Much like the mysterious and controversial Area 51 in Nevada, Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio is, historically, no stranger to military secrets and the development of top secret aircraft technologies. In the mid-1950s, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) recognized that Laughlin’s remote location allowed the military to conduct secret operations there. Along with Area 51, Laughlin AFB became an important partner in developing cutting-edge reconnaisance technologies for use against the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.
On April 1, 1957, SAC opened its strategic reconnaissance program in Del Rio with the RB-57, a bomber modified for spying at high-altitudes. All operations involving the RB-57 (a long-winged version of the B-57 jet bomber) were under heavy security and very little information ever leaked out about their early operations. The RB-57 aircraft were equipped with a camera with a 24-foot focal length from lense to aperature. They produced individual frames that were developed as large as 4’x6′ for CIA analysts to go over in great detail when looking for missile silos throughout Eastern Europe. The pilot and navigator who flew these missions never even got to view the film they shot. Upon landing a CIA employee would take the film before they even left their seats in their planes.
In April 1957, SAC introduced a new spy plane to Laughlin AFB – the highly classified U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane, which had been developed by Lockheed Skunk Works at Area 51. These planes flew high altitude reconnaissance missions over countries behind the Iron Curtain.
The Del Rio-based 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, which operated the U-2, was credited with obtaining the first pictures of the Soviet missile build-up in Cuba during October of 1962, beginning the “Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Experience what it was like to fly in a U-2 spy plane by watching the video below, prepared by BBC America:
Is it possible that the area around Del Rio was used by the military to test other unconventional aircraft in the 1950s? Interestingly, in 1955, USAF Reserve pilot Robert B. Willingham claims to have chased a very bright, star-like object that traveled in a “zig zag” pattern in the skies around Del Rio. The object later crashed just north of Del Rio. Willingham believes the object was not terrestrial, and he claims to have seen three “entities” inside the crashed ship that did not appear to be humans.
The following account of Del Rio’s involvement in the secret U-2 program is by Del Rio historian Doug Braudaway:
The 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing was moved to Laughlin April 1, 1957. The first six planes arrived on June 11. By August training flights were underway for High Altitude Air Sampling (HASP).
While there were some security violations, the U-2s and their missions were generally kept secret. Missions were often flown at night, and aircraft maintenance was done in secret. In 1960 Laughlin AFB was acknowledging the presence of U-2s as evidenced by a press release printed on May 5 after the shoot-down of a U-2 over the Soviet Union. Col. A.J. Bratton, the 4080th commander stated that none of the Laughlin U-2s were missing. President Eisenhower visited with pilots and saw the aircraft on October 24, 1960 while in Del Rio to sign documents starting the building of Amistad Dam and Reservoir. It was his first direct observation of the aircraft even though he knew of it well. Francis Gary Powers had been shot down during Operation Overflight over the Soviet Union earlier in the year, and Eisenhower was forced to admit the existence of the plane and the mission. The U-2s were publicly displayed for the first time on November 2, 1960 at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The U-2s were made public at Laughlin on May 14, 1961.
The U-2 mission at Laughlin, Operation Crowflight, included the sampling of air at high altitudes for radioactive materials. The Defense Atomic Support Agency was investigating the effects of nuclear detonations, concerned about increasing amounts of uranium and plutonium and other radioactive isotopes in the air. By figuring out how much material was in the high atmosphere, the Agency might be able to figure out how much could come down. And so beginning in October 1957 for seven years, the U-2s flew thousands of miles at altitudes between 50,000 and 70,000 feet, channeling air through special filters to collect the particles. The U-2s were also used by the Central Intelligence Agency for intelligence gathering.
The 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Laughlin played an important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“The CIA’s Detachment G staged missions from the SAC U-2 base at Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas. CIA photo-interpreters went to Del Rio to develop and review the photography after these missions. The two Kick Off flights, on 26 and 27 October 1960, were long missions, each covering 3,500 miles and lasting more than nine hours. Because of cloud cover over Cuba, the results of both missions were poor. The CIA accordingly asked the Special Group to approve additional missions. The Special Group granted authorization and Detachment G conducted three missions—Operation Green Eyes—on 27 November and 5 and 11 December 1960, all with good results. Overflights of Cuba continued after John F. Kennedy entered the White House….” The film images from 1961 and early 1962 showed new surface-to-air missile emplacements, coastal defense facilities, and radar stations.
On October 14, 1962 Major Richard S. Heyser, newly trained on the U-2C at Edwards AFB, took off from McCoy ARB and flew over Cuba. The films showed evidence of ballistic missile sites become developed. The next morning Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. shot photos of similar sites giving the U.S. government conclusive evidence of the introduction of Soviet long-range missiles into Cuba. Numerous other U-2 flights were ordered and carried out (in U-2A’s and U-2C’s). All of the flights were flown out of McCoy, except for one lone mission from Laughlin.
The rest of the story can be found in many history books. President Kennedy addressed the nation; the Ambassador to the United Nations made his presentation to the world. The U.S. Navy encircled the island of Cuba and put it under blockade. On October 24 Soviet freighters were stopped en route to Cuba. The Crisis was resolved by the Soviets’ removal of offensive missiles from Cuba and (secretly and a few months later) the American removal of offensive missiles in Turkey.
Only one American was killed by enemy action during the Crisis. However, Major Anderson was that casualty. During the morning of October 27, Anderson was flying a route over Cuba away from known surface-to-air missile sites; nevertheless, an SA-2 missile was launched at him and exploded, downing the plane and killing the pilot. “Anderson would be the only U.S. combat casualty of the missile crisis and his aircraft was the third in history to be downed by a SAM.”
The Del Rio newspaper reported news on the crisis in Cuba with front page headlines, but no mention of the pilots and aircraft was made until Anderson’s loss. In fact, the only pilots mentioned by name were Anderson and Heyser. “LAUGHLIN U2 PILOT MISSING ON RECON MISSION OVER CUBA” led the news on October 28 in bold, all-cap letters more than an inch high. The sub-headline continued: “Major Anderson reported lost.” He was listed as “missing in action” at that time with a note that “members of his family said, ‘We knew he was on a highly secret mission.’” Heyser was mentioned on October 31 as having been the U2 pilot who briefed the White House on the overflights of Cuba. He was mentioned again on November 4 under the headline “Major Rudolf Anderson’s Family Leaving Laughlin”: “Serving as military escort for the family will be Major Richard Heyser, the Laughlin reconnaissance pilot, who with Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, went to the White House to discuss the surveillance operation with the President of the United States.”
“Air Force U-2s continued overflights of Cuba without incident for a year after the missile crisis. Then, on 20 November 1963, another U-2 and its pilot[.] At about 11 a.m., Article 350 piloted by Captain Joe G. Hyde Jr. disappeared from U.S. radar screens.” Search found oil and wreckage; however, “No remains were recovered.” U-2 flights by the CIA ended in 1963, but the Air Force continued monitoring the Caribbean for many years.
The U-2s completed their mission at Laughlin on July 12, 1963 when the 4080th left for Davis-Mothan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona. At 10:30 a.m. the last of the aircraft lifted off from the runway, circled the town of Del Rio, “and vanished into the clouds.” Major Patrick J. Halloran was the pilot. From there 4080th began to fly missions over Vietnam as the hostilities there escalated. During the Wing’s time at Laughlin, “hundreds of medals were awarded to officers and men” including the posthumous award of the Distinguished Service Medal, “the highest decoration which can be presented outside of war time,” awarded to Major Anderson.