Jets and Rocket Flight

Flight Reconaissance

The Lockheed U-2 was one of the first and most important reconaissance aircraft.
The Lockheed U-2 was one of the first and most important reconaissance aircraft.
Warren M. Bodie Collection

Reconnaissance became extremely important during this period, beginning with the celebrated overflights of the Lockheed U-2, one of which resulted in a major national crisis when Captain Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. The anticipation of this incident also laid the groundwork for the greatest reconnaissance aircraft of all time, the Lockheed SR-71. And, before long, satellites would be conducting reconnaissance from space.

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States came closer to war than ever before or since with the Cuban missile crisis. A USAF U-2 reconnaissance plane discovered Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles being emplaced in Cuba. The United States, under President John F. Kennedy, reacted with a vigor that caused Khrushchev to back down, stating that any attack from Cuba would be regarded as a direct attack on the United States by the Soviet Union and would be met with overwhelming retaliatory force. Later, in his memoirs, Khrushchev would confess that the thought of nuclear armed B-52s orbiting his borders caused him to call off the crisis.

As the decade wound down, yet another confrontation was facing the two superpowers, this time in Vietnam. Here, as in Korea, the Soviet Union and its sometime ally, sometime enemy China preferred to have a client state engage in warfare with the United States. Although actual warfare would not come until 1965, the United States became involved in the early 1960s and found itself on a slippery downward slope that would not reach its bottom until January 1973.

Despite the terrible external pressures of war, the world still needed heroes. Aviation was still the home of heroes, and the beginning siren call of space elicited a new breed, from Scott Crossfield and the North American X-15 to Joe Kittinger and his incredible parachute jumps from balloons at the edge of space.

To learn more about the next chapter in aviation history, read about the Revolution in Flight