“From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance” by Tyler Morton, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 328 pages, $49.95

Few think of Benjamin Franklin as an airpower proponent. Yet this Founding Father was enthusiastic about the balloon’s military potential. Not just as a tool for reconnaissance, but as a means of moving troops behind enemy lines.

“From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance” by Tyler Morton delivers this nugget among several surprising revelations in this history of aerial reconnaissance.

The Duke of Wellington stated war consisted of guessing what was at the other side of the hill. As Morton shows aerial reconnaissance offered a look at that hidden side of the hill.

Airborne scouting has extremely old roots. The Chinese used manned kites for centuries before the first hot air balloon flight in 1783. But the Montgolfier’s 1783 balloon launched manned aerial reconnaissance in the West. For a century, armies attempted to use balloons from the French Revolutionary War in 1794 through the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Morton shows how motorizing lighter-than-air craft creating powered blimps and zeppelins made things more interesting. The Wright brothers, with their heavier-than-air airplanes, offered unprecedented access to flight.

Morton explores what happened in chapters covering development of aerial reconnaissance before World War I, during that war and in the years after it through World War II.

He shows how air forces evolved from flying fragile, kite-like biplanes to the robust aircraft of the mid-1940s. He also shows how reconnaissance evolved, and how it changed warfare. Ironically, during this period airpower advocates often slighted reconnaissance in favor of strategic bombing — occasionally to the point where they lacked target information for their bombers.

The final chapters cover the Cold War through the end of the Vietnam War. He wraps the book up in the early 1970s. Classification made it too difficult to accurately document reconnaissance after that.

Yet these chapters are the book’s most fascinating. The U-2 possibly prevented World War III by reducing uncertainty about Soviet intentions. This was also the period when integrated battlefield reconnaissance through early-warning aircraft emerged.

“From Kites to Cold War” is a fascinating look at a neglected part of history: reconnaissance. History buffs will enjoy Morton’s book.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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(1) comment

Bailey Jones

When I started my electronic intelligence (ELINT) engineering career in the 80s, the U-2 was still secret enough that we were warned never to use its name, or even acknowledge its existence. I remember my first boss was an ex-CIA guy who could speak 5 languages. By the time I left the program in the early 2000s, much of that secrecy was gone and we all had company U-2 T-shirts. I was standing in line at the grocery store wearing mine and an older gentleman pointed at my shirt and whispered, "I used to work on that". When I replied, "Oh, the U-2?", all the color drained from his face.

This sounds like a fun book.

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