The Black Cats of Osan: U-2 Spy Plane Escapades and Calamities in Korea

  • Published
  • By Rick Bishop

The Black Cats of Osan: U-2 Spy Plane Escapades and Calamities in Korea by Rick Bishop. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 225 pp.

The Black Cats of Osan provides a behind-the-scenes look at life in a U-2 operational detachment (Det) tasked with flying nationally sensitive, high-altitude reconnaissance missions at the edge of space. The book is a first-person historical account of the author’s experience during his time in the U-2 brotherhood. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Bishop was qualified as an evaluator pilot with notable assignments as the director of operations of the Black Cat Det in South Korea as well as the commander of the U-2 operations squadron at Beale Air Force Base, California. His experiences as a Black Cat provide a level of detail into the inner workings of these highly skilled operators seldom seen by those outside of the community.

Bishop argues that the Black Cats were a selectively manned group of pilots, physiological support troops, maintainers, civilian factory technical representatives, and administrative personnel “whose motivation and talents could overcome any challenge” (210). He primarily relies on his own retelling of the events he witnessed as well as personal interviews to back up his claim.

The author’s evidence generally supports his assertion of the high motivation and talent among the varying support personnel, but he provides inconsistent attention between career fields. The maintainers receive significant focus with regards to their skill in improvisation. The most notable example of this occurs on one Christmas Eve, when the maintenance team succeeds by banding together and manually pushing a U‑2 into launch position after its notoriously difficult taxiing system was overwhelmed in attempting to make turns on the ice-covered airfield and runway.

The physiological support division technicians receive an equally robust treatment, but in this case with respect to their training and expertise in their craft of maintaining the full‑pressure spacesuits that keep U-2 pilots alive during their missions to the stratosphere. Bishop mentions the remainder of the support personnel regarding their impact on operations, but only in passing.

The bulk of the author’s evidence focuses on highlighting the pilots’ skill and dedication to mission accomplishment. Bishop emphasizes the talent required to fly “the most dangerous operational aircraft in existence” (6) and the U-2 program’s hiring and interview process which eliminated “all but about fifteen percent of the [applicants]” (5). He then goes on to describe various events experienced by the Black Cats throughout the years, spanning natural disasters, aircraft malfunctions, and other crises that put the team to the test, all of which were lauded as being expertly handled by the Black Cat pilots. Significantly, malfunctions caused two ejections and a runway departure, resulting in the detachment facing three accident investigations in a single year. Yet the team still managed to achieve a 98.9 percent mission-completion rate, which perfectly emphasizes the Black Cats’ ability to produce results despite unpredictable challenges.

The Black Cats of Osan pleasantly reads like a rallying cry for the importance of culture to further Bishop’s claim that motivation was a driving force behind mission accomplishment. A surprisingly large portion of the book is dedicated to describing the community, morale events, and pranks the Black Cat team pulled on one another. These pranks, called “pimps” and “frags” at the time, brought about a sense of camaraderie that the author feels is lacking in much of today’s armed forces. As Bishop noted of one particular prank, “the entire Det was deeply involved in its execution and therefore [it] brought us closer together, if that was indeed possible” (172). Further, he goes to great lengths to describe the antics of the Det in securing its namesake black cat mascot and the significant role its presence played in the culture throughout the years. Bishop describes a past era in which hijinks and socializing appeared more common among the force, and he shines at showing how their parties, gatherings, and pranks turned a group of individuals into a single Black Cat team focused on a common goal.

The Black Cats of Osan is not intended to be an academic work, but rather a “first-person testimony” of and “tribute” to the Black Cats of Det 2 (x). It lacks the scholarly rigor that would place the book in an entirely different genre. Still, a well-researched background of the geopolitical context would have provided greater depth for the reader. Further, these U-2 missions may soon be (or perhaps already are) declassified, and the author might have correlated his personal recollection to real-world results. Finally, the book also reveals Bishop’s own biases; he does not hold back his opinion that mission accomplishment is the priority backed by talent and motivation as per his thesis. The rules take a back seat for Bishop.

For example, he discusses two types of leaders: those who abided by regulations and those who enjoyed “having fun running the Det at highly efficient levels, sometimes despite regulations.” Of the latter, he adds, “Naturally, the esprit de corps usually soared under this type of boss” (115). Skirting the rules resulted in some of Bishop’s success stories, which today’s safety culture would label as examples of what not to do. In one instance, he describes his attempt to land with bad winds: “Kunsan, while merely a half-hour away, was another alternate although a logistical nightmare for the Det. However, [Kunsan] was clear as a bell . . . [but] I was determined to get on the ground [at Osan] if at all possible” (159). While he managed to land, he admitted to running out of rudder control due to winds—which is why the wind limit exists—and that he had to drag his wingtip skid on the ground to avoid departing the runway. Today this would be a textbook case of what risk management training calls “get-home-itis.”1

Bishop means to highlight that holding people to a high standard and then trusting their judgment—and not just the rules—leads to mission success. Yet without acknowledging changes in culture that have occurred over the years, these stories risk deterring the modern reader from finding the value of the message that lies within the pages of The Black Cats.

With military operations becoming more standardized and routine over time, The Black Cats of Osan provides a valuable insight into the unique experience of U-2 operations and factors that enabled these individuals to accomplish their mission at such a high rate in the face of unpredictable events. Their strict standard of excellence and cohesive culture offers valuable data points to anyone looking for insights into how to succeed, and Bishop’s depiction of culture in relation to mission accomplishment provides a fascinating opportunity for leadership and teamwork discussions regarding values and priorities.

Additionally, this reading feels especially prescient in the advent of agile combat employment, which will invariably require a commander to consider new—or rediscover old—ideas to ensure mission success. The Black Cats of Osan does not provide leaders with any prescriptive answers to their problems, but it definitely offers a perspective which may help leaders see their problems in a new light.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan T. Grayson, USAF

1 US Department of Transportation (DoT), Federal Aviation Administration, Aviation Instructor’s Handbook, FAA-H-8083-9 (Washington, DC: DoT, 2020), 1-6, https://www.faa.gov/.

"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."