombers flew low” well
within the range of Russian missiles and warplanes.
In 1954, two years before Project Homerun, three RB-47
reconnaissance planes took off from England and headed toward
Russia's northern Kola Peninsula, which borders the Barents Sea. It was
an area of extreme secrecy, and considered the most likely spot from
which the Soviets would launch a nuclear attack. At the time, the United


34
States was desperate to obtain intelligence on the number and location of
the new Soviet jet-turbine-powered long-range bombers, codenamed
Bison.
At about one hundred miles from the heavily defended port city of
Murmansk, two of the aircraft turned back as planned. The third,
however, continued straight for the coastline. With no wingman to supply
cover, the air crystal-clear, and the sun directly overhead, Captain
Harold Austin, a tall, thin Texan, aimed the black nose of his converted
bomber directly for Murmansk and pushed hard on the throttles. "The
weather was gorgeous," he recalled. "We could see forever." He sped high
over the Russian coastline at just over 500 miles an hour. But within
minutes of turning on the cameras and eavesdropping equipment, MiGs
were scrambling skyward.

<<

. 6
( 118 .)



>>