A history of spying: 5 gripping espionage exhibits at the Air Force Museum

The National Museum of the United States Air Force is full of spy planes.

Recently, Francis Gary Powers, Jr. lectured at the museum about his father’s pivotal role in the Cold War. Powers, Sr. was shot down over the Soviet Union while piloting a secret spy plane designated as the U-2. The museum has a U-2 on display in the Cold War Gallery.

Here are five fascinating things to learn about spying history at the Air Force Museum:

In the beginning, there was the gas balloon

The first use of wartime spying aircraft in the U.S. came during the Civil War. A hydrogen-filled balloon would lift Union soldiers high enough to see what the Confederacy was doing at a distance.

According the museum material, the best known of these “aeronauts” was Thaddeus S. C. Lowe. He made observations during the first two years of the war and resigned over a dispute with the Union Army, depriving them of a very useful tool.

World War I

The Caquot Type R Observation Balloon was designed by French engineer Lt. Albert Caquot and served the U.S. and European militaries in World War I through World War II. The observation balloon was used between 1,000 and 4,000 feet above ground level and allowed observations as far as 40 miles away. The museum’s Caquot has been on display since 1979.

Vietnam War

Although not actually an aircraft, the Igloo White system was delivered by aircraft or helicopter to the jungles of Southeast Asia. These tubular-shaped camouflaged listening devices would stick in the ground and listen for voices or vibrations from trucks and troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Painted the same colors of the surrounding vegetation, their acoustic ports were designed to look like tree branches.

RELATED: The drone that helped launch Marilyn Monroe

Cold War

The largest aerial camera ever built, The Boston Camera, went into the equally large Cold War-era reconnaissance RB-36D in 1954. This camera and mount weighed more than three tons. But, it would produce photographs so sharp that photo interpreters could pick out golf balls from photos taken at 45,000 feet of altitude (more than 8 miles high). The camera is on display in the Cold War Gallery along with a regular B-36J.

RELATED: The world’s first drone from Dayton

Cold War to Present Day

Designed by a team of engineers headed by Kelly Johnson at Lockheed as a high-altitude spy plane in the 1950s, the U-2 remained a secret program until CIA pilot Francis Gary Power Sr. was shot down over the Soviet Union and captured on May 1, 1960.

his was a key moment in the Cold War and collapsed a U.S.-Soviet arms control summit. The high-altitude spy plane routinely operated at 70,000 feet or higher. Updated versions of the U-2 continue their reconnaissance and surveillance mission today with the Air Force. The U-2 hangs from the ceiling of the Cold War Gallery.

About the Author