Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
Colonel Merryl Tengesdal flew helicopters in the US Navy before transferring to the US Air Force to become the first (and so far, only) African American woman to fly the U-2. She tells us the fascinating story of her career, what it’s like to fly an aircraft on the edge of space, and drops some inspirational advice along the way.
Merryl Tengesdal, a military veteran, aviator, and commander who served in the United States Navy and the US Air Force, is an American retired career military officer who is the first and only African-American woman to fly the U-2 spy plane. Her final assignment before retirement was as Director of Inspections for The Air Force Inspector General from October 2015 through August 2017. Tengesdal is a veteran of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.
Header image: Tengesdal stood in front of a USAF Northrop T-38 Talon. (Source: Tengesdal Website)
T.D. Barnes, CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51. Danbury, CT: Begell House, 2021. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 590 pp. HBK.
Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins
Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019’s widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to ‘storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA’s activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.
From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird ‘family’ aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes’ work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.
This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA’s perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.
The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, ‘on the ground’ account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA’s efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.
As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books’ worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers.Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.
In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.
Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header image: A Lockheed M-21 carrying Lockheed D-21 drone in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here.
M. Abbott and J. Bamforth, ‘Determining the reasons for the failure of British aircraft manufacturers to invest in Australia’s industry, 1934–1941,’ Australian Economic History Review (2021). https://doi.org/10.1111/aehr.12235
The aim of the article is to identify the factors that prevented British aircraft manufacturers from investing in Australia in the second half of the 1930s, a period when rearmament was creating demand for aircraft. The article looks at several unsuccessful proposals by British manufacturers to establish factories in Australia to build aircraft in the late 1930s, with additional attention being given to one proposal in particular. There is evidence that the Australian Government favoured the creation of an Australian-owned industry building aircraft under licence to foreign manufacturers, and it was this factor that largely deterred British investors.
Marc J. Alsina, ‘Aviation for the People: Class and State Aviation in Perón’s “New Argentina,” 1946–55,’ Technology and Culture 63, no. 1 (2022).
This article investigates the culture and politics of aviation in mid-twentieth-century Argentina under Juan D. Perón’s populist government. For enthusiasts around the world, aviation seemed poised for the long-prophesized “Air Age” transformations. Most emphasized the middle-class or elite nature of this quintessentially modern industry and its customers. Recent aviation scholarship in Europe and the United States has thus focused on affluent passengers or aircraft owners as the consumers of aviation technology. But this article reveals that Peronist Argentina implemented a massive political aviation program aimed at elevating socioeconomic conditions for the working classes. State media show that the authorities harnessed aviation as a technopolitical tool to both represent and enact their vision for a “New Argentina” by providing “dignified” work for the lower classes.
Xiaoming Zhang, ‘High-Altitude Duel: The CIA’s U-2 Spy Plane Overflights and China’s Air Defense Force, 1961-1968,’ Journal of Military History 86, no. 1 (2022).
During the 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s U-2 spy planes, piloted by Chinese Nationalist airmen from Taiwan, flew routinely over the Chinese mainland monitoring the Chinese nuclear weapons program; the overflights also demonstrated Beijing’s military weakness and inability to control its airspace. In spite of having only a few Soviet-made surface-to-air missile systems, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was convinced that human factors, especially agility in strategy, operations, and tactics, could overcome a superior enemy. Although much remains secret, sources now available provide new insights into this secret Cold War history. Moreover, as the Chinese claimed themselves, these experiences remain valuable for China’s military response to war.
Kevin Wright, We Were Never There – Volume 2: CIA U-2 Asia and Worldwide Operations 1957-1974 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).
Devised by Kelly Johnson and operated by the CIA from 1956-74, the U-2 is the world’s most famous ‘spyplane.’ It flew at unprecedented altitudes and carried the most sophisticated sensors available, all in the greatest secrecy.
The second volume of We Were Never There concentrates on the period of operational missions mainly across Asia from 1957-74. The book utilises a large number of declassified documents to explore some of the remaining secrets of these missions.
The book starts by looking at some of the missions conducted by the CIA’s Detachment ‘C’ U-2s against key targets in the Soviet Far East up to Mayday 1960. It moves on to explore in detail the overflights of the Peoples Republic of China by Nationalist Chinese pilots in conjunction with the CIA. In particular, the study of Project TACKLE looks at efforts to gain intelligence on the PRC’s expansive nuclear programme from the early 1960s. This is supplemented with details of Taiwanese/CIA operations against North Korea and its Yongbon nuclear reactor. It presents target images and reveals detailed routes for many of these overflights that have not been publicly seen before.
Whilst the USAF took the lead in operations against Cuba, the book explores the earlier CIA missions against Cuba during the Bay of Pigs landings and the missile crisis. Another chapter explores the efforts to equip the U-2 for operations from US Navy aircraft carriers. Detachment G, based at Edwards AFB, had a worldwide contingency role, able to quickly deploy anywhere in the world. It undertook missions targets in Tibet, the PRC, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, British Guiana, Venezuela and elsewhere.
A section of the book examines the development of the U-2R, a major update of the original aircraft, making it larger and much more capable. Its handling characteristics and comparisons with the U-2C are explored with the help of interviews with two former USAF U-2 pilots who flew both models of the aircraft.
The final chapter looks at the return of the U-2 to Europe, in particular the UK, for training missions from the late 1960s. It covers details on operations over the middle east monitoring ceasefire arrangements between Israel and its neighbours in 1970 and 1973. It ends with the phasing out of Agency U-2 operations, the closure of projects TACKLE and JACKSON and an evaluation of the U-2’s contribution to aerial intelligence collection.
Bill Yenne, America’s Few: Marine Aces of the South Pacific (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).
America’s Few delves into the history of US Marine Corps aviation in World War II, following the feats of the Corps’ top-scoring aces in the skies over Guadalcanal. Marine Corps aviation began in 1915, functioning as a self-contained expeditionary force. During the interwar period, the support of USMC amphibious operations became a key element of Marine aviation doctrine, and the small force gradually grew. But in December 1941 came the rude awakening. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, heroic Marine aviators were battling the Japanese over Wake Island.
In the South Pacific, the aviators of the US Marine Corps came out of the shadows to establish themselves as an air force second to none. In the summer of 1942, when Allied airpower was cobbled together into a single unified entity – nicknamed ‘the Cactus Air Force’ – Marine Aviation dominated, and a Marine, Major General Roy Geiger, was its commander. Of the twelve Allied fighter squadrons that were part of the Cactus Air Force, eight were USMC squadrons. It was over Guadalcanal that Joe Foss emerged as a symbol of Marine aviation. As commander of VMF-121, he organized a group of fighter pilots that downed 72 enemy aircraft; Foss himself reached a score of 26. Pappy Boyington, meanwhile, had become a Marine aviator in 1935. Best known as the commander of VMF-214, he came into his own in late 1943 and eventually matched Foss’s aerial victory score.
Through the parallel stories of these two top-scoring fighter aces, as well as many other Marine aces, such as Ken Walsh (21 victories), Don Aldrich (20), John L. Smith (19), Wilbur Thomas (18.5), and Marion Carl (18.5), many of whom received the Medal of Honor, acclaimed aviation historian Bill Yenne examines the development of US Marine Corps aviation in the South Pacific.