(Nov. 15, 1998)
INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN KNUTSON
INTERVIEWER: Martin, can I ask you the hardest one of all - can we have your
name and your title, for the programme?
MARTIN KNUTSON: My name is Martin Knutson, and I'm chief of flight operations at
NASA Haines Research Center.
INT: Thank you. Martin, can I ask you: what were you busy doing towards the
middle and the end of the Fifties?
MK: I was employed by the CIA as a U-2 pilot, doing over-flights of denied
INT: What was it like... Russia was the biggest enemy ever faced by the West -
what was it like to suddenly be asked to fly into Russia?
MK: I think that contemplating going into Russia was certainly, if I were to
think about it today, something I wouldn't even... it'd terrify me today. When
you're 26 years old and an ex-fighter pilot... (Overlap)
(Interruption. A bit of discussion re: answers.)
INT: Let me ask you that again, Martin: what was it like when you were... what
did you feel when you were asked to fly a plane into the middle of Russia?
MK: I was very excited about it. When you're 26 years old and a fighter pilot,
you really look upon it as a great challenge. (Overlap) I hope nobody would ask
me today. (Laughs)
INT: ... Can you wrap up... can you say, "When I was asked to..." What
was it like when you were asked to fly into Russia?
MK: When I was asked to take that job on a volunteer basis, I was really quite
excited about it. I'd been a fighter pilot for some years; it just looked like a
very challenging thing to do.
INT: Martin, can you tell me what happened to you as a lieutenant in the Air
MK: In 1955 I was asked by the CIA to volunteer for a programme, which later
turned out to be flying the U-2 over Russia. And I looked upon it as very
challenging, exciting; it was kind of like a fighter pilot's dream to go over
this huge alien country. It was very challenging.
INT: Was it frightening?
MK: I don't believe I was frightened at all at the time - remember I was only 26
years old then, probably not long on brains. (Laughs) But I think
"exciting" is a better word than frightening.
INT: Tell me, what was your mission?
INT: Sorry - let me rephrase that. What was the U-2?
MK: The U-2 was the first ever sustained high-altitude flight air plane, not
dissimilar to a powered glider; very ungainly-looking beast, long-winged, very
fragile; no redundant systems on it. The target was minimum weight. And that air
plane... the missions were flown successfully; and the amazing thing is that air
plane is still flying today, in modified versions.
INT: What was so special about it? Why was the U-2 capable of flying over
Russia, where no other planes were capable of it?
MK: The U-2 was the only air plane I know of that was capable of flying over
Russia, due to its extreme altitude capability. At that point in time, 1956-57,
late Fifties, there were no surface-to-air missiles capable of getting to those
altitudes, 65-70,000; certainly there were no fighters capable of that. I can
remember squadrons of fighters underneath the U-2 trying to reach up and knock
it down, and the U-2 was the only thing able to fly at those altitudes.
INT: So... the Russians knew you were there when you were flying, did the
Russians know you were there, flying over Russia?
MK: Going into this affair, we all believed, I would say, and going up to the
hierarchy in Washington, that the U-2 would not be seen and the Russians
wouldn't know we were there. That fallacy lasted until the first penetration of
denied territory. It turned out, in retrospect, the U-2 was really quite
invisible to American radar, but Russian radar were a little different - better,
you might say.
INT: So what happened when you were detected? What was the Russian response when
they saw you over-flying Russia?
MK: The Russian response was active fighter participation in trying to shoot the
air plane down. That continued for years, until we got into the missile age...
(Aircraft overhead. Inaudible talk. Cut.)
INT: So what was the Russian reaction when they detected the U-2 coming over?
MK: The Russian(s), of course, weren't happy with the penetration of their
territory by the U-2 aircraft, and they actively, for years, tried to pursue it,
shoot it down with fighters of various models. I'm told they also made
diplomatic protests to the United States. They were very embarrassed by this,
and therefore did not publicise that they knew about it; and in fact, I think
they even today would say that the U-2 was not penetrating deep into Russian
INT: How deep was the U-2 flying? Did you ever fly over any of the capital
MK: Yes. (Clears throat) The U-2 penetrated, over the years, to every Russian
capital city that I believe existed, starting missions over Leningrad, places
like that. One of the very earliest missions went right over Moscow. And as the
years progressed, just prior to the shooting down of Frank Powers, the targets
were more the cities on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains.
INT: Could you explain a little more to me what the U-2 actually did? There you
were, flying over Russia. What was your purpose once you got to the middle of
MK: Each U-2 flight had a plethora of specific targets that the pilot was shown
on a map at the last minute before take-off, with the exact track to fly. In the
earliest days, 1956, these targets generally were in the type of airfields, type
of aircraft on the airfields, trying to get a total count of the Soviet air
forces. As the years progressed, these targets became more various missiles,
intercontinental and surface-to-air missile sites.
INT: How important was the information that you were bringing back?
MK: The U-2 provided information that was probably the most important
intelligence coups that had ever been done by aerial reconnaissance, in my
estimation. It proved the fact that there was no bomber gap in the early
flights; and in the later years, late Fifties, it proved that there was no
missile gap as well, and this information was totally unobtainable by other
INT: Excellent answer. Can you talk me through 1957 specifically? I mean, one of
the photographs that you were involved in taking was the one over the Engels
airfield base. Can you just talk me through that particular mission - what you
saw and what you thought it meant, and your general feelings as you were doing
MK: In the earliest part of the programme, '57, again all the targets were
trying to determine the existence of a bomber gap. The belief in the United
States military was that the Russians had scads and scads of bombers, and in
fact we were building up our air defence forces in the United States to be able
to counteract that threat. One of the flights I was on, I came across the
so-called Engels airfield, and much to my surprise and joy it was loaded with
Bison bombers. I can't remember the exact count, but many, many; the entire
field was full of Bison bombers. I knew right then that I had found that there
was a bomber gap, that this had to be the most important picture ever taken by a
reconnaissance pilot. I kind of expected Congressional medals of honour when I
landed. However, it turned out that what I'd taken a picture of was not just a
portion of the entire Russian bomber fleet, but in fact I'd taken a picture of
the entire Russian fleet, and there really was no bomber gap; they were all on
that airfield at the same time.
INT: Excellent answer - terrific. Can I just go back... I know you didn't write
it, but in (unclear)'s book there's quite an eloquent description of what it was
like to fly a U-2 so far into Russia. Could you just give me a bit more of what
it was like to look down at Russia at 75,000 feet - what would you see in front
MK: In flying over Russia, I personally had... maybe two comments I could make.
First of all was this exhilarating feeling of "Here I am over the middle of
the Evil Empire." In those days, you know, we knew nothing about Russia -
we just knew, man, that was bad. And here I was, sitting over the middle of it,
after all theyears I had trained as a SAC fighter pilot to go on missions in the
event of nuclear war. Here I was - that's quite a f. It didn't last long,
though, in a U-2, because the little U-2 was the highest workload air plane I
believe ever designed and built, and your opportunities to carry on fleeting
thoughts in flight are very short-lived: you're wrestling with the air plane and
operating the camera systems at all times, and there's very little thought to
worry about whether you're over Russia or you're flying over southern
California. (Laughs) You're fully occupied at the time.
INT: Were you told much about what you were doing at the time? Did you know...
apart from the things like the Engels airfield, did you know the targets that
you were looking for, and why you were looking for them?
MK: Generally speaking, on our flights the pilot had no knowledge of what he was
trying to prove or disprove with the acquisition of data on the film. He was
given a target on a map, lines leading in, lines leading out to the next target.
We just had general knowledge that in the early start of the programme we were
really trying to do a count on the number of air planes they had and the various
types; and then, two years later, we knew we were looking for guided missile
intelligence because we would see these peculiar geographical mar...
(Interruption - Noise. A bit of non-interview chat.)
INT: OK, if I can just pick you up on that again. How much information, as a
pilot, did you have, and what were you aware of in the missions that you were
MK: As a pilot of one of the U-2 missions, you had very little knowledge of the
intelligence value of the targets you were after. They were simply marks on a
map with lines drawn that you were handed just a few hours before flight.
However, in general you knew, in the early years, that they were really trying
to get a count on the air force power of Russia; and then, a few years later, in
thea of Sputnik, the capability of the Russian missile production and the
quality of the missile production.
INT: When we talked earlier this morning, you said that one of the points was
that if you were ever shot down, it was better to be dumb. Could I just get you
to repeat that for me? Let me rephrase the question. Why were the pilots given
so little information as to the flights that they were doing?
MK: I believe that the pilot was given minimal information on the targeting that
he was after, on the basis that, you know, if you went down and didn't return,
the dumber you were, the better off you were going to be and the better off the
United States would be.
INT: What was supposed to happen to you if you were shot down?
MK: (Clears throat) In the event of a mishap in denied territory, all the pilots
were very extensively trained on escape and evasion and survival, with the hope
they could get out of the country they were in. How realistic is that, is maybe
open to debate. But if captured, everyone I know was briefed to tell them
everything that they knew, because they didn't know much about the targeting,
they didn't know very much to tell.
INT: Good answer. There's been a lot of discussion, throughout the various books
I've read, on the suicide pill, the poison needle. Was that apocryphal, or did
you really carry a suicide pill?
MK: The information that's come on out in the various press media on suicide
mechanisms to carry with you - pills, needles is probably true. I don't honestly
remember ever carrying a pill - that may be a function of old ageasing that. I
do remember the needle the needle that was embedded in a coin, kind of like the
stem of a watch. I believe it was coated with curare on the end of the needle.
And yes, I carried one, but it wasn't for the purpose of suicide: I thought it
would make a very handy little tool in case I needed an escape from being
incarcerated some place. You knew they were going to get the guns and things
like that away from you, but they might just leave a coin in your pocket.
(Aircraft overhead. A bit of talk. Cut.)
INT: Could you just tell me a bit more about the coin that you used to carry?
MK: All the pilots had the option of carrying many survival and escape and
evasion pieces of hardware with them on a flight, one of which was a coin with a
needle in it, tipped with curare. But much has been made in the press about it
as a suicide mechanism for the pilot. I don't know of any pilot that had ever
planned to commit suicide in the event of capture. Some of them carried the
coin, some didn't. I carried one, to use as an aggressive weapon should I be
incarcerated some place, and it was my only way out, assuming that they let me
keep it in my pocket.
INT: Good answer.
(Noise. B/g talk.)
INT: Martin, can you describe to me what a mission was? Where did you take off
from, how far did you fly, and where did you come back to?
MK: (Clears throat) All the missions that were flown in the U-2 were always
long, the maximum duration of the aircraft. They operated out of different
spots. Many were flown out of Germany, many were flown out of Turkey; and
getting on towards 1959 and 1960, we were actually flying missions out of
Peshawar, Pakistan. The flights normally would come back to the base they
originated on, but not necessarily. To maximise the range of the air plane over
certain targets, the plane may, for instance, take off in Turkey and land at
Pakistan, or vice versa. When I say "long", these were in the duration
of probably a normal mission, eight hours. I believe the longest one I ever flew
was about nine hours, and I don't think anybody flew any longer one than that,
because I don't think I had any fuel left when I landed. (Laughs) I was about
INT: So... there was no part of Russia that you couldn't go to, or would you
concentrate on the west side?
MK: (Pause) I don't believe there was any part of Russia that were desired to
have observation over certain targets that couldn't be accomplished. I believe
that also was the reason that the flight in which Frank Powers was shot down,
the flight was take-off from Pakistan and land in Norway, and that would enable
the air plane to cover targets everywhere from Sverdlovsk all the way to
Murmansk on one flight. However, we could get those targets by operating out of
INT: Can I ask you specifically, then, on May the 1st in 1960, can you tell me
what happened from your perspective?
MK: May the 1st 1960 was certainly a day in the history books - that's when
Frank Powers flew his mission out of Peshawar, Pakistan, with the intention to
land in Bodo, Norway - and I believe I should say that's pronounced
INT: Let me ask you again without that, because it's such a good answer. So...
either way is fine. But what happened on May the 1st 1960?
MK: May the 1st certainly will stick in my memory, and most of the world's, as
the day that Frank Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, in an agency U-2,
with the intention to land at Bodo, Norway. I personally was at Bodo, awaiting
the air plane, and pre-breathing oxygen, getting ready for my pressure flight
suit. I was going to take the air plane out of there and immediately fly back to
Turkey with it. Frank Powers obviously didn't get to Bodo. I spent most of the
light of a day breathing oxygen, and finally disconnected myself, knowing he
couldn't possibly get there anymore with the fuel he had on board.
INT: When did you find out what had happened to him?
MK: At Bodo, Norway, awaiting Frank's flight, we had no knowledge of anything
actually having happened to the air plane. We knew first that he'd gotten
airborne, and that's when we started making preparations to turn the aircraft
around once it arrived. And then, later that day, we got the word: "Get out
of Norway." No knowledge of the reasons why, but of course it didn't take
much intelligence to figure something had gone drastically wrong.
INT: Can you tell me, what did happen to Frank's flight?
MK: Frank, of course, returned to the United States after that incident and the
Russians let him loose. I knew Frank very well and talto him many times about
it. What happened to Frank... I wasn't there, I can only relate what he told me,
and I believe every word he said - and that's that a missile, surface-to-air
missile, one of the that were believed fired, went off; it was a near-miss, and
the shock wave of the missile exploding fractured the structural integrity of
the aircraft, and he ended up bailing out.
INT: I was just about to stop you there.
INT: Martin, can I ask you again: what happened to Frank Powers?
MK: There are many stories told about how Frank Powers got shot down. The one I
believe is the one Frank told me himself many times after he returned from
Russia. That is, a surface-to-air missile, one of several, got a near-miss on
him, and the shock wave of the exploding missile blew the tail off the aircraft
and he ended up bailing out. Interestingly enough, as Frank was coming down,
again according to him, he observed another parachute, and I understand that
what had really happened was, there were also several Sukoy fighters that were
trying to attack him, and one of the Russian missiles also shot down one of
their own air planes.
INT: Were you surprised that Frank was captured alive, given the circumstances
of the incident?
MK: When I finally found out that we had lost an air plane over Russia, I wasn't
really too surprised that Frank had gotten shot down. I think all the pilots at
that time were very well aware of the advances the Russians had made in
missiles, intercontinental, surface-to-air, and we certainly knew that the risks
attendant with flights over Russia had increased considerably. I don't think any
one of us individually ever worried about it being himself, because, you know,
once again dumb fighter pilots always think it's the other guy that's going to
INT: Do you remember hearing when Khrushchev said at the Paris peace conference
in 1960... do you remember that situation suddenly becoming public? What was the
attitude amongst yourself and your colleagues?
MK: When the press started really giving good coverage to Mr Khrushchev's
statements, and the various media of all the countries were putting out
conflicting stories, I think most of the pilots were disenchanted with the
coverage the press was giving. In my mind, Frank Powers was being persecuted and
prosecuted simultaneously, and we had no belief... I certainly knew Frank
personally, and he was a very fine gentleman, and as tough as they come, and he
wasn't about to do some of the things that the press was accusing [him] of:
being a traitor to the United States.
INT: Good answer. Could you tell me just a bit about what his flight was
intended to do? As we said earlier, it was supposed to be the longest flight...
one of the longest flights, wasn't it? Because it was going to go straight
across. Could you just explain to us where he was supposed to take off, the
rough area he was supposed to cover, and where he was supposed to land?
MK: Frank's flight on May 1st was airborne out of Peshawar, Pakistan, and from
my memory, proceeded essentially due north to the Sverdlovsk area, which had
been a hot site of interest for the agency; I myself had flown to that region
three, four, five weeks prior. Contrary to my flight, where I came back out of
the southern side of Russia, Frank was to proceed on generally north-west, to
the Murmansk area, and come out the north-west corner of Russia, skirt the
Scandinavian countries, and come in and land in Bodo, Norway.
INT: Was that a longest flight a U-2 ever would have done?
MK: If that flight had been completed as planned, it probably would have been a
toss-up for the longest flight that had been done in that air plane. It turned
out it wasn't a very long flight, and I think the flight I had made several
weeks before stands as (Laughs) the longest flight.
INT: So what happened? You were told to get out of Norway in a hurry, but what
happened to the U-2 mission as a whole at that point?
MK: On May 1st, when our world kind of came apart on us as agency pilots, we
kind of regrouped down at Turkey. There were many weeks of inactivity, and
eventually orders were given to pull the whole unit back out of Turkey, back to
the United States. That probably was accomplished about four months after May
INT: Did any flights continue on over Russia at all after that period?
MK: To my knowledge, the May 1st flight of the U-2 was the last flight ever made
over Russia by a U-2.
INT: Good answer.
(Wait for plane to pass. A bit of b/g talk. Cut.)
INT: Martin, can I take you back a bit again to 1957? At this time, in October,
Sputnik was launched by the Russians. Did it come as a surprise to you and your
colleagues, and what was the reaction?
MK: In about 1957, we were at that time just coming into Turkey for
consolidating the various units at Turkey, and the Russians launched the Sputnik
satellite. This came as a great surprise to all the pilots there, and a lot of
respect grew amongst us for the Russian technical capability. I can remember
we'd all go out on a clear night and stand outside and... maybe with a glass of
beer in our hands, and we'd watch this bright light go across the sky, and
there's no getting around it, in our minds the risks had gone up with our
INT: ... Do you remember one of the things which you said earlier is the fact
that they were flying far higher than the U-2. So I'll just ask you that one
more time. What happened when you saw Sputnik going overhead?
MK: It certainly didn't take long for the (Clears throat) thought to sink in
that that was flying a lot higher than the 70,000 feet of our max altitude in
the U-2s, and if they could fly around up that high, our risks had increased
considerably in flying the U-2 over Russia.
INT: Martin, can I ask you, what was your worst moment in the history of the
Cold War, both as a civilian and as a pilot? Did you ever think that it was
going close to the brink?
MK: I've got to think about that.
MK: The worst moment... (Pause) I believe the worst psychological time I had in
the U-2 programme, was post- the May 1st shoot-down of Frank Powers, when
President Eisenhower announced to the world and we were ordered to not do any
more over flights of Russia. I was very disturbed about that, because I thought
we were producing a tremendous amount of good intelligence that could help with
the defence of the United States, and very disappointed in our Government for
stopping this effort. Looking back on it now, I might have different thoughts,
but that was my thoughts at the time.
INT: That's fine - that's a good answer.
MK: I'll be honest with you.
INT: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I know you can't talk much about it, but how
important was the role that the U-2 played in the Cuban missile crisis?
MK: Years later, [in] what they called the Cuban missile crisis, the U-2 played
a key role in the discovery of those sites. They produced the data, turned into
photographs, that President Kennedy showed the world. I believe that without the
U-2 having discovered those missiles at the time, it might not have ended as
peacefully as it did.
INT: Overall, looking at its amazing history as a plane, how important would you
rate the U-2 in the whole psyche of the Cold War?
MK: The Cold War went on for many years, and of course had many facets to it,
from both sides. I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that the U-2
would certainly have to be ranked amongst the top, as one of the greater, more
successful efforts that occurred during the Cold War.
INT: Do you think that the shooting down of Frank Powers, though, contributed
to... "lengthening" is the wrong word, but do you think that if Powers
hadn't been shot down, it would have not escalated as it did towards Cuba, or is
MK: I can't attach any particular politics of the later years to the shooting
down of Frank Powers. I believe maybe the importance, in looking back, was that
did cause a tremendous rupture between Russia and the United States. Whether
that was good or bad, I have no opinion on.
INT: I thinalmost the final question. One more time, going back to one of our
earlier questions: when you looked down through your upside-down periscope and
you saw below you and you saw Leningrad below you, just tell me the first time
that happened to you.
MK: I think one of the excitmoments I remember on some of the early flights is
coming over Leningrad and looking down through the viewfinder, as we call it,
kind of an upside-down periscope or bomb-sight, and I suddenly realised that
where my cross hairs were pointing was the very target I'd had as a nuclear
fighter pilot on Strategic Air Command, and you know, I had seen pictures of 20
years ago, on old driving maps of the area, and here I was looking at the real
thing, and that was quite a sensation.
INT: Could you see at the time... were you aware of what retaliation the
Russians were attempting?
MK: On most of the flights, '56-'57-'58, there was usually a constant stream of
Russian fighters below you. In fact, at times they got so thick that the
analysts back in the United States, looking at the film, were trying to figure
out some way to get pictures without air planes spoiling all of the data that
(Laughs) they were trying to look at.
INT: And all of those pilots had one aim, wasn't it?
MK: All of those fighters underneath had one target in mind, and that was your
INT: Given it was such a high-risk venture, the U-2 programme, why was it
MK: I think it's hard for people to remember back, and a lot of people weren't
born then. Back in 1955, '54, we were terribly paranoid in the United States.
There was this great Evil Empire on the other side of the world, the Russian
Bear. We had no knowledge of anything going on in that country since World War
II, and not much during World War II. Imaginations run away with everybody, and
we were flat, flat paranoid; the military was paranoid, the public was paranoid.
We were building nuclear bomb shelters in back yards back then. A lot of people
can't remember that. Was it the right thing to be paranoid? I don't know, but we
INT: Excellent. ... That was such a good answer, but I'm going to have to ask
you one more time because of the noise.
INT: Martin, can you tell me: given that it was such a...
(Helicopter - Cut)
INT: OK, last question then, Martin. It was a such a high-risk mission. Why did
the U-2 programme go ahead?
MK: In the mid-Fifties we were very paranoid about Russia. There was the vast
Evil Empire, the Russian Bear. There'd been no intelligence about their
capabilities or intentions come out since World War II, and probably not much
during World War II, so we were paranoid. We had to find out if they were
jeopardising the future of the United States. Was it right to be paranoid? I
don't know - but I was. We were building nuclear bomb shelters in back yards
INT: Did you ever think that there would be a nuclear war?
MK: I think that in those years I was very concerned at the reality of the
nuclear war. I believed I would do anything I could do personally to help
INT: Martin, thank you very much indeed...
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