US Spy Satellites Took Pictures of the Soviets in the 1960s. How Did the Film Get Back to Earth?
The briefing took place at 7:00 a.m., and two hours later a Fairchild C-119J Flying Boxcar with the call sign Pelican 9 lifted off from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. It was August 19, 1960, and Pelican 9 was on its way to make a historic rendezvous.
Piloting the twin-engine cargo airplane was Captain Harold Mitchell. In World War II Mitchell had served as a bombardier and gunner on Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and later flew transports for the Berlin Air Lift. During the Korean War, Mitchell flew C-119s and Douglas C-47s on combat drops of airborne troops at the Chosin Reservoir, as well as resupply, medevac and logistics missions.
Pelican 9’s copilot was Captain Richmond Apaka, who had graduated from the University of Hawaii before joining the Air Force. Also onboard were a winch operator, four loadmasters (two on each side of the fuselage), a photographer, navigator and flight engineer. They belonged to Test Squadron 6593 (Special), under the direction of the 6594th Test Group.
Pelican 9 flew to its assigned patrol area over the Pacific Ocean 300 miles southwest of Hickam. Shortly before 1:00 p.m., a capsule separated from a satellite in orbit high above. Before long Pelican 9 detected a signal from a descending object about 4,000 feet overhead, and then the crew spotted an orange and silver parachute. Dangling beneath it was a gold capsule—“the shape and size of a kettle drum gleaming in the sun,” as Mitchell described it. Mitchell slowed the aircraft to 120 knots and made a first pass as his boom operators tried to snag the target. They narrowly missed the capsule on the first two attempts, but the third time proved the charm, and the crew captured the parachute and its capsule at 8,500 feet. Chief pole operator SSgt. Algaene Harmon got on the intercom. “Good hit, Captain, we’ve got her in tow,” he said. The crew reeled in the metal canister, which was still black with soot from the retrorockets. Once they had it on board, they locked the capsule and its classified payload into a canister and turned back to Hickam.
Pelican 9 had made the first aerial capture of an object from space. The capsule contained photographs of the Soviet Union taken by a spy satellite of Project Corona, a top-secret and high priority program for the American defense establishment. Corona combined what was then state-of-the-art satellite technology with a decidedly lower-tech recovery process—a propellor- driven cargo airplane using hooks to snatch the capsule out of the air.
The C-119 Flying Boxcar that recovered the photos traced its origins to Sherman Fairchild (1896-1971), an aviation innovator, entrepreneur and 1979 inductee into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. One of his ventures was the Fairchild Aviation Corporation, the aerospace concern that built the twin- engine C-82 Packet, designed to replace cargo aircraft such as the Douglas C-47.
Air Force illustrations show how the C-119 crew accomplished the feat of snagging a satellite capsule from the air.
Fairchild Aviation later developed the C-119 as an improved version of the C-82. First flown in 1947, the C-119 had two 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone 3350 engines, similar to those used on aircraft such as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The C-119 had a wingspan of 109 feet and was 87 feet long. Early model C-119s had a “clamshell” tail design that opened outward at the aircraft’s rear between and below its twin booms; the later C-119Js had a “beaver tail” that lifted out from the fuselage, an ideal feature for retrieving satellites. As its name attests, the Flying Boxcar wasn’t glamorous, but it served well in any number of roles in the 1950s, including dropping prefabricated bridge sections to Marines fighting in North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir; transporting French paratroopers and delivering supplies to French troops at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam; and carrying materials to build the Distant Early Warning line across Alaska and Canada. By the time production ended in 1955, almost 1,200 C-119s had been built.
Boxcar pilot and historian Wendell Cosner noted that the airplane had drawbacks. For one thing, the amount of cockpit glass could create greenhouse conditions on warm days. Cosner also said the C-119 was “damn heavy” on the controls, since there were no power boosts for the control surfaces. Other pilots disparaged the C-119 as “thousands of rivets flying in loose formation” and listed numerous mechanical problems, but maintenance crews worked long and hard to keep the aircraft flying. Pelican 9’s Mitchell thought his C-119J, No. 18037, eventually became “an excellent airplane,” but admitted it was “a junk heap” when he first started flying it. “I think I had something like 30 write- ups on it, hydraulic and gas leaks,” he said.
As the Cold War escalated after World War II, U.S. intelligence agencies struggled to learn the true extent of Soviet military capabilities. In 1949 the Soviets detonated a nuclear device, sending shock waves through the U.S. military and political leadership and increasing demands for better ways to monitor the nation’s main adversary. The demands became more insistent after the Soviets began attacking American reconnaissance airplanes that neared their borders, shooting down several.
Project Genetrix, a program approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, explored one method of monitoring the Soviet Union from above—with camera-equipped balloons (see sidebar, previous page). Throughout the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. military searched for other ways to determine the number and location of Soviet aircraft and missiles. The Research and Development (RAND) Corporation had already started contemplating the use of orbiting satellites for photographic espionage; in 1946 RAND had even issued a report called “Preliminary Design for a World-Circling Spaceship.” That vision came closer to reality in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit. The Soviet success increased the urgency for intelligence gathering.
Created in 1958, the CIA-led Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) received responsibility for conducting military-related space projects with Air Force support. One goal was to develop a reconnaissance satellite that could photograph the Soviet Union and other Communist countries from space, and then return the film to earth in a capsule (since the technology to download image data did not yet exist). This provided the essence of Project Corona. Approved by Eisenhower in 1958, the program had public and secret faces. For public consumption, the satellites were called Discoverer and their cover story was that they would study conditions outside the atmosphere and develop new spaceflight technologies, including recovery techniques. The real goals of the program remained secret.
With the capsule secured in a container, the crew of Pelican 9 prepare to unload it after returning to Hickam Air Force Base.
James Plummer of Lockheed’s Missile and Space Division became Corona’s program manager. Plummer modeled his team after the Skunk Works, Lockheed Aircraft’s research and development arm that had developed the U-2 spy plane, among many other aircraft. Lockheed would build the orbiting space vehicle. Other major contractors were General Electric (recovery vehicle), Eastman Kodak (film), Fairchild Camera and Instrument (another company founded by Sherman Fairchild, for cameras), and All American Engineering (recovery equipment and classroom training on aerial recovery techniques).
Corona’s many challenges included developing cameras that could function in the vacuum and extreme conditions of space, 100 miles or more above the earth’s surface. Each camera required a three-axis stabilizing system to take clear images even as the satellite was moving at 16,000 mph around a rotating earth. Imaging resolution, the ground size equivalent of the smallest visible view, was originally about 25 feet, but improved over time to six feet. A successful mission would conclude with a capsule physically returning exposed film to earth while protecting the top-secret cargo from the extreme temperatures of reentry.
Corona missions began lifting off from California’s Vandenberg AFB beginning in February 1959. The first 12 failed, either through launch pad misfires, failure to achieve orbit or poor camera operation. A lack of telemetry data made troubleshooting difficult. Parachutes created their own difficulties, as early versions proved unstable and had a too-fast descent rate. Corona and Lockheed engineers redesigned the parachutes, reducing the sink rate from 33 to 20 feet per second.
CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell met with a frustrated Eisenhower to explain what may have caused the failures. Some in the CIA and the Defense Department wanted to cancel the project, but the president remained committed. Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spyplane had been shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, and Eisenhower wanted to avoid another incident. Satellites also had the potential to survey much more of the Soviet Union than the U-2 could, another factor that likely motivated the president’s ongoing support for Corona.
Through the perseverance of the project team, Corona began to turn around. In August 1960, Discoverer 13’s capsule was successfully retrieved from the Pacific Ocean’s surface. The mission was a test flight that did not include cameras, but the achievement was still significant as the first time an object flown into space had been recovered. However, Mitchell and his crew in the retrieval C-119 had not been able to intercept the capsule before it hit the water.
The first image taken by Discoverer 14 photographed the Mys Shmidta airfield in the Soviet Union. The long white object in the center of the image is the runway and the smaller object is the field’s apron.
Discoverer 14 was launched from Vandenberg aboard a Thor-Agena A launch vehicle on August 18, 1960. The second-stage Agena vehicle separated from the booster as planned and reached orbit. Over the course of 17 circuits around the planet, the Corona camera operated perfectly, taking 3,000 feet of film that covered 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory. The only thing remaining was to get the exposed film back to earth and into the hands of intelligence analysts.
Corona’s planners had decided to use the C-119Js that had proven their worth on Project Genetrix, although making the rendezvous remained challenging. The satellites dropped their capsules from an orbit of 550,000 feet or higher. After the capsule entered the atmosphere, the parachute separated from its heat shield and a drogue chute deployed, followed by the main chute at about 60,000 feet. Ideally, the C-119 would be in position to capture the capsule and film between 12,000 and 15,000 feet over the ocean.
Once airborne, crews worked relentlessly, dealing with the slipstream, engine noise and recovery gear, often at altitudes over 10,000 feet in an unpressurized aircraft. Crewmen could use oxygen hoses on the side of the cargo compartment. For safety, crew working at the aircraft’s rear wore parachutes and inflatable life jackets and could use a D-ring on their parachutes to hook themselves to a metal cable. Knives were available to cut the capsule’s parachute risers if they became entangled.
Aircraft such as RC-121Ds (a military variant of the Lockheed Constellation) served as aerial command posts. These aircraft had homing equipment to help the retrieval aircraft locate the parachute. Once the C-119 had a visual, the pilot would fly past the capsule—which was falling at about 1,500 to 2,000 feet per minute—circle back and time his flight path with the descending parachute’s trajectory. Ideally, at capture the parachute’s top would be about six feet below the aircraft. The recovery equipment included hydraulically operated actuators that raised and lowered two 34-foot poles, a recovery line with eight hooks to catch the parachute, and a winch to pull the capsule to the aircraft. A trough held nylon lines that were deployed for the recovery. A “guillotine” could fire a pyrotechnic charge to cut the lines in an emergency. Loadmasters in the aircraft’s rear waited for visual sighting of the parachute canopy and listened for the noise of impact and payout of line from the cable trough. Once winched aboard, capsules were often still warm to the touch from the heat of reentry.
As a backup, Navy ships patrolled the expected landing area, with helicopters and divers ready if the aircraft failed to catch the capsule. In the event of a water landing, capsules could float for several days before a saltwater plug dissolved, sinking the container and ending the risk of a Soviet pickup.
Few personnel on Corona recovery missions knew the exact nature of the
recovered payload; information was shared on a need-to-know basis. Navigators
came mainly from Military Airlift Command with extensive over-water navigation
experience. Some enlisted men, such as Airman 2nd Class Daniel Hill of Pelican
9, were assigned to Corona because they had experience with Genetrix.
“To see a live Discoverer payload from space descending towards you on a brilliant parachute was every aircrew’s dream from day one,” Hill said later. Pilot Mitchell had also cut his teeth with Project Genetrix.
After Pelican 9 made its successful recovery of the Discoverer 14 capsule, Mitchell felt “vindicated” after the unsuccessful attempt to snare Discoverer 13. He descended from the flight deck to shake hands with the crew and congratulate them on their work. Winch operator Tech. Sgt. Louis Bannick handed Mitchell a piece he had torn from the parachute. “For you, captain,” he said. “They will never miss it.” Once back at Hickam, the film went to Eastman Kodak for processing and then the images were sent to intelligence agencies, where photo interpreters were “jubilant” and pronounced the photos “stupendous.” Mitchell received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission; the others on Pelican 9 received the Air Medal. In addition, the 6593rd Squadron won the 1960 Mackay Trophy as a Unit Award.
After Discoverer 14’s success, the Pelican 9 crew embarked on a publicity tour, with the satellite’s spy mission masked by a cover story that it was only conducting scientific research. Here crew-member Daniel Hill points out details of the capsule to some local luminaries.
The mission, with the science cover story intact, received plentiful media coverage. In one interview, Mitchell modestly described flying the missions as “easy,” but enlisted personnel such as Sgts. Charles Dorigan and Richard Bell thought otherwise, noting the precise flying skills required to reach the capsule without hitting it. Mitchell, 1st Lt. Robert Counts and Bannick traveled to New York City to tape an interview with Dave Garroway for the “Today Show.” All airmen were invited to a formal dinner in Washington, D.C., hosted by Lt. Gen. Bernard Schriever of the Air Research and Development Command.
The C-119s were not around to share the limelight. No matter how well maintained, the twin-engine C-119Js were not ideal for over-water operations, and the military opted to phase them out in favor of Lockheed’s four-engine JC-130 Hercules. The Hercules started flying Corona missions in June 1961, using the same basic catch and retrieval process, although with upgraded recovery systems and electronics.
The satellite programs remained a huge boost to the U.S. intelligence community, with 153 film canisters retrieved between 1960 and May 1972. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked, “Because of satellites, I know how many missiles the enemy has, and I can sleep comfortably at night.”
The program concluded in 1972 when the military introduced other airborne surveillance programs such as “Hexagon” and “Gambit.” After President Bill Clinton declassified Corona in 1995, records indicated that the program took about 800,000 photos. Air Force magazine commented that program photos showed “all of the Soviet missile complexes, each class of Soviet submarine, a complete inventory of fighters and bombers, the presence of Soviet missiles in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal, Soviet nuclear assistance in China, antiballistic missile defense inside the Soviet Union, atomic weapons storage sites, Chinese missile complexes, air defense batteries, surface ship fleets, command-and-control facilities, and the Plesetsk Missile Test Range north of Moscow.” Corona missions also surveilled and captured films of Communist China’s preparations for its first nuclear test in 1964 and North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile sites during the Vietnam War. In a paper for Studies in Intelligence , Kenneth Greer noted that “the totality of Corona’s contributions to U.S. intelligence holdings on denied areas and to the U.S. space program in general is virtually unmeasurable.”
Mitchell flew 117 missions in Vietnam and retired in 1974 as a lieutenant colonel. His C-119J and parts of the Discoverer 14 capsule are at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, Ohio.