- Historic Sites
The Time Of The Angel
The U-2, Cuba, and the CIA
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
Eventually the difficulties were overcome. Angels started making long endurance flights to the Canadian border and back, to the Tennessee mountains and back. A training program was set up for pilots, both “blue suiters” (Air Force officers) and “the other guys” (men from the CIA). These pilots were an elite group. Candidates had to have a thousand hours of single-engine time even to be considered for the U-2 program. Of those accepted, many had problems with the special pressure suits they had to wear at high altitude. These garments were so precisely fitted that if a pilot gained or lost two pounds, his suit was useless. And the suit forced a pilot to breathe artificially; that is, he had to consciously suck in a breath—then the suit would force him to expel the air. Before they could fly the tricky U-2, the pilots spent hours in pressure chambers, learning to breath this way naturally and unconsciously. Some simply could not acquire the knack, and nerhans half the trainees washed out for this reason.
Even as the Angel was under construction and the pilots were being trained, other components necessary for a spy plane were being rushed to completion. Among the breakthroughs was a new Mylar-based film developed by Eastman Kodak. Hardly thicker than Saran Wrap, this film could be loaded into a compact aerial camera in enormous quantities. Another crucial component was a revolutionary new lens designed by Dr. James Baker, a Harvard astronomer. The resolving power, or sharpness, of a lens is measured by the number of lines it can distinguish per millimeter. World War II aerial lenses could resolve from twelve to fifteen lines. Baker’s new lens could distinguish from fifty to sixty lines. When mounted in a telephoto camera in an airplane flying at an altitude of about eight miles, the Baker lens could read the headlines on a newspaper lying on the ground. At thirteen miles, it could see an object the size of a sport jacket. Not only was this lens superior to anything that had existed before, but it could now be produced in quantity, and quickly. Previously, lenses had to be ground by hand-a laborious, slow process. But now, in the new electronics age, computers could take over the task of lens making.
Something else was needed: a new camera. With Dr. Edwin Land, the innovative head of Polaroid, functioning as a general catalyst, a series of camera designs were created by the Hycon Corporation, a California optical company. Chief among these was the “B-camera.” This rapid-fire machine swung its lens from side to side, producing strips of pictures that, when overlapped, formed a stereo image. Weighing 450 pounds, the camera was designed to fit snugly into the slender fuselage of the U-2.
There was still one more ingredient necessary for a completed spy system: someone had to make expert sense out of the enormous quantity of photographic intelligence that the U-2 would soon be bringing home. In 1953 the CIA had acquired just such an expert in Art Lundahl, a teacher of photo-interpretation from the University of Chicago. A friendly, ebullient man with boundless enthusiasm for his arcane craft, Lundahl had worked on the Bikini atom bomb tests, determining from photos the damage done to ships that were still too radioactive for close-up inspection. He was a master both of photo-interpretation—the qualitative art of identifying photographed objects—and photogrammetry-the quantitative art of determining their dimensions.
In Washington, Lundahl set up a small photo-intelligence unit, and in December, 1954, he got a cryptic phone call from Allen Dulles’ office, relieving him of all duties and telling him to report to the director immediately. He met with Dulles and Richard Bissell, who unveiled the plans for the U-2 and told Lundahl to establish a photo-interpretation shop capable of handling large quantities of film. He was to keep what he was doing an absolute secret—not even his immediate supervisor was to know what he was up to.
Lundahl set up his laboratory in the last place anyone would think to look—above-an auto repair shop in a seedy section of Southeast Washington. He and his team kicked their way through garbage to get to work and risked muggings on their way home, but they had plenty of room and a high degree of inconspicuousness. Lundahl foresaw the day when his lab would be able to provide an unprecedented amount and variety of information to suit any intelligence appetite, and so he gave his operation an appropriate code name: Automat.
Plane, film, lens, camera, interpretation-the greatest intelligence-gathering tool in history was now complete. From a height of thirteen miles the U-2 could photograph a swath of country 750 miles wide, about 150 miles of that in high-resolution stereo. Carrying twelve thousand feet of film in its magazines, the plane could scan a path from Washington to Phoenix in a single flight. And in just twelve missions, the inquisitive Angel could gather all significant information on a land mass the size of the United States.