The story of the French Air Force’s Mirage III that buzzed a U-2 flying at 65,000 feet on a mission to spy on French nuclear facilities
The U-2 is still considered today as one of the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built. Its development in 1954 was shrouded in great secrecy since its main role was strategic reconnaissance. Designed to fly for long periods at very high altitudes, it is essentially a powered glider with a sailboat-type wing and a lightweight structure.
The aircraft was designed and used for high altitude communication intelligence and electronic intelligence and was capable of day and night surveillance in all weather conditions. The U-2 was configured with an array of cameras, electronic intelligence equipment, and radar guidance and warning systems, depending on its mission.
The first flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the President and other American policymakers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability. In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis.
However, as Krzysztof Dabrowsky recounts in his book Hunt for the U-2 Interceptions of Lockheed U-2 Reconnaissance aircraft over USSR, Cuba and People’s Republic of China, 1959-1968, anyone who would think that the U-2 was deployed to flying reconnaissance missions over the USSR, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or their allies only, is a fatal mistake. Indeed, the jet is known to have seen “action over multiple ‘allied’ nations, much like its predecessor, the RB-57”.
In July 1963, a pair of then brand new Dassault Mirage IIICJ interceptors are known to have intercepted a USAF RB-57A and forced it to land at Lod International Airport, Israel.
The high-flying reconnaissance plane was en route from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and was helping to monitor the construction of Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona.
In June 1967 – a year after French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew his country from NATO – French Air Force early warning radars detected a U-2 en route to one nuclear facilities in the country.
A Mirage IIIE from the 2nd Fighter Wing (2ème Escadre de Chasse) quickly took off from Dijon air base, with the mission of intercepting the intruder.
Equipped with the SEPR 841 booster, the interceptor literally took off into the sky, not with the aim of shooting down the American plane but to photograph it: the photographs were of crucial importance in enabling Paris to bring proof of a violation of its airspace in the case of the American refusal.
After climbing to an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,716 m), the French pilot engaged his SEPR booster, which accelerated his Mirage to Mach 1.8, and allowed him to reach an altitude of 65,000 feet ( 19,812m). While decelerating slightly at Mach 1.7, the French pilot caught up with the U-2 while underway at Mach 0.9 and almost directly over Dijon AB.
Although wearing the bulky and uncomfortable high altitude suit, he managed to take a picture with an “average civilian camera”, before colliding with his “target” while keeping it centered in the optical visor of his camera. Running out of fuel after such a high-speed climb, the Mirage pilot then turned off the booster and returned to base.
Although he is certain that the American pilot was warned to be intercepted, as all U-2s were equipped with advanced ECM systems, he did not perform any evasive maneuvers.
French sources believe the U-2 pilot was quite shocked by what happened next – first by the supersonic shock wave from the French interceptor, then by the flashing Mirage below his nose.
What is certain is that the United States subsequently stopped all overflights of France and would not return until years later – and then with Lockheed SR-71As capable of Mach 3 at an altitude of 75 000 feet (22,860 m)!
Hunt for the U-2 Interceptions of Lockheed U-2 Reconnaissance aircraft over USSR, Cuba and People’s Republic of China, 1959-1968 is published by Helion & Company and can be ordered here.
Photo credit: French Air Force via FAST Museum Twitter account and the United States Air Force