In the 1950s, tensions between the two superpowers were quite high, and for some, the threat of nuclear war was already looming on the horizon. Then both states literally did not take their eyes off the enemy, trying to use all available resources for this. And if the USSR focused on its espionage network, including recruited foreign intelligence officers, then the United States often turned to military equipment, of the variety of which Lockheed U-2 aircraft most often roamed the Soviet sky. But they overestimated the elusiveness of their air reconnaissance.
The Lockheed U-2 aircraft can rightly be called a "ghost", because that is how it was, in fact, created - as inconspicuous and elusive as possible. In addition, the design features and technical characteristics indicate that it was specially created for aerial reconnaissance.
The Lockheed U-2 is an airframe with a wide wingspan and maximum weight reduction. The "engine" of the aircraft was a high-altitude turbojet engine. Also, the cockpit and spacesuit were adapted to increase the flight altitude of the liner.
As a reconnaissance aircraft, the Lockheed U-2 was equipped with special equipment that performed aerial reconnaissance photography, as well as radio reconnaissance radar systems. In order for the load from being on board the additional equipment not to affect the flight altitude, its volume and mass were limited.
Therefore, when the American special services needed information about the location of secret facilities of the USSR defense industry, it was these ghost monoplanes that soared into the sky. And, as it turned out, these inconspicuous aircraft were able to reach the "deep" Soviet territories.
For the first time, Lockheed U-2 went on reconnaissance in Soviet airspace on July 4, 1956. His course is also known: the plane took off from the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, then crossed the sky over Moscow, Leningrad and the Baltic Sea. During the flight, Lockheed U-2 "passed over two of the most heavily defended areas in the world," according to the report. At the same time, the capabilities of professional American photographic equipment were clearly demonstrated: in the photographs taken during the flight, even the numbers on the tails of the aircraft can be distinguished.
These reconnaissance activities were carried out by the secret subdivision "10-10", according to their data, only in July 1956, five flights were carried out in the airspace over the territory of the USSR, during which the locations of the air defense systems, airfields, where the fighter-interceptors were located were recorded, as well as anti-aircraft artillery complexes and radar stations.
It should be mentioned that the Americans were mistaken in believing that their plane was absolutely elusive. In the Soviet Union, almost from the first spy flight, they knew about these "tricks" of the Western superpower. The problem was that the Lockheed U-2 flew literally at the limit of the altitude that, in principle, the military aviation of that time could reach. Soviet fighters could then climb a maximum of 17,800 meters. And the attempt to reach an altitude of twenty kilometers for the same MiG-19 was accompanied by a huge risk. However, despite the danger, attempts were made to intercept American ghost planes on several occasions.
For example, when one day the Soviet air defense systems once again "caught" the violator of their space, three interceptors, piloted by professional pilots, were taken into the air from the Baltic States. However, the results of this operation turned out to be disappointing - it was not possible to overtake the American stealth aircraft, and three Soviet liners had a hard time: two of them managed to fly to various airfields. The third interceptor, piloted by Captain Kapustin, made a hard landing literally half a kilometer from the runway, and the pilot suffered a serious spinal injury.
The leadership of the Central Committee of the CPPS and personally Nikita Khrushchev were enraged by such impunity of the US special services. The Secretary General even made an official statement: the pilot who manages to shoot down an American ghost plane will immediately be nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. However, for two and a half years, repeated attempts to intercept foreign intruders have remained unsuccessful.
At some point, apparently, the command of the USSR Air Defense Forces began to doubt themselves that they would be able to catch up with the stealth plane. So, in February 1959, when Soviet radar systems again discovered Lockheed U-2 in its airspace, the MiG-19 went to intercept with an experienced pilot on board, he was the squadron commander. In order to reach the critical height of 20 thousand meters, the pilot had to perform a risky maneuver - a dynamic slide. The pilot took this step and managed to spot an American reconnaissance liner.
However, this "meeting" lasted only a few seconds, after which the Soviet interceptor began to lose altitude. At the same time, ground locators lost sight of the intruder. When, after landing, the pilot described and even sketched it, the General Staff of the Air Defense Forces sent a commission to the regiment. But its results were quite unexpected: the pilot was accused of having thought of everything out of a desire to receive an award.
For all their success, Lockheed U-2 over the territory of the USSR, there were unsuccessful flights in their history. So, one of the planes that flew over the Baltic States almost collapsed due to a failed engine, which then started just as suddenly. Since the incident occurred at the maximum flight altitude, the air defense systems could not reach the intruder, so the tragedy was avoided.
But a similar story that happened over the territory of the PRC had a sad end. Then the aircraft also failed the engine, and the Chinese interceptors were able to come close to Lockheed U-2. To prevent the declassification of the unique machine, the pilot sacrificed himself by blowing up the plane.
Interesting fact: by a strange coincidence, the deceased US Air Force pilot is Chinese.
The losing streak of Soviet interceptors ended on May 1, 1961, when an American ghost plane once again invaded the Soviet Union from the south. The pilot of this liner was the American pilot Francis Gary Powers. Already at six o'clock in the morning, the intruder was spotted, and the air defense systems were put on alert. And since a parade dedicated to May Day was about to be held in the capital, the order of the commander of the troops was laconic: "Attack the violator, if necessary, ram."
On a combat alert, two MiG-29 and Su-9 aircraft were raised into the air, piloted by Captain Boris Ayvazyan and Senior Lieutenant Sergei Safronov, as well as Captain Igor Mentyukov, respectively. The latter, in fact, simply drove an unarmed Su-9 from a factory to a military unit. But they also decided to raise him on alarm. And it was in front of him that they set the deadly task - to ram the target.
Igor Mentyukov himself later recalled that he was taken away from certain death when a little more than ten kilometers remained to the enemy plane. The reason for the withdrawal of the Su-9 from the zone was that they began to fire at it with S-75 missiles. One of them almost reached its goal - it exploded right behind the Lockheed U-2, while the cockpit was not damaged. The aircraft began to lose altitude sharply, but the pilot did not detonate the plane, but ejected.
But, alas, the interception story did not end there. More than half an hour after the American plane was shot down, the command post of the Air Defense Army did not know about this and continued to fire at the area where the intruder was recorded. At the same time, the interceptors Ayvazyan and Safronov continued to carry out the task. The first, after the next bend, saw a strange cloud and abruptly left in a dive. With this maneuver, the pilot was able to save his life and break away from the S-75 missile. Unfortunately, Sergei Safronov's plane was still overtaken by the air defense systems of his native state, and the pilot died.
American Francis Powers ended up in the hands of the law enforcement agencies of the USSR and was convicted, then he was returned to his homeland. A few years later, the pilot died during the flight, taking the faulty car away from the baseball field, and fell outside the city. By doing this, he saved dozens of lives of the townspeople. And the American intelligence services, after the interception of Powers, stopped using the Lockheed U-2 for reconnaissance, giving priority to satellite systems.
Do you want to know how the airspace of half of European countries was flown by a plane without a pilot? Then read: Soviet "drone": how the MiG-23 flew through half of Europe without a pilot in the cockpit