Before there was the U-2, there was the RB-29 and the RB-47.
RB-47 spy plane
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, Europe lay devastated, with most of her cities ravaged by battle and bombing raids. Although the Soviet Union, allied with Great Britain and the United States, had suffered horribly during years of Nazi invasion, by the end of the war the USSR had rebuilt much of its industry and by the time of the German surrender the Russians had a massive well-armed and battle-hardened army.
As the Soviets seized military and political control in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, turning them into a series of satellite states, the United States and Britain could see that a new Cold War had begun. It was, the Americans believed, only their monopoly in nuclear weapons that was preventing the Russians from sweeping their army across Europe and dominating the entire continent.
But in 1949, the Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb of their own, and the American nuclear monopoly was over. A year later, the Russian client state of North Korea invaded its southern neighbor. It looked as if a nuclear World War III was imminent, and the world held its breath.
In the United States, plans were being made to prepare for the possibility of an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But there was a problem—the US Air Force knew virtually nothing about the USSR. To plan its nuclear strikes, the Pentagon needed to know where the Soviet targets and defenses were—its radars, airbases, and fighter interceptors—and it had none of that information. And so, in 1949, the Air Force began a highly-classified program of intelligence-gathering flights.
The first of these were known as “ferret missions”, with the goal of gathering SIGINT (signals intelligence) and ELINT (electronics intelligence). Forbidden by State Department orders from approaching closer than 40 miles, these flights were made by modified radio-interception versions of the WW2 B-29 Superfortress bomber, designated the RB-29. Later, the task was taken up by the postwar replacement known as the RB-50. The Navy, meanwhile, had a similar program of its own using the PB4Y coastal patrol bomber, the Navy’s version of the wartime B-24. These Air Force and Navy bombers, packed with radio equipment, would circle around near the Soviet border, hoping to intercept the electronic signals and radio frequencies that would tell the operators where the Russians had placed their radar stations, airfields, anti-aircraft missile batteries, and other facilities. It was a ferret mission which gathered air samples and confirmed the first Russian atomic explosion in 1949.
The Soviets protested vigorously against these flights, and in one incident, in October 1949, Russian fighters intercepted an RB-29 over the Sea of Japan and shot at it, but were not able to inflict any damage. The first casualties in what would turn into a long series of secret air combats took place on April 8, 1950, when four Soviet Lavochkin La-11 fighter planes attacked a Navy PB4Y ferret off the coast of Latvia and shot it down. All ten American crew members were killed.
But it soon became apparent that the ferret flights would not be enough. The Soviets now not only had atomic bombs of their own, but had also begun producing the Tu-4 bomber, a virtual copy of the American B-29, to deliver it—and were already working on their own jet bomber designs. From Russian bases near Alaska and Finland, Tu-4s were capable of reaching target cities inside the US. To really get a good idea of what was happening inside the USSR—and especially to know if there were Russian bombers poised to attack the US—the Americans needed to see for themselves. So in December 1950, the Air Force obtained permission from President Harry S Truman to begin secret overflights into Soviet territory using photo reconnaissance aircraft. The first of these were made with RB-29s and RB-50s, but with the appearance of the Russian MiG-15 jet fighter, these planes became vulnerable to interception and a new alternative was needed. Several early overflights, over Vladivostok and the Kurile Islands in Siberia, were made with photo-equipped American RF-80 jet fighters. Other flights were made with American-made versions of the British B-57 Canberra jet bomber.
But for better reconnaissance results, what was really needed was something bigger, higher, and faster that could carry more photographic cameras. The plane that was chosen for the task was one of the newest in the Air Force’s arsenal. The B-47 Stratojet was the first American all-jet long-range bomber. Designed for in-air refueling to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in Russia, the reconnaissance version of the B-47, known as the RB-47, carried a package of cameras in the nose which could take high-resolution photos from altitudes that current Soviet air defenses could not reach. The initial reconnaissance flights were planned to take off from a SAC base in Alaska and photograph potential airfield sites in eastern Siberia.
As it turned out, the RB-47 selected for the mission had an accidental fire and was damaged. So the first missions were instead carried out by three RB-45 airplanes, in British RAF markings, that took off from England and overflew the Baltic states. Soon a number of RB-45s were also in Japan, flying over Soviet Siberia. They quickly got into trouble. An RB-45 was shot down by MiGs in December 1950, and two more were damaged by Russian fighters in April and November 1951. The RB-45s were withdrawn and went back to England, where they began flights over the Baltics, Murmansk, and the Kola Peninsula near Finland.
At the same time, the US Air Force made plans for Project 52 AFR-18, a flight by two RB-47s that would take off from Alaska and fly over Vladivostok, Kamchatka and Wrangel Island in Siberia before landing back in the US. Although the planes were chased by Russian interceptors, the MiGs could not keep up with the RB-47s at their altitude, and the Americans got away safely.
The new President, Dwight Eisenhower, was impressed with the success of the photo overflights, and authorized a new series of RB-47 missions code-named “Project Home Run”. In particular, the Air Force was worried by the new Russian strategic bomber, a large jet designated the “Bison” that was capable of delivering nuclear weapons to targets in the US, and the goal of Home Run was to take off from England and explore the area around the Kola Peninsula near Finland, and around Wrangel Island in Siberia, to see if there were any Bisons based at airfields there.
The first Home Run mission was in April 1954, and although the bomber was intercepted and damaged by MiGs, it managed to return. When Finnish newspapers reported on the aerial fight, the US denied everything and declared that it had no aircraft in the area. RB-47s from England continued to run missions over the USSR. In March 1956, another series of Home Run missions were begun by a group of RB-47s based in Thule, Greenland.
By 1967, the RB-47s were withdrawn and the aerial reconnaissance mission fell to the Lockheed U-2, and then to the SR-71 Blackbird.
In all around 160 missions had been flown over Soviet territory under Project Home Run, and dozens more were carried out by the Navy and by other Air Force programs such as Heart Throb and Sharp Cut. At the height of the Cold War between 1947 and 1967, at least 24 American reconnaissance planes, both Air Force and Navy, were attacked in or near Russian airspace by Soviet fighters, with 10 of these being shot down. Around 100 crewmen were killed: a handful parachuted to safety and were captured by the Russians and held briefly before being released.
Until recently, the existence of Project Home Run and the other overflight programs was highly classified. Even the families of the airmen who were shot down and killed over Soviet territory were not told how or where their loved ones had died (they were told the deaths were due to “training accidents”). It wasn’t until 1992 that some of the information finally began to be declassified and released.