Document created: 22 October 03
Air University Review, September-October 1973
William H. Greenhalgh, Jr.
The wish of every military leader for a view over the next hill is as old as military operations. A knowledge of what the opponent is doing, and where, is and always has been essential to military success. The commander with the highest hill or the best view of the battlefield has almost always been in the most advantageous position to outmaneuver his opponent. Forced by nature to travel slowly across the rough face of the earth, man could hardly be blamed for yearning to soar aloft with the birds, to swoop freely over that next hill and see vistas denied to earthbound man. The freedom of flight, the ease of soaring swiftly and unhindered over every obstacle, seemed to promise the ultimate relief from his restricted movements. Ancient mythology contains tales of man’s desire to emulate the birds and his pitiful efforts toward that end, but it was the late eighteenth century before he finally discovered that a paper or silk bag, filled from a source of heat, could lift him a short distance into the boundless sky. Man had finally achieved limited flight, but it was to be more than another century before he developed the airplane and with it the ability to soar like the birds: the power to direct his airborne vehicle wherever he chose to go, no longer at the mercy of the winds.
It was quite natural that one of the first uses for man’s newfound ability to soar aloft was military observation. The balloon provided, in effect, an easily movable hill, an observation point whose height and position could be rather quickly adjusted to particular field situations. Unfortunately, human eyes could see just so much, and human memory could retain only a portion of what was seen by the eyes, which placed certain limitations on the use of the balloon, and later the airplane, for aerial observation. There was a need for some way to record the scene, instantaneously and permanently, from the high observation point so it could be studied later at leisure and in detail.
It was fortuitous that, while some men were developing the balloon and the airplane, others were working to devise methods of permanently fixing the image obtained by the ancient camera obscura, thus developing the process of photography and inventing the equipment and material needed to make the process practical. The balloon was used to provide a high observation point for early cameras, but the relatively primitive nature of both and the inherent instability of the balloon precluded acceptable results. It was only after the airplane and the camera had both achieved considerable technical advances that aerial photography began to come of age.
Aerial reconnaissance, its birth and growth, has received far less attention from researchers and writers than the more glamorous fighter and bomber aviation, although the number of works on reconnaissance is increasing. Most, however, treat only small portions of the reconnaissance spectrum or concern only a particular time period or individual. When a new book with the sweeping title Aerial Photography comes along, it arouses expectancy and interest, as well as a hope that someone has finally told the whole story. Author Grover Heiman, a retired Air Force colonel and a reconnaissance specialist, is apparently well qualified for the task.*
*Grover Heiman, Aerial Photography: The Story of Aerial Mapping and Reconnaissance (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972, $5.95), 180 pages.
The almost parallel development of aerial vehicles and the camera provides many interesting accounts of man’s striving toward technological growth. Napoleon’s instinctive evaluation of the balloon as an asset in the control of artillery fire and in visual reconnaissance certainly is not unexpected in a man of his intellect. Probably the first to establish an air force, he successfully exploited the new movable observation post in several battles in Europe and took a balloon force to Egypt in that successful campaign in 1798. Other Frenchmen, notably Niepce and Daguerre, took the lead in fixing photographic images, giving France an obvious lead in the development of the camera and its application for military purposes. England and Germany were not far behind in either field, while the Americans used both balloons and the camera in the Civil War.
Finally, the development of the airplane provided the controlled flight needed for successful aerial reconnaissance and the stable platform so necessary to the use of cameras. The balloon squadrons of the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I wrote the final page to the use of gas bags for aerial observation, although there was some continuing development of lighter-than-air craft for reconnaissance and other purposes. It was the early flying machine, though, that sparked the imagination of man as an aerial scout, a fast and versatile replacement for the traditional cavalry patrols. When the U.S. 1st Aero Squadron chased Pancho Villa along the Mexican border in 1916, it really didn’t further the cause of reconnaissance to any great degree, primarily because of the obsolete aircraft flown by the intrepid pilots, but it did renew interest in the potential of the airplane as a scout for conventional ground forces. British and French airmen used cameras in their scout and observation aircraft early in World War I, adding a new and dependable method of collecting intelligence.
U.S. Army officers apparently were not at first impressed with aerial photography, but as the Air Service moved reconnaissance squadrons to France they were able to see at first hand the amount of intelligence discernible on a single aerial photograph, and their attitude changed. The first aerial cameras were operated by hardy observers from the open cockpits of such aircraft as the DH-4, Salmson, and Caudron, bringing back from each sortie a few plates containing intelligence that could have been procured in no other way.
When rapid advances in camera design produced heavier and more complicated equipment, it became necessary to fasten the cameras to the fuselage in some manner to produce either vertical or oblique photographs. Back in the United States, engineers of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Science and Research Division were instructed to design appropriate means of mounting aerial cameras internally, first in the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” and the Bristol Fighter, later in every type of tactical aircraft then in the inventory. Aware that such modifications generally produced less than optimum results, the engineers designed a special photographic aircraft, using readily available DH-4 components and a highly modified fuselage with a camera bay between the pilot and the photographer. The resultant DH-4P1, two of which were built, proved to be excessively tail-heavy, but it was possibly the first true photographic aircraft built for the Air Service. The end of the war and the predictable reduction in funds for the military brought the development of reconnaissance equipment almost to a standstill, and it wasn’t until the mid-twenties that the Army Air Corps began extensive aerial mapping with another modification of the DH-4, the DH-4M2. Progress between the wars was painfully slow.
It is unfortunate, however, that Heiman has given the strong impression that only one individual was responsible for all developmental work on aerial cameras and military reconnaissance in the interwar period. Brigadier General George W. Goddard certainly deserves great credit for his truly outstanding contributions to reconnaissance, but he was not alone. Albert W. Stevens, for example, a contemporary Army Air Corps officer who is barely mentioned by Heiman, pioneered many photographic processes and tested much of the camera equipment with which the Army Air Corps entered World War II. He rode balloons to new altitude records to test camera equipment at heights never before reached. Many others also contributed significantly to the growth of Air Corps reconnaissance, so it is regrettable that Heiman used General Goddard’s Overview as the basis for so much of his book. While there is certainly no intention to detract in any way from the General’s great achievements, he would probably be the first to acknowledge that he was not alone.
The outbreak of World War II found the reconnaissance forces of most nations obsolete and impoverished. Camera development had continued but slowly, principally for mapping purposes. The Army Air Corps had a few slow observation aircraft, designed primarily for artillery spotting and visual reconnaissance in support of ground units; but they were certain to fall victim to even the most obsolete enemy pursuit planes. The logical step was to modify either civilian aircraft or other types of military aircraft for reconnaissance, again a less than satisfactory solution. In 1940, for instance, the GHQ Air Force had one photo squadron with six flights scattered throughout the United States, each flight equipped with a single F-2A, a modified civilian Beechcraft twin-engine transport, and a few reconnaissance squadrons equipped largely with obsolete B-18 bombers. The B-17 had been first conceived as a long-range reconnaissance aircraft, but its primary role as a bomber soon caused its original role to be abandoned. The twin-boom P-38 Lightning became the F-4 and F-5 reconnaissance aircraft when cameras replaced its guns, and they earned a reputation as the reconnaissance workhorse in almost every theater during World War II. At one time or another practically every type of tactical aircraft was modified to carry one or more cameras.
It is again interesting that the author, a reconnaissance specialist, has fixed on the strip camera as one of the more outstanding aerial cameras of World War II. For certain limited purposes, such as beach coverage, the strip camera was probably the best tool, but it had definite limitations. In its single lens configuration it provided no stereo vision and thus no simple way to measure or even estimate heights; and when two lenses were mounted to provide stereo vision, lateral coverage was cut in half. It was popular for a time during World War II for special missions but was little used in Korea and rejected for use in Southeast Asia. Although some of its features have been incorporated into later cameras, it certainly was not the outstanding camera in use at any time.
After World War II, reconnaissance was again relegated to a rather subordinate position. Two efforts at developing special reconnaissance aircraft—the Hughes XF-11 and the Republic XF-12 Rainbow—failed to produce the desired results, so modification of existing aircraft continued to be the accepted course of action. The postwar mapping program in the Pacific used B-24s, B-17s, F-13s, F-6s, and even the old F-2s for aerial photography of vast areas of the earth’s surface, but a true tactical reconnaissance aircraft was still only the dream of a few. Even the slow P-61 Black Widow was modified into a highly unsatisfactory F-15 reconnaissance aircraft. The P-80 jet fighter became the RF-80 with some success, but with the outbreak of hostilities in Korea it was severely outclassed by enemy jet fighters. Even such hopefuls as the RB-45 could not survive in Korea except under the most ideal conditions, but a modification of the F-86, referred to as the “Honey Bucket” and several other unflattering names, carried out much of the reconnaissance over northern Korea and along the China border. Newer jet fighters were carefully evaluated for their reconnaissance potential until the F-101, a somewhat mediocre interceptor, became the RF-101, workhorse of the reconnaissance force. With the highly specialized and little publicized U-2, it kept tabs on the missile situation in Cuba during the crisis in the early sixties and was among the first aircraft to reconnoiter hostile positions in Southeast Asia.
Heiman’s coverage of the role of reconnaissance in the Cuban crisis is well done, providing a brief description of the equipment and techniques used, but he has only superficially covered reconnaissance in Southeast Asia. His description of many of the newer cameras used, however, is excellent, as is his discussion of the role and capabilities of the SR-71, Strategic Air Command’s latest strategic reconnaissance aircraft. It’s possible that the Southeast Asia conflict is too recent for good coverage, the security classification of many essential documents remaining too high for access to the facts. However, there is sufficient unclassified information available to put together a fairly comprehensive description of how reconnaissance cameras and sensors developed and contributed to the overall operation. The war virtually consumed the limited numbers of the RF-101, wearing out those that were not lost to hostile action. Its replacement, the RF-4, was again a modified F-4 fighter aircraft but a highly successful one. Flying in pairs during daylight and singly at night, the RF-101s and RF-4s penetrated every area of North Vietnam despite the rapid growth of hostile antiaircraft guns, SAM sites, and MIG squadrons. The war in Southeast Asia also brought new tools for reconnaissance—infrared and radar sensors, television, the laser—and new vehicles such as the SR-71 and the unmanned reconnaissance drones. Assisting the RF-101s and RF-4s were numbers of older types, including RT-28s, RB-26s, RB-66s, RB-57s, and even RC-47s.
In a final chapter Heiman discusses satellite reconnaissance, an area often hinted at but seldom discussed. The secrecy surrounding military satellite reconnaissance has prevented adequate discussion of the cameras and vehicles used and the results achieved, but the author has assembled the available data into a chapter that finally describes United States and Soviet efforts to use space for reconnaissance of the earth.
This book, part of Macmillan’s Air Force Academy Series, is interesting and pleasant reading, recommended for the younger reader in particular. It is most unfortunate, however, that the author, in borrowing from such other works as Overview, has sometimes misquoted and changed the meaning of the material. Certainly, if he had not wanted to use another author’s words, he should have avoided direct quotation, but once having decided to do so, he should have quoted accurately. Such careless use of printed sources can only open the work to suspicion and criticism, even though such a censorious approach might not be entirely warranted. It is an easy book to read, better enjoyed on a second reading. It does a generally commendable job of telling about the view over the next hill.
Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama
Lieutenant Colonel William H. Greenhalgh, Jr., USAF (Ret), (M.S., George Washington University) is a historian with the Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University. During World War II he served in the China-Burma-India Theater. Other assignments were in Alaska; Japan; Okinawa; South Vietnam as Deputy Director of Targets, Seventh Air Force; Air Defense Command as Director of Intelligence; and with Project Corona Harvest.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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