Home » The first U-2 pilot remembers how, after almost biting his lethal cyanide pill in half, the only U-2 pilot to fly above Moscow almost died and crashed into Red Square

The first U-2 pilot remembers how, after almost biting his lethal cyanide pill in half, the only U-2 pilot to fly above Moscow almost died and crashed into Red Square

by Till Daisd
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Who could blame Vito, when approaching Moscow for the first time, felt his throat dry. Consequently, he reached into his pocket for a cough drop, but instead, he took out the cyanide pill and popped it into his mouth

From the beginning, the CIA and the US Air Force (USAF) collaborated to manage U-2 development, testing, and operations. However, the CIA hired citizens to fly overflights over the USSR. USAF Reserve fighter pilots left the service voluntarily to become CIA pilots because President Dwight D. Eisenhower thought that flying military pilots over the USSR would be interpreted as an act of war. They were test pilots for Lockheed, officially.

On July 4, 1956, the first U-2 mission over the USSR was conducted, and the aircraft returned with photos of the shipyards in Leningrad. Following that, there were a few more flights, and the images they provided helped the US determine that, contrary to popular belief, there was no “missile gap” or “bomber gap” favoring the Soviets. In the end, the CIA conducted 24 U-2 flights over the USSR in addition to multiple flights over other communist nations.

According to Ben Rich’s book, “Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed”, Marty Knutson, the first pilot chosen to fly the U-2, recalls:

Carmine Vito

‘I was the first pilot selected to fly in the U-2 program and made the third flight over the Soviet Union on the morning of July 8, 1956. I was a twenty-six-year-old with a thousand hours of fighter time. Now here I was flying over Russia in a fragile little airplane with a wingspan as long as the Brooklyn Bridge—and below I could see three hundred miles in every direction. This was enemy territory, big time. In those days especially, I had a very basic attitude about the Soviet Union —man, it was an evil empire, a forbidding, alien place and I sure as hell didn’t want to crash-land in the middle of it. I had to pinch myself that I was actually flying over the Soviet Union.

‘I began the day by eating a high-protein breakfast, steak and eggs, then put on the bulky pressure suit and the heavy helmet and had to lie down in a contour chair for two hours before taking off and breathe pure oxygen. The object was to purge the nitrogen out of my system to avoid getting the bends if I had to come down quick from altitude.

‘I knew from being briefed by the two other guys who flew these missions ahead of me to expect a lot of Soviet air activity. They tracked me from the minute I took off, which was an unpleasant surprise. We thought we would be invisible to their radar at such heights. No dice. Through my drift sight, I saw fifteen Russian MiGs following me from about fifteen thousand feet below.

‘The day before, Carmine Vito had followed the railroad tracks right into Moscow and actually saw two MiGs collide and crash while attempting to climb to his altitude.

‘Vito had a close call. The ground crew had put his poison cyanide pill in the wrong pocket. We were issued the pill in case of capture and torture and all that good stuff, but given the option whether to use it or not.

‘But Carmine didn’t know the cyanide was in the right breast pocket of his coveralls when he dropped in a fistful of lemon-flavored cough drops. The cyanide pill was supposed to be in an inside pocket. Vito felt his throat go dry as he approached Moscow for the first time—who could blame him? So, he fished in his pocket for a cough drop, and grabbed the cyanide pill instead, and popped it into his mouth.

‘He started to suck on it. Luckily, he realized his mistake in a split second and spit it out in horror before it could take effect. Had he bit down, he would have died instantly and crashed right into Red Square. Just imagine the international uproar!

‘I kept my cyanide pill in an inside pocket and prayed that I would not have an engine flameout.’

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Photo by U.S. Air Force

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