Spy planes have become extremely important weapons and tools during wartime for the purposes of reconnaissance and surveillance. They help countries get information on what enemy armies are planning and building. However, they were not always around to help get invaluable information, and the idea of a spy plane must have started somewhere at some point in history.
The most popular spy plane, used by many strong military countries like the United States and Russia, is the U-2 spy plane. As this is the standard flying reconnaissance vehicle around the world, we will be tracking the evolution of spy planes up until the creation of the U-2. Let’s get started…
18th – 19th Century: Balloons and Pigeons
Back in the late 18th century to early 19th century, wartime generals were tired of sending actual on-the-ground troops into enemy territories to do surveillance. They wanted more secretive and stealthy measures to help them gain information on their opposition. This is when they turned to the skies to start conducting surveillance missions.
The first airborne spy vehicles were balloons and, funnily enough, pigeons.
Observation balloons were used during the French Revolutionary Wars to capture and observe enemy forces from an elevated vantage point. Pigeons fitted with custom miniature cameras were also used around this time.
World War I and II: Mechanical Planes
The First World War ushered in the era of mechanical flying aircraft fitted with aerial photography tools for reconnaissance.
During the period of World War I, aircraft transitioned from being huge, heavy, and unsuitable for stealth missions to much lighter and quieter machines. As the technology continually evolved, just like it has so that we can now enjoy online horse race betting in the palm of our hands, the United States and Germany started to take advantage by sending light air units like Balloons and Monoplanes into enemy territories.
World War II is when the aerial photography that was first introduced during World War I, evolved to a point where even today we can view and understand the results of stealth missions. During this time German optical technology was considered the best for surveillance and reconnaissance.
Cold War: The Birth of the U-2 Spy Plane
The Cold War was a time of unrest and distrust between the superpowers of the then-modern world. Russia and the United States were in a war of words and ideology that spread throughout the world and caused conflict in countries like Vietnam. Because of this mistrust and fear of nuclear detonation, the United States developed the U-2 spy plane to do as many reconnaissance and stealth missions as possible in Russian territories.
The Lockheed U-2 Spy Plane is perhaps the most recognizable airborne stealth vehicle in history, and all of the spy planes we see today are loosely based on the technology used by the U-2. In the modern era, we are, however, starting to see a real shift towards the use of drone technology as well as spatial satellites to gain information and capture imagery of enemy territory.