10 February 2010

In an earlier entry I had featured the RB-69 spyplane conversion of the Lockheed P2V Neptune that was the Skunk Work's first CIA contract. That CIA program to operate low-altitude overflights of the People's Republic of China starting in 1957 was codenamed ST/POLLY by the CIA. The program had generated much useful intelligence on the military activities of the the PRC that the CIA contracted with E-Systems of Greenville, Texas, to convert three Lockheed P-3A Orions to a similar configuration but with more intelligence-gathering systems under the codename ST/SPIN, starting with the arrival of the first P-3A to the naval aviation depot in Alameda, California where E-Systems began the conversion work.

The most obvious modification (apart from its all black color and abbreviated tail sting as the MAD sensor wasn't needed on the clandestine overflights) was a widening of the crew entry door on the aft fuselage with a duplicate door right next to the existing door- this gave a just over six foot wide entry with two inward-opening doors- like the earlier RB-69 Neptunes, this was to allow the infiltration of field agents, special equipment, arms and ammunition and on occasion, propaganda leaflets by the boxload.

The ELINT receivers from the RB-69 Neptunes were taken out, upgraded, and installed on the ST/SPIN Orions. Additional sensors were added thanks to the increased performance of the Orion over the Neptune- a SLAR was added for peripheral reconnaissance missions along the Chinese border, communications intercept equipment, an infrared detector and allegedly even a sensitive acoustic detector. Slant-range and oblique photography cameras were also installed and to also perform intelligence on the Chinese nuclear program, air-sampling equipment was also installed connected to ram air scoops near the cockpit.

The first ST/SPIN operational mission took place in 1964. All the personnel aboard the aircraft were Taiwanese trained and led by the CIA. Missions ranged from gathering radar ELINT data for the Strategic Air Command to even flights into Tibet to gather information on the PRC's suppression of Tibetan nationalists.

However, the Taiwanese general running the program would staff each plane with as many as 27 crew when only 13 to 14 were needed. Taiwanese personnel got a bonus for flying on ST/SPIN missions and he was taking a kickback to assign extra crew to each mission. Operatives of the PRC were able to penetrate the ST/SPIN program to the point that during an ST/SPIN mission, PRC radio operators would call out the aircraft and ask to speak to specific crewman by name.

By 1965 the Taiwanese general was arrested and sent to prison for his staffing scheme and the CIA and NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) withdrew funding from the ST/SPIN program before the third P-3A Orion could be completed. The aircraft were returned to the United States.

Source: Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology by Jeffrey Richelson. Westview Press, 2002, p96-98.

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