The first photo in my book 50 YEARS OF THE U-2 is of Richard Leghorn (left). That’s because I consider him to be the conceptual father of the U-2. Why?
Leghorn was a P-38 reconnaissance squadron commander in the Second World War who was recalled to military service for the Korean War. Since 1946, he had been working for film makers Eastman Kodak, and formulating the theory of “Open Skies”. This called for mutual aerial reconnaissance, so that the developing superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union would not escalate into a nuclear exchange prompted by ignorance of the other side’s capabilities leading to a pre-emptive first strike.
Sadly, Colonel Leghorn’s Open Skies concept was not implemented at the time. But his technical knowledge and doctrinal expertise led him to advocate a very high-altitude strategic reconnaissance capability. In 1952 he joined a think tank in the Pentagon, and prompted the creation of a top secret study group that produced the seminal Beacon Hill Report. This encouraged the USAF to issue a formal requirement for a specialized jet.
Leghorn proposed a long-winged version of the B-57 bomber. But as the USAF acquisition process swung into action, other proposals emerged. The RB-57D was built, but the Land Panel, another high-powered group, furthered Leghorn’s belief that since the requirement called for an unconventional plane, it should be operated in an unconventional manner. The result was the U-2, sponsored and operated by the CIA.
However, Leghorn’s greatest contribution to strategic reconnaissance was yet to come. Now back at Kodak, he realized that the means to properly assemble and exploit the stream of imagery intelligence that strategic reconnaissance could provide, was lacking. That stream could become a torrent if reconnaissance satellites entered service. Naturally enough, Leghorn had been an early advocate for observation from space.
However, data processing capability was advancing in the commercial world, as IBM and other companies developed the digital computer. Leghorn proposed a company that could organize graphic information such as photographs, maps and diagrams. The first customers for this company would be in the US intelligence community.
The company was founded in late 1957 with Leghorn as president. It was named Itek, a synonym for ‘information technology’. This predated the common use of the acronym ‘IT’ to describe the revolution in data automation. It seems therefore that Leghorn invented the term.
But Itek’s core business was not to be data processing. Instead, thanks to Leghorn’s connections, it secretly began developing America’s first workable satellite camera under contract to the CIA. It went into orbit in 1960.
Itek went on to develop more cameras for satellites, and also for the U-2 – the Delta, the Iris and the Optical Bar Camera (OBC). The OBC is still flown by the Dragon Lady, and is now the only remaining ‘wet-film’ camera in the US inventory. In the 1980s, and now owned by Litton, Itek developed the Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS), the very long-range side-looking camera that is also still in service on the U-2.
Richard Leghorn left Itek in 1962 and pursued successful careers in cable television and telecommunications. I was privileged to meet him, late in his life (left). He died in January 2018, just three weeks before his 99th birthday.
A good account of Leghorn’s career can be found in the book “Spy Capitalism – Itek and the CIA” by Jonathan Lewis. It was published by Yale University Press in 2002 and is now out of print, although second-hand copies can still be found, and it is available on Kindle.