There is little in the world that can match the simultaneous awesomeness and mystery of a spy plane. These are the paragon of modern innovation, yet largely pass invisible above us. They decide battles and wars, yet only a few lucky soldiers get to see them. Blah blah blah words. Let's look at some incredible machinery.
Convair B-36 RB-36D Peacemaker
The B-36 strategic bomber was not only the largest primary nuclear weapons delivery aircraft of the USAF in the Fifties, but the reconnaissance version, the RB-36D (below) was smart as well: It could carry 23 cameras AND a small darkroom where a photo technician developed the film. Photo: US Air Force
North American B-45 RB-45C Tornado
The RB-45C was the spying version of the B-45, the first jet-powered US bomber. This four-jet-engined beast carried 12 cameras and penetrated several enemy territories (North Korea, Eastern Europe) in the mid-1950s.
Photo: US Air Force
The U-2 is a legend: It has delivered high-altitude, all-weather surveillance day and night for more than 50 years as the primary strategic reconnaissance aircraft of the USAF.
Photo: US Air Force
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
Any words we could write here would miserably fail to describe the Blackbird's awesome badassery.
Photo: Lockheed Martin
Grumman OV-1D / RV-1D Mohawk
This observation aircraft was designed in the late 1950s as a dedicated reconnaissance plane, equipped with a Motorola APS-94F SLAR radar with a range of over 100km. Photo: J. David Clinton/NASA Glenn Research Center
Nasicornis Loening OL
Also known as the Loening Amphibian, the OL was a two-seat amphibious observation biplane built by Loening for the US Army and the Navy.
Photo: Library of Congress
Boeing E-3 Sentry
This US Air Force handout photo shows an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) in flight. The E-3 Sentry is a modified Boeing 707/320 with a large radar dome used for air and ground surveillance. Photo: Joe Cupido/US Air Force/Getty Images
Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star
The propeller-driven EC-121 was constructed to serve as an early warning system to supplement the Distant Early Warning Line, using two large radomes above and below its fuselage. Photo: US Air Force
General Dynamics EF-111A Raven
The Raven was more an electronic warfare aircraft than a dedicated spy plane. The plane was unarmed, but its speed, acceleration, and radar jamming system made the plane a fierce foe. Photo: Staff Sgt. Simons/US Air Force
Raytheon Beech RC-12
One word: Wolverine. The highly modified Super King Air 200B business class aircraft is used as a battlefield reconnaissance plane. Photo: fas.org
Tupolev Tu-16R Badger
Let's not forget about the Soviet and Russian spy planes, the American jet pilots' best friends in the Cold War era. This dangerously shiny silver airborne weapon is the maritime reconnaissance variant of the fearful Tu-16 twin-engine jet bomber. Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum
Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder-C
This silver arrow was the first supersonic bomber to enter production in the USSR, powered by two turbojet engines, modified to serve a maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The unusual design — engines beside the vertical tail, above the rear fuselage — made her quite unique. Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum
The Soviet U-2. Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum
Tupolev TU-95 Bear
The Convair Peacemaker's evil Communist sister shadowed by a US Navy A-4E Skyhawk. The Tu-95MR was a modified version of the large, four-engine turboprop-powered strategic bomber. Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum
A Soviet transonic turbojet reconnaissance drone that flew in the late 1970s and 1980s. Soviet. Reconnaissance. Drone. Awesome. It could carry film cameras, infrared imagers, Earth observation imagers, and imaging radar. Photo: Bernhard Gröhl/Wikimedia Commons
This supersonic interceptor and reconnaissance aircraft was among the fastest military aircrafts to enter service. Below is one of the two Ye-155R reconnaissance prototypes followed by four pre-production aircraft fitted with different pieces of spying equipment and a powerful radar. The MiG-25 has a top speed of about Mach 3. Photo: N/A
This graceful, swept wing, two-engine, turbojet-powered combat aircraft was initially produced as a subsonic bomber, but was later kitted out as reconnaissance, electronic warfare, interceptor and trainer versions in the '60s. Photo: A. Sz. Jakovlev: Szárnyak, emberek. Zrínyi Katonai Kiadó, Budapest, 1977.
Beriev A-50 Mainstay
A-50, the Russian equivalent of the American AWACS aircraft is based on the Ilyushin Il-76 freighter. In the photo it's escorted by MiG-31 interceptor jets during an air show to mark the 95th anniversary of the Russian Air Forces in Monino, some 40km east of Moscow. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Avro Vulcan B2(SR2)
I hope you won't mind me bringing up a childhood memory: In the Seventies and Eighties any Hungarian kid (or grownup) who was interested in science and technology used to watch this weekly show called Delta. This was the title sequence. As a result, we all have the Avro Vulcan silhouette burned into our retinas forever. (The Avro Vulcan was a four-engine jet-powered delta wing strategic bomber, operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1956 until 1984. In the mid Seventies nine Vulcans were adapted for maritime radar reconnaissance operations, redesignated as B.2 (MRR).)