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U-2 Spy Plane at Minot


On this date in 1960, a U-2 spy plane crew ended a twenty-month long mission at Minot Air Force base. Five officers and thirty-two airmen had arrived in Minot in September, 1958, with one U-2 plane in what was called "Project Crowflight." Under the command of Major Richard W. Rauch, the men placed a statue of a large crow on the base dispensary roof as its trademark. The U-2 plane was painted as black as a crow.

The U-2 had a wingspan of eighty feet, allowing it to fly at about 70,000 feet—over 13 miles high. Russian fighter planes presumably could not fly that high and would be unable to shoot them down. The official purpose of the U-2 at Minot was to make high-altitude weather observations. The airmen were to gain "more precise information about clear air turbulence, convection cloud formations, wind shear and the jet stream up to 55,000 feet altitude" - the publicized upper limits of the U-2.

The U-2 crew was also to check the upper atmosphere for traces of radioactive fallout —from Russian and U.S. above-ground nuclear bomb tests. The plane gathered samples of "radioactive debris" from "nuclear fallout" for the Armed Force Special Weapons Projects.

For twenty months, the U-2 flew missions from Minot Air Force Base. Were the crews really just monitoring the upper atmosphere? Because of the Cold War secrecy, we do not know all the details. But we do know that the U-2 mission was to gather intelligence in many parts of the world.

The CIA sent U-2 spy planes over Russia in mid-1956, to photograph Russian bomber bases, using a camera with a high-definition, lens. After the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the U.S. was worried that Russia might install intercontinental missiles before the U.S. could do so. The U-2 flights monitored any bases being built.

Each U-2 plane contained three pounds of cyclonite explosives, so that the camera and the plane could be destroyed if attacked. The pilot would flip a switch to start a timed charge, ejecting before the plane exploded.

Was Minot's U-2 flying over Russia from 1958 to 1960? No. According to CIA chief Richard Bissell, head of the U-2 project. Except for one base in Alaska, he says no U-2 flights over Russia came from American soil,

The U-2 crew left Minot on May 7th, 1960. The redeployment coincided with the launching of the Satellite and Missile Observation System (called SAMOS) spy satellite in 1960. Officially, no U-2 planes ever came back to Minot Air Force Base. But for two years, the U-2 Crowflight mission became a part of North Dakota's Cold War history.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: "U-2 Crowflight Detachment Plans To Leave Minot Air Base Saturday," Ward County Independent, April 28, 1960, p. 7.

"Nuclear Fallout Checked," Minot Daily News, September 18, 1959, p. 1.

Michael R. Beschloss, Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev and the U-2 Affair (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p 147.

"1960 Figured As Biggest Year In Development of Minot AFB," Minot Daily News, December 31, 1960, clipping file from Minot AFB historian.

"Crows Roost," Ward County Independent, April 7, 1960, p. 7.

James J. Haggerty, Jr., "Mystery Launches Are Analyzed," Army, Navy, Air Force Journal And Register 100, no. 16, (December 15, 1962): p. 23.

"Chronology," History of Minot Air Force Base, unpublished manuscript (Minot: Minot Air Force Base Historian's Office, circa 1982), p. vi.