This is the last untold episode from the early U-2 days. How the CIA attempted to train some Greek air force pilots to fly the U-2 over the Soviet Union, instead of Americans. Even today, the story is obscured by misinformation and continuing secrecy. The CIA has declassified two histories of the U-2 project, but only fragments of this story can be found in them, and the nationality plus the names of the pilots have been withheld.
Shortly after President Eisenhower approved Project Aquatone in late November 1954, and eight months before the U-2 made its first flight, the CIA decided that it would be best if non-American pilots could fly the new spyplane. The theory was that there would be fewer political repercussions if one were to make a forced landing, or be brought down, over enemy territory. According to one of the CIA histories[i] it was President Eisenhower himself who decreed that foreign pilots be recruited.
The CIA was already using foreign pilots. Its Air Maritime Division (AMD) had been flying a variety of transport and light aircraft into communist eastern and southern Europe, mostly at night, to drop spies, saboteurs, and propaganda leaflets. They were crewed mostly by exiled Polish airmen.
According to another CIA history[ii] “sources in Europe were canvassed for prospects”. This is probably a reference to the Polish exiles. These pilots were told that they would be well paid, if they signed up for a new covert action (the recruitment drive had its own codename: Project Zestful). But most of them were judged to be unsuitable. One reason must have been their lack of jet-flying experience.[iii]
Lt Col Leo Geary (left) came up with another idea. He was the US Air Force liaison officer to AMD, and had previously served in the Joint US Military Advisory and Planning Group (JUSMAPG) in Athens. Three Greek pilots had already flown covert photo reconnaissance missions over Albania and Romania, using two RF-51D Mustangs supplied by the US. So Geary approached his senior contacts in the Royal Hellenic Air Force (RHAF), including a general, probably Gen Kelaidis, the Chief of the Air Staff. The RHAF agreed to select some of their pilots and send them to the US. They were all reserve officers with five-year contracts, who could therefore be more easily separated from the service, than RHAF academy graduates. Some of them may be in the group photo (above, right).
By the end of July 1955, 15 foreign pilots between the ages of 23 and 25 had been recruited, according to one of the CIA histories. Since the history notes that all 15 had flown at least 500 hours in jets, they were probably all Greeks. The RHAF was already flying T-33 jet trainers (below, left) and F-84G jet fighters (below, right). Those selected were first sent to the USAFE base at Wiesbaden in West Germany for a rigorous medical examination that included testing their suitability for flying at high altitude. Some of them did not pass the exam, and returned to Greece.
It seems from declassified CIA documents that an initial four Greek pilots were in the US by July 1955. Like the others that followed, they were ‘black entries’ to the US, meaning that the CIA smuggled them in without immigration control.
Meanwhile, the director of Project Aquatone Richard Bissell had learnt that flying the U-2 would require a high level of skill and physical fitness. He decided that American pilots would have to be recruited after all, from the US Air Force. However, the training of foreign pilots would still proceed. The CIA was keeping its options open.
The U-2 made its first flight on 4th August 1955 at Watertown, the secret new base in the Nevada desert that had been hurriedly built for Project Aquatone (it was nicknamed “The Ranch”, was greatly expanded later, and became known as Groom Lake). Five pilots from the Lockheed Skunk Works flew intensively to prove the aircraft’s abilities. They were joined in November by a training group of six military pilots that the USAF had selected as instructor pilots (IPs). They would train the pilots who would deploy to fly operational missions. Meanwhile, recruitment of the first group of American pilots for such missions was underway. They would have to formally leave the USAF and become civilians working for Lockheed – another scheme to reduce the consequences if something went wrong. At least, that was the theory!
By mid-December 1955, the number of prospective foreign pilots deemed suitable for the U-2 had been reduced to eight, all Greek[iv]. They had started a refresher T-33 course on USAF aircraft at Craig AFB, Alabama.
Some of the Polish airmen that had been recruited under Project Zestful with the intention of making them U-2 pilots, had been turned over to AMD instead, for training on a special version of the US Navy P2V Neptune patrol plane, which the CIA was introducing for the covert missions into eastern Europe.
The first group of seven American pilots arrived at The Ranch in mid-January 1956, and were checked out by the IPs over the next few weeks. They deployed to Europe in early May, and began flying over eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in late June.
Meanwhile, four of the Greek pilots apparently completed the T-33 course and moved on to Luke AFB, Arizona, which was an F-84 training base. According to one of the CIA histories, the other four had chosen to return to Greece. Lt Col Geary arranged for a USAF officer of Greek descent, who was serving at Moody AFB as the base operations officer, to assist in the training at Luke. The four were taught high-altitude, long distance navigation including how to take sunshots through a sextant (the U-2’s navigation system was rudimentary, like so much else about the aircraft).
Coincidentally – or not – the American pilots had all flown F-84s in the USAF. When they reached The Ranch, they were introduced to the single-seat U-2 at Watertown via some T-33 flights, during which their IPs flew with them and tried to demonstrate the difficult landing characteristics of the U-2. (However, the T-33 was a poor substitute for the U-2, which had a “bicycle” two-wheel landing gear, and long wings which didn’t want to stop flying!).
In April, Lt Col Geary and Col McCafferty, who was the chief of AMD, visited Luke AFB and decided that the four Greek pilots could move on to Watertown and fly the U-2. Others in Project Aquatone were not happy about it. One of the security officers reminded Project Director Bissell that the main rationale for foreign pilots being recruited in the first place, was no longer valid. A “cover story” for the project had been devised. The aircraft would be doing high-altitude weather research for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA – the predecessor of NASA). And NACA did not employ any foreign civilians as pilots.
Nevertheless, the CIA decided to continue training the four Greeks. It was probably not until this time, that the exact nature of the aircraft and its purpose was revealed to them. It would not have been good security practice, for the CIA to have revealed any details of Project Aquatone to them earlier. Therefore, they may not have been sent for the fitting of their partial pressure suits until now. (The suits protected U-2 pilots from the potentially fatal consequences of a cockpit decompression at 70,000 feet. They were custom-fitted to each pilot by the David Clark Company in Worcester, MA).
Anyway, it was late June 1956 before they arrived at the Ranch, accompanied by an RHAF navigator who had been trained by the USAF as a photo interpreter and intelligence officer. By then, a second group of ten American pilots were in training at the secret base. But one of them had died in mid-May, in the first fatal U-2 accident. There had been other accidents, none of them as serious, but all of them demonstrated how difficult it was to fly this airplane. Seven of the US pilots sent to The Ranch did not complete their training. A second one was killed in late August.
It also proved difficult for the Greeks. Unusually for a jet aircraft, the primary flight control for the U-2 was a big ‘yoke’ topped by a large grip (left), that the pilot rotated left or right to move the unboosted ailerons. Louis Setter, one of the American IPs, recalled giving a checkout of the cockpit to his Greek student. “He sat in the seat, took the wheel, and attempted to move it right and left, instead of rotating it as you would driving a car. I asked him if he knew how to drive a car and he said he did not. He knew how to ride a bicycle and fly a Spitfire!”
The HAF flew Spitfires right up until 1955, so this pilot probably had plenty of hours in the famous Second World War fighter. Setter noted that the Spitfire had high aileron forces, and so a non-rotating wheel was added on the top of the stick, so that the pilot could grip it with both hands to roll the aircraft faster. Setter took his Greek student out onto the lakebed in the Ford Station Wagon that was used to chase the U-2s as they land, and he quickly learnt to steer. Then Setter flew him in the L-20 Beaver high-wing monoplane that was used as a chaseplane, which also had a wheel, and the same landing speed as the U-2, to familiarize him with this means of roll control.
Setter also recalled: “A Greek student pilot completed the standard transition training in the T-33, but flew the U-2 only once: his first solo ride. He had a lot of trouble communicating in English, so radio (instruction) calls to him were quite difficult. On his first landing on the lakebed, he leveled off about 30 feet near the stall speed, with the tail down. The airplane stalled and hit hard, kicking up a cloud of dust. Kelly Johnson (the designer of the U-2 and head of the Skunk Works) personally saw this and decided “no more U-2 flying for this pilot””.
Bob Murphy (left) was one of the Skunk Works engineers assigned to the secret base. He recalled: “One of the Greek pilots was doing touch and go landings on the lakebed, making 360-degree turns with the left wing low all the time. After a number of turns, all the fuel was draining out of the right wing to the point where on the last touchdown, the left wing dragged along the ground. The pilot was unable to raise the wing, and the landing gear collapsed. The pilot exited the aircraft just as I arrived at the crash scene. He had left the engine running. A fireman raised a large crash axe over the equipment bay aft of the cockpit. I grabbed his arm and asked him what he was doing. He told me that he had to get into the equipment bay to disconnect the battery so that the engine would quit. I told him that had nothing to do with shutting off the engine.” Murphy climbed into the cockpit and shut off the fuel valve.
Gary Powers also recalled the Greek pilots, in his autobiography. He was part of the second group of American pilots, and therefore in training at Watertown at the same time. He presumed that the Greeks were mercenaries, who were in the project without the knowledge of their government. “We were never told otherwise…we were never told why they were included,” he wrote.
“Whatever the reason, it didn’t work out,” he continued. “Inconspicuous they were not, at least not in Hollywood, here they spent most of their weekends, always with an agency escort. It was no secret that none of the CIA men relished the escort job. Like playing nursemaid to four Zorbas, each intent on his own devilment. Their zest for enjoying themselves was epic.”
It is not clear how many flights and how much U-2 time the Greek pilots managed to log. They were at Watertown for less than a month. The CIA history notes: “Due partly to language problems, the (Greeks) had a difficult time learning to fly the U-2, and on 15 July 1956, Col William Yancey, commander of the training unit, reported that they were not qualified to continue”. Geary and McCafferty protested, but they were overruled.
Now the question arose: what to do with them? They knew all about the most secret project in the US. The CIA initially decided to keep them in the US until the end of the project. (In those early days, the U-2 was only expected to have a short lifetime before the Soviets found a way of shooting it down).
The Greeks were flown to Washington and on to a nice beachside hotel, while a year-long program of study at the University of Delaware was arranged At least one of them was also sent for a flight training course for airline pilots.
By April 1957 the CIA had decided that the four could be released and go home at the end of this study program, which would be in October 1957. They were told to write letters confirming their intention to return to Greece. (They were probably also asked to sign letters that committed them to keeping their encounter with Project Aquatone secret).
The CIA had already decided that they should each receive a parting gift – a tape recorder. The Agency also bought a gun for them to give to the RHAF General who had recruited the pilots. “I do not believe these gifts should be presented until we are sure they are going back,” wrote a CIA official. But it seems that at least two of them did not go back to Greece. They remained in the US. Perhaps they traded their precious knowledge of the U-2 for the right to stay in the US!
So who were these Greek pilots? Not surprisingly, they have been difficult to identify.
Nick Tselepidis learnt from the HAF archives, that his father George (left) was selected, and progressed at least as far as the medical exam in Germany, and maybe further. Terry Tsemertzis heard his father Sotirios describe his time at Watertown, including the day when he took a ride into the desert on horseback. Upon his return, he had to be decontaminated, because that area was thought to have been covered in radioactive fallout from nuclear tests on the nearby Nevada Test Site. Tsemertzis was one of the two or three who did not go back to Greece. Over 40 years later, he admitted participating in a ‘black’ US project to ace Greek fighter pilot, Spiros Pisanos, who visited him in San Diego.
One CIA document inadvertently disclosed that Achileas Tzelilis (left) was one of the four who made it as far as Watertown. After returning to Greece, he was killed in the crash of an F-84F in 1959. The service records of two First Lieutenants, John Demopoulos and George Tasoulis, suggest that they were the other two pilots that reached The Ranch. Col Dimitrios “Jim” Karnezis (above, right) was the USAF officer of Greek descent who helped to train the four HAF pilots in Arizona. He had flown B-17s and been shot down in the Second World War. He later flew F-4s.
What might have happened if the Greek pilots had qualified? Possibly, the CIA could have kept them as a self-contained group with its own supporting personnel, ready to mount ‘deniable’ flights with the US sponsorship therefore disguised. That is exactly what Richard Bissell aimed to do, when he invited the British Royal Air Force to join the project two years later. But that’s another story.
With my grateful thanks to Kyriakos Paloulian, who is an airline pilot, and Dimitris Vassilopoulos, a former crew chief in the Hellenic Air Force. They have researched and written about Greek aviation history for many years. Much of their work can be found at the website https://www.greeks-in-foreign-cockpits.com/ My thanks also to Franek Grabowski.
added Gary Powers’ recollections from his autobiography, 6th January.
[i] “The CIA and the U-2 Program”, 1998, p73
[ii] “History of the Office of Special Activities (OSA)”, 1969, Chap X
[iii] According to “The CIA and the U-2 Program”, at least one Polish pilot was recruited for the U-2 program. Another source suggests only one. The most likely candidates are Jozef Jeka and Ksawery “Big Bill” Wyrozemski. They were Polish exiles who had flown Spitfires with the RAF in the Second World War, and had subsequently been recruited by the AMD. They had been trained to fly jets, as part of a plan to steal a MiG-15 from a Soviet based in Poland. The progress of a Polish pilot through U-2 training is not subsequently described in this CIA history, nor is it mentioned in the other CIA history. But one of the U-2 instructor pilots at Watertown recalls one Polish pilot arriving there, who had flown Spitfires. Apparently, he never flew the U-2.
[iv] But see footnote 3