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Spyplanes: the Illustrated History of Manned Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft from World War I to Today

30 December 2016

Spyplanes: the Illustrated History of Manned Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft from World War I to Today, Norman Polmar and John Bessette, 2016, ISBN 9780760350317, 240 pp.

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Spyplanes: the Illustrated History of Manned Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft from World War I to Today by Norman Polmar and John Bessette

One thing military, as well as political, commanders never have enough of is information—reconnaissance. Aviation brought a new dimension to reconnaissance (“recce”) and Spyplanes brings us the exciting history of these marvelous aircraft as well as their missions.

The authors (there are two primary and five accessory) fittingly use black throughout their book underscoring the secretive nature of recce flights. Secret for protection whether a spy flight in a U-2 or SR-71—or a post strike assessment flying immediately after a target has been hammered with the folks there fully alert, warmed up and eager to hit back. The end papers bring home the gravity of spyplane work showing an RAF serviceman running a freshly exposed film canister from a Bristol Blenheim photo ship as well as the famous low-level image of Russian ballistic missiles in Cuba which brought the world to its closest worldwide nuclear conflict (and possibly the shortest World War in history).

Spyplanes begins with balloons (prior to World War I) and ends with the conceptual Lockheed SR-72. Between these examples the book is in two parts which are entitled, Spyplane Operations and The Spyplanes with the latter part paying attention to each country in turn which heavily utilized aerial reconnaissance (Germany, Great Britain, Russia/Soviet Union and the United States). Of course the familiar aircraft are there and the authors describe them and their models in concise and flowing detail. Tantalizingly, the lesser known but equally required aircraft are also told of in the same concise flowing detail. Images and art abound, pleasing the eye as well as the writing pleases the hunger to know and understand the impacts of history’s events regarding aerial reconnaissance. Spyplanes changed history’s arcs countless times and this book tells the tale without favoring countries or with a bias toward the victors of war.

This is a lovely book to peruse and a treasure trove of sources to further research a subject area or aircraft. Some of the lesser known recce aircraft are the RB-69, RB-58, RF-86, Ilya Muromets, Ju 86 and Myasishchev M-4—to name a few. Naturally the Tu 95, SR-71, U-2, RF-8, de Havilland Mosquito and Canberra are addressed with the many other major league players in the recce profession. The gorgeous black-on-black SR-71 on the front cover makes this book perfect for a desk while its interior demands a place on any library shelf regarding aviation as well as military and political history.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 December 2016 08:37

    My favorite was/is the SR-71. Another aircraft that has always been largely forgotten in conversations about recon is the Lockheed P2V Neptune. Probably because it was considered a “patrol” aircraft. In it’s day those squadrons conducted hundreds of flights daily locating, tracking ,and photographing subs and the ELINT trawlers. .

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      30 December 2016 10:37

      We have a love for the Neptune as well. The book also mentions Project Wild Cherry and the brave flights of Neptune crews with some lost–all held secret from the 1950s until the next decade.

      • 30 December 2016 11:21

        The depth of the intel on both sides became very apparent to me one day in 1961 off the coast of Turkey. NATO had word that the Soviets had launched a new destroyer from a shipyard in the Ukrane. Naturally they wanted pictures so we were deployed to get them before it could get out into the Atlantic. So there we were orbiting west of The Dardanelles waiting for the ship to leave the Black Sea when a voice came up on primary frequency and proceeded to identify each crew member by name and rank. That voice even identified the NATO photographer by name. A name not even told to us. Wild times.

      • travelforaircraft permalink*
        31 December 2016 08:12

        Mind games 😉 That must have made for talk and sarcasm on the aircraft that day, I’d bet 😉

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