© Kristin Hill 2014

Operation Fish Hawk: Classified 1964
On display at the San Diego Air and Space Museum
in the ASAA 2014 International Aerospace Art Exhibit
April 28 - July 28, 2014

Operation Fish Hawk: Classified 1964

By Kristin Hill

© Kristin Hill 2014

In May, 1964, the CIA conducted two top secret reconnaissance flights with the U-2 to gather information about clandestine French nuclear tests on the Mururoa Atoll, French Polynesia. Two U-2G aircraft, specially modified for carrier takeoff and landing, flew to the USS Ranger off Hawaii and sailed to the South Pacific. Select U-2 pilots were trained to be carrier qualified in this high altitude, tandem landing gear aircraft that was known to be difficult to fly and land under any conditions.

Top secrecy was essential. The USS Ranger sailed with approximately half its usual crew and only essential aircraft other than the two U-2 aircraft which were kept below decks in seclusion. After sailing for a week with covert radio contact and limited convoy support, the USS Ranger held 800 miles off French Polynesia to avoid detection. The weather conditions to fly the reconnaissance mission had to meet strict criteria of relatively calm wind conditions due to the level of difficulty to land the U-2 on a carrier. The surveillance target must be visible from 70,000 feet. Favorable weather was necessary for at least eight hours, allowing the U-2 to return to the carrier successfully with the surveillance camera film at the completion of the mission.

To protect the secrecy of the U-2, only essential select CIA, Air Force and USS Ranger crew were permitted to see the aircraft. All other crew members were required to stay below deck. Photographs of the U-2 were prohibited. The carrier deck was empty, except for equipment essential for the U-2 and machinery needed to maneuver the very large winged aircraft on the carrier elevator and the flight deck. The Lockheed Skunk Works U-2G was a modified Air Force U-2C which included an arresting hook, enhanced landing gear to withstand the cable trap landings, simple wingtip arresting cable deflectors, wing surface spoilers and a side swiveling nose gear.

Following the long reconnaissance flight and successful landing on the USS Ranger, the film had to be flown by another aircraft to Hawaii, then to Rochester, New York, where the Eastman Kodak company stood ready to process the top secret images. Some secondary imagery was processed onboard the USS Ranger. The capture of imagery of the clandestine French nuclear activities was successful. A second flight was flown three days later to secure additional surveillance information. The successful mission was undetected by the French and proved invaluable to US foreign relations.

Designated U-2 pilots remained carrier qualified in the U-2G and the later, larger U-2R for ten years. To date, this is the only known operational mission of carrier based U-2 surveillance. This information was declassified by the US Navy and the CIA in 2003, although substantial portions of the CIA documentation remain undisclosed.

Note from artist Kristin Hill: Appreciation is extended to historian and author Chris Pocock for his assistance in the research for the painting Operation Fish Hawk: Classified.

Copyright © Kristin Hill 2014, article content and images may not be reproduced in any way.