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D.C. Spy Treks Part 1

Photo Info: English SR-71; Source: Wikipedia; Author: Beta75

Negotiate the shady streets of Washington, D.C., the Spy Capital of the World. In the realm of film and fiction, our nation’s capital looms large as the center of international espionage. The truth is more sinister, enticing and surprising. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to unravel the mysteries of covert operations lurking around every corner.

Spies in the Sky

Explore the types of aerial, satellite and electronic surveillance equipment countries around the globe have used to gather information about their adversaries at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. Eyes in the sky have been deployed since the earliest inception of flight and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center offers a unique look at historic, high-tech equipment.

Reconnaissance was one of the first priorities of spaceflight. Photography from spy satellites is a significant legacy of the Space Race and the Cold War.

From 1960 to 1972 in a reconnaissance project code-named Corona the United States routinely photographed the Soviet Union from space. The Corona project rivaled in difficulty the public drama of sending men to the Moon, but its successes are generally unknown. Spying from space is top secret.

Corona was a response to the fear of nuclear attack by an intensely secretive Soviet Union. America’s leaders faced an urgent question: what were the Soviets actually doing behind the Iron Curtain? Corona provided vital answers.

Other examples of spy tech include the WWII-era Westland Lysander. Their strange appearance was matched only by their mysterious comings and goings, usually in the dead of night. While the Lysander pilots and crew, and their “special cargo,” are now free to talk about some of their missions more than fifty years after they occurred, most of the operational record on this amazing airplane remains tightly locked in official secrecy.

As WWII entered its third year, the ultimate Lysander mission took shape. The Special Operations Executive formed three squadrons of these slow-flying aircraft, and began to fly the Lysander to aid the various resistance movements in occupied Europe. They dropped ammunition, explosives, radios and other equipment, and transported agents to and from the continent.

One of the center’s showpieces is the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a sleekly sinister, high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft famous for its Cold War activities. No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity as the SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird’s performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold Way.

The airplane was conceived when tensions with communist Eastern Europe reached levels approaching a full-blown crisis in the mid-1950s. U.S. military commanders desperately needed accurate assessments of Soviet worldwide military deployments, particularly near the Iron Curtain.

When the SR-71 became operational, orbiting reconnaissance satellites had already replaced manned aircraft to gather intelligence from sites deep within Soviet territory. Satellites could not cover every geopolitical hotspot, so the Blackbird remained a vital tool for global intelligence gathering.

On many occasions, pilots flying the SR-71 provided information that proved vital in formulating successful U. S. foreign policy.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Near Dulles International Airport

14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway

Chantilly, Virginia 20151


Security Screening: All bags & visitors will be screened.

Portions of this story were published in 2005 in the News Journal under the byline of Gail A. Sisolak. All copyrights reserved.