14 October 2015

The Spyplane Codenamed "Pie Face": The Birth of the Big Safari Program

The Big Safari emblem
(Big Safari Association)
At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into four occupation zones administered by the victorious Allied powers. The capital, Berlin, was in turn also divided into four zones. When The Soviet Union established East Germany from its occupation zone, West Germany was formed from the American, British and French occupation zones. Berlin was also divided into East Berlin and West Berlin with the western part of the capital surrounded on all sides by East Germany. By agreement, there were travel corridors to allow surface and air connections to West Berlin from West Germany. The air corridors were only 20 miles wide at a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet. The northern air corridor followed a Hamburg-West Berlin line, the central air corridor followed a Hannover-West Berlin line and the southern air corridor followed a Frankfurt-West Berlin air corridor. In the summer of 1952, the head of United States Air Forces Europe, General Lauris Norstad, made a special request to the USAF Chief of Staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, for reconnaissance aircraft to use in Europe that in particular, could fly unnoticed in the West Berlin air corridors as a routine courier flight. Vandenberg convened a group of specially selected officers and civilians who would develop not just the aircraft needed for the requested USAFE mission but also a set of rule and procedures in order to field such an aircraft quickly and in secrecy. Lieutenant General Thomas Rhodes worked with a reconnaissance systems specialist, Furman E. O'Rear, to develop the procedures that would get the specialized aircraft into service. 

Rhodes and O'Rear laid down the "ground rules" for the project: 
  1. Only the minimum amount of documentation was needed. Personal contact and direct communication was preferred. 
  2. Strict security clearances would be issued on a need to know basis with a minimum of personnel. 
  3. No limit on funds for the project. Special capabilities needed in the field shouldn't worry about funding. 
  4. Primary responsibility for the program lay with the Director of Air Force Maintenance and Engineering (this later became Air Force Systems Command) who would direct the Air Force Materiel Command (this later become the Air Force Logistics Command in 1961).
  5. Coordination was the utmost importance between the different commands of the USAF and the intelligence community. A single project head would act as the point of contact for all the diverse interests involved. 
  6. Aircraft contractors selected would also issue strict security clearances to a closed off work area for any aircraft modifications. 
  7. The contractor selected would be responsible for yearly upgrades to any aircraft system. 
  8. It was agreed upon ahead of time that any modifications or changes needed to the aircraft systems would be approved to expedite the fielding and subsequent upgrades to any special capability aircraft. 
In addition to these ground rules, it was also agreed that any project would make use of an existing aircraft rather than develop a new aircraft. The project office was authorized initially with a five year commitment on the reconnaissance aircraft that would be fielded by the USAFE for use in the Berlin air corridors. When it was realized in 1953 that the program's set up lent itself well to other special projects, it was given its own code name by which it is still known today: BIG SAFARI.

The Boston Camera the USAF Museum
(USAF Museum)
The year before General Norstad's 1952 special request for a reconnaissance aircraft, a very large special optical camera had been flight tested on a Convair B-36. The camera, developed by optical scientists and engineers at Boston University in 1947-1949, was designated the K-42 but was known as the Boston Camera as well as the code names BIG BERTHA and DAISY MAE. With a 240 inch focal length (6096mm), it weighed nearly three tons and used very large 18x36 inch frame film. It would be the largest aerial camera ever built. The lens was fixed at f/8 with an electrically tripped shutter speed of 1/400 second. Allegedly it had the resolution to image a golf ball on the ground from 45,000 feet. During the flight test program it was decided that a bomber carrying the Boston Camera would have been conspicuous if not downright provocative and it would be better used mounted in a transport aircraft. The aircraft had to be large so as not to have any external modifications that would give away its carriage of the large camera. PIE FACE was the code name assigned to the effort to mount the camera in a transport aircraft. The first PIE FACE contractor was actually Boeing who had offered a YC-97 Stratofreighter- one YC-97 in fact had flown a handful of Berlin Airlift missions. Boeing at the time was preoccupied with other programs and afforded the PIE FACE program little attention to the point that security was constantly being compromised with the aircraft frequently parked in the open at the property perimeter fence line in Seattle. 

As a result, the PIE FACE contractor was changed from Boeing to Convair Fort Worth. This would become Detachment 1 of the Big Safari program. The general manager of Convair, August Esenwein, took a personal stake in the project and made sure the USAF had the necessary secure hangar space as well as any engineering personnel needed make sure PIE FACE was fielded quickly. Esenwein's personal involvement pleased the USAF and the working relationship between the USAF and Convair at Detachment 1 set the standard for future contractor relationships in the Big Safari program. In fact, Detachment 1 would run for twenty years with 87 different aircraft passing through Convair Fort Worth over that time span. 

PIE FACE would have looked just like this KC-97
While the Boston Camera did fly in Europe for six weeks on the YC-97, it was clear that as an early variant of the Stratofreighter it was less capable than the later KC-97 variants already in service. With less powerful engines, the YC-97 with the Boston Camera onboard was significantly altitude restricted. Given that the camera was used for stand-off oblique photography, a higher altitude meant that more of East Germany could be photographed from the air corridors. From 19 December 1952 to 23 February 1953, the Boston Camera was moved from the YC-97 to a KC-97 that had its boom removed, 49-2592. Both aircraft were literally cut in half behind the cockpit to move the camera from one aircraft to the other. The manual controls of the camera were upgraded with electrical and electromechanical controls as it was installed on the KC-97. Covert sliding doors were used to cover the camera ports when it wasn't in use. In addition to the installation of the Boston Camera, a 100-inch K-30 camera and a trimetrogon system of three K-17 cameras were also installed, all synchronized with the Boston Camera to give wider angle photographic coverage of the target areas and assist with mapping. A camera operator's station was installed in the cockpit with a special slaved sight to trigger the camera system. 

West Berlin air corridors
(German History in Documents and Images,
After flight testing with specially selected USAF crews, the PIE FACE KC-97 was assigned to 7499th Support Squadron (later renumbered to the 7405th) at Rhein-Main AB, the main USAFE transport hub in Europe. With each of the three air corridors to West Berlin being 20 miles wide, that was already 1/6th of East Germany that lay underneath any aircraft within the corridors. The addition of oblique photography added tremendously to the area surveilled- at the 10,000 foot maximum imposed by the Soviets, the majority of East Germany could be photographed by the PIE FACE aircraft. In addition to flying in the air corridors, perimeter flights along the border were also flown at altitudes as high at 32,000 feet. Just in the last six months of 1953 when it was first fielded, the specially-equipped aircraft had flown 13 missions (quite remarkable given the complexity of maintaining the camera system). The aircraft also stood alert for short notice missions and flew as far as the Arctic and the Middle East. Intelligence requirements soon outpaced the abilities of the aircraft and eleven other aircraft were added to supplement PIE FACE starting in 1954. Those aircraft will be the subject of a future article here at Tails Through Time, so stay tuned!

PIE FACE was scheduled to end in 1962 and 49-2592 was flown back to Convair Fort Worth for demodification. By that point the aircraft had already rotated through Fort Worth eight times for upgrades and further modifications. Engineers there had developed a pneumatic shutter system for the cameras in only 28 days that became the standard for any Big Safari photoreconnaissance system. But PIE FACE wasn't over just yet as the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted just as the aircraft was about to be demodified. Approximately 17 missions were flown from MacDill AFB in Tampa around the periphery of Cuba, PIE FACE's imagery supplementing that taken by the Lockheed U-2 overflight missions. In March 1965, 49-2592 returned to Convair Fort Worth for good as the airframe was worn out and given over for salvage. The Boston Camera ended up at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where it can be seen today displayed with a Convair B-36 Peacemaker. 

Source: The History of Big Safari by Col. Bill Grimes, USAF (Ret). Archway Publishing in cooperation with the Big Safari Association, 2014, pp 1-16. 

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