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14 Of The Most Significant Spy Planes Of The 20th Century

Aviation went from 'first flight' to 'spy flight' in just a few short years. These are 14 of the most significant reconnaissance planes of the 20th century.

1) RC-135 Rivet Joint

In service since 1961, the RC-135 is the USAF's standard SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) aircraft. Crews can identify and geolocate signals, then disseminate them in almost real-time across the globe.

2) de Havilland Mosquito

Though most people think of it as a bomber, the Mosquito was one of the most important reconnaissance aircraft of WWII, flying countless missions over Western Europe.

3) RF-8 Crusader

The RF-8 was played a crucial reconnaissance role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, flying low-level photo missions and monitoring the construction of Medium-Range Ballistic Missile sites on the island.

4) Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25

The MiG-25 is the second fastest air-breathing jet in the world, and in a reconnaissance configuration, could reportedly reach altitudes over 80,000 feet.

5) Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star

Before the AWACS, there was the Warning Star. This modified Lockheed Constellation carried two large radomes for airborne early warning.

6) Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder

The Tu-22 was the Soviet Union's first supersonic bomber to enter production. Although it didn't have the range initially hoped for, it was used for maritime reconnaissance after in-flight refueling capability was added. And with its tail-mounted engines, it looked like nothing else in the world.

7) Lockheed U-2

The "Dragon Lady" has been flying for 60 years, and it has quite a history. Though successful, a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers was famously shot down over the Soviet Union, and another piloted by Rudolf Anderson, Jr. was downed over Cuba.

8) Avro Vulcan

Nine of England's wild-looking strategic bombers were converted to maritime reconnaissance operations in the 1970s. They flew missions until 1982.


9) Convair B-36 Peacemaker

Not only was the Peacemaker the largest mass-produced piston engine aircraft ever made, the reconnaissance version carried 14 cameras and a darkroom so photo technicians could develop the film that was just shot.

10) Tupolev Tu-16R Badger

One of the Soviet Union's first long-range strategic bombers, the Tu-16R was adapted for maritime reconnaissance, and it flew for nearly 50 years.

11) E-3 Sentry

The E-3, better known as 'AWACS', is the quarterback of the sky, providing surveillance, command, control and communications to the US and NATO forces.


12) Myasishchev M-17/M-55

In the 1960s, the US was releasing high altitude reconnaissance balloons that would enter the jetstream and fly over the Soviet Union. To combat the problem, the USSR developed the M-17 to fly high and shoot down the balloons. But after satellites became the US camera of choice, the USSR cancelled the program and turned the jet into a reconnaissance platform.

13) Lockheed SR-71

One of the most prolific reconnaissance aircraft of all time, the SR-71 still holds the world record for fastest manned air-breathing jet.

14) Tupolev TU-95 Bear

Russia's most famous bomber is also its most capable reconnaissance aircraft, with several variants carrying out SIGINT missions. With a wing sweep of 35 degrees and contra-rotating propellers, it's one of most unique looking - and loudest - propeller powered aircraft in the world.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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