THE BLACK WATCH: The Men Who Fly America's Secret Spy Planes by Ernest K. Gann
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THE BLACK WATCH: The Men Who Fly America's Secret Spy Planes

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An old master's top-flight appreciation of the US intelligence community's air arm. Gann (The Bad Angel; Fate Is the Hunter, The High and the Mighty, et al.) observes that no one in authority gave him official permission to write about the men and machines of the Air Force's 99th Squadron, which has assumed reconnaissance responsibilities once handled by the CIA. Nor was he warned off the project. With due regard for national security, then, the author provides an absorbing and knowledgeable rundown on America's spy planes, plus profiles of their pilots. Probably the best-known secret craft is the U-2 (a.k.a. black bird), whose high-speed cameras have been gathering otherwise unobtainable intelligence on countries in Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, the Socialist Bloc, and other of the world's hot spots since the 1950's, when Pres. Eisenhower personally cleared each sortie. Also in service, though, is the superfast SR-71, whose two-man crew operates at altitudes above those attainable by U-2s, i.e., over 80,000 feet. Aerial reconnaissance, Gann notes, complements the work of ground-based agents as well as satellites that might not always be in the right place at the right time; they would also prove predictable and hence vulnerable in time of war. In the author's persuasive view, U-2 and SR-71 pilots are a breed apart, Flying missions of ten or more hours that take them to the edge of space from bases in northern California, Cyprus (known as Fantasy Island among insiders), South Korea, or other remote outposts, few such airmen complete their tours of duty without developing a belief in, if not God, a higher power. They have earthly concerns as well. The jet jockeys, for instance, fret about the airworthiness of planes that are terribly unforgiving of mistakes and migrating birds that can knock them from the sky without warning. By contrast, deskbound commanding officers brood about slumping retention rates for skilled pilots, subordinates' marital problems (or escapades as singles), and their own lack of flight time. A vivid briefing on a genuinely elite unit of the American military.

Pub Date: Aug. 23rd, 1989
Publisher: Random House