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Spying from the Sky: At the Controls of US Cold War Aerial Intelligence

Spying from the Sky: At the Controls of US Cold War Aerial Intelligence by Robert L. Richardson. Casemate, 2020, 301 pp.

Spying from the Sky is the story of the military career of Col William Gregory, USAF, with much of it told in his own words. It is also the story of the post-Korean War USAF and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) development of the national high-altitude strategic reconnaissance program.

Born in poverty in rural Tennessee, Gregory learned to fly in the pre–World War II Civilian Pilot Training Program while attending college. Joining the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in 1942, he was a P-38 fighter pilot in the Italian theatre with three victories. He left the USAAF following the war but stayed in the Reserve, flying weekends at nearby Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, while finishing his degree and starting a civilian career.

Recalled during the Korean War, he transitioned to flying B-29s. He was offered a chance to stay in the USAF after the war and accepted without discussing it with his wife. She would later discover this at the Barksdale AFB Officers Club’s party, leading to a sore point in their marriage for quite some time.

While flying B-47s, Gregory earned a chance to fly in the United States’ first high-altitude program, Project Black Knight. This program used modified B-57s for high-altitude reconnaissance. The aircraft consisted of the RB-57-D-0 that performed photographic reconnaissance (13 aircraft), one RB-57-D-1 for radar mapping, and six RB-57-D-2s for electronic intelligence. The RB-57-D-1 had only one pilot, but various configurations within the other two aircraft had two-man crews (pilot and electronic countermeasures officer) and in-flight refueling capability. These aircraft had a wingspan of 106 feet, twice the wingspan of a B-57. Equipped with the new 10,000-pound-thrust J57 engines with a ceiling of 70,000 feet, they were considered an “overpowered glider.”

The RB-57-D-0 had technical problems with its cameras at high altitude and never met the program requirements; eventually, it was discontinued. Gregory was lucky he was not assigned to that program as originally planned, instead assigned to the RB-57-D-2 program where he became the project officer for Operation Blue Tail Fly, a detachment OIC, and later the commander of the 4025th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron at Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, Texas.

Gregory’s success as a squadron commander and his performance on deployments, such as Operations Border Town and Sand Shark, led him to be chosen to fly the U-2. The early days of the CIA’s U-2 program are discussed as well as the shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers.

Assigned as commander, Detachment G, Edwards AFB (North), California, Gregory worked closely with the CIA and guided the detachment through a number of projects and deployments—this included the Cuban missile crisis (he received a personally signed letter from President John F. Kennedy), Vietnam, Thailand, South America, India, and, most interesting of all, taking off and landing the U-2 from an aircraft carrier (Project Whale Tale). That included a successful carrier-borne deployment of U-2s to obtain atmospheric readings following nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific by France. All deployments are further discussed in the book.

After several years with Detachment G, Gregory was offered a chance to become involved with the CIA’s Mach 3+ A-12 Archangel program. He declined, having spent so much time away from his family, as the job would mean even more time away. He believes that refusing that assignment likely cost him a star.

From Detachment G, he attended the National War College followed by an assignment in the Pentagon on the Air Staff in the Directorate of Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development. In 1971, he became the chief of staff, Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Gregory retired in 1975 and moved to Austin, Texas, where he had a successful career as the Texas Workers’ Compensation Division assistant director. He retired from that position in 1990, and he turned 100 in August 2020.

Spying from the Sky is an interesting read about an Airman’s life in the USAF, spent mostly in strategic reconnaissance from World War II to the 1970s. It is also an excellent history of USAF and CIA strategic reconnaissance in the 1950s and 1960s. I highly recommend this book.

LCDR Joseph A. Derie, USCG, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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