INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN KNUTSON
INTERVIEWER: Martin, can I ask you the hardest one of all - can we have your name and your title, for the programme?
MARTIN KNUTSON: My name is Martin Knutson, and I'm chief of flight operations at NASA Haines Research Center.
INT: Thank you. Martin, can I ask you: what were you busy doing towards the middle and the end of the Fifties?
MK: I was employed by the CIA as a U-2 pilot, doing over-flights of denied territory.
INT: What was it like... Russia was the biggest enemy ever faced by the West - what was it like to suddenly be asked to fly into Russia?
MK: I think that contemplating going into Russia was certainly, if I were to think about it today, something I wouldn't even... it'd terrify me today. When you're 26 years old and an ex-fighter pilot... (Overlap)
(Interruption. A bit of discussion re: answers.)
INT: Let me ask you that again, Martin: what was it like when you were... what did you feel when you were asked to fly a plane into the middle of Russia?
MK: I was very excited about it. When you're 26 years old and a fighter pilot, you really look upon it as a great challenge. (Overlap) I hope nobody would ask me today. (Laughs)
INT: ... Can you wrap up... can you say, "When I was asked to..." What was it like when you were asked to flyinto Russia?
MK: When I was asked to take that job on a volunteer basis, I was really quite excited about it. I'd been a fighter pilot for some years; it just looked like a very challenging thing to do.
INT: Martin, can you tell me what happened to you as a lieutenant in the Air Force?
MK: In 1955 I was asked by the CIA to volunteer for a programme, which later turned out to be flying the U-2 over Russia. And I looked upon it as very challenging, exciting; it was kind of like a fighter pilot's dream to go over this huge alien country. It was very challenging.
INT: Was it frightening?
MK: I don't believe I was frightened at all at the time - remember I was only 26 years old then, probably not long on brains. (Laughs) But I think "exciting" is a better word than frightening.
INT: Tell me, what was your mission?
INT: Sorry - let me rephrase that. What was the U-2?
MK: The U-2 was the first ever sustained high-altitude flight air plane, not dissimilar to a powered glider; very ungainly-looking beast, long-winged, very fragile; no redundant systems on it. The target was minimum weight. And that air plane... the missions were flown successfully; and the amazing thing is that air plane is still flying today, in modified versions.
INT: What was so special about it? Why was the U-2 capable of flying over Russia, where no other planes were capable of it?
MK: The U-2 was the only air plane I know of that was capable of flying over Russia, due to its extreme altitude capability. At that point in time, 1956-57, late Fifties, there were no surface-to-air missiles capable of getting to those altitudes, 65-70,000; certainly there were no fighters capable of that. I can remember squadrons of fighters underneath the U-2 trying to reach up and knock it down, and the U-2 was the only thing able to fly at those altitudes.
INT: So... the Russians knew you were there when you were flying, did the Russians know you were there, flying over Russia?
MK: Going into this affair, we all believed, I would say, and going up to the hierarchy in Washington, that the U-2 would not be seen and the Russians wouldn't know we were there. That fallacy lasted until the first penetration of denied territory. It turned out, in retrospect, the U-2 was really quite invisible to American radar, but Russian radar were a little different - better, you might say.
INT: So what happened when you were detected? What was the Russian response when they saw you over-flying Russia?
MK: The Russian response was active fighter participation in trying to shoot the air plane down. That continued for years, until we got into the missile age...
(Aircraft overhead. Inaudible talk. Cut.)
INT: So what was the Russian reaction when they detected the U-2 coming over?
MK: The Russian(s), of course, weren't happy with the penetration of their territory by the U-2 aircraft, and they actively, for years, tried to pursue it, shoot it down with fighters of various models. I'm told they also made diplomatic protests to the United States. They were very embarrassed by this, and therefore did not publicise that they knew about it; and in fact, I think they even today would say that the U-2 was not penetrating deep into Russian territory.
INT: How deep was the U-2 flying? Did you ever fly over any of the capital cities?
MK: Yes. (Clears throat) The U-2 penetrated, over the years, to every Russian capital city that I believe existed, starting missions over Leningrad, places like that. One of the very earliest missions went right over Moscow. And as the years progressed, just prior to the shooting down of Frank Powers, the targets were more the cities on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains.
INT: Could you explain a little more to me what the U-2 actually did? There you were, flying over Russia. What was your purpose once you got to the middle of Russia?
MK: Each U-2 flight had a plethora of specific targets that the pilot was shown on a map at the last minute before take-off, with the exact track to fly. In the earliest days, 1956, these targets generally were in the type of airfields, type of aircraft on the airfields, trying to get a total count of the Soviet air forces. As the years progressed, these targets became more various missiles, intercontinental and surface-to-air missile sites.