Spy Planes At Mildenhall

This page is still under construction. More material will be added over the coming months.

Before the SR-71

The famous SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ spy plane was based at RAF Mildenhall in the latter stages of the Cold War, between …. and …. However, spy missions were flown from East Anglia bases from the early 1950s.

Operation Jiu Jitsu was a series of missions in 1952 where RAF crews flew deep-penetrations spy missions over the Soviet Union, using USAF RB-45C reconnaissance aircraft repainted in RAF colours, from RAF Sculthorpe. This was because the US president had forbidden the USAF to fly such missions over Soviet territory.

About 1953, the RAF also conducted its own spying missions using the reconnaissance version of the Canberra jet bomber; most of the information about these flights is still classified.

The first Cold War era spy planes to be based in the Brecks were USAF RB-47s – the reconnaissance version of the B-47 Stratojet – stationed at Mildenhall from 1956-58. According to Wikipedia “The RB-47s based at RAF Mildenhall performed some of the most sensitive reconnaissance missions of the Cold War. During its service, at least two of these planes were lost flying missions over the Soviet Union. One incident occurred during a photographic mission over the Soviet Union. The plane was intercepted and fired upon by Soviet MiGs and sustained wing damage. Fortunately, it was able to outrun them at altitude and return to RAF Mildenhall. The RB-47s were eventually phased out and replaced with the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71.

U-2 and SR-71

According to Wikipedia “The next significant event in Mildenhall’s history came with the arrival of Detachment 4, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing in 1976, which controlled rotational Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird operations from the base. It is not known when SAC first began making reconnaissance flights in Europe with these aircraft. There are indications that these … aircraft have been operating in Europe since the end of the 1960s”


The U-2 was an astonishing plane developed by legendary engineer Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s Skunk Works.

It has only recently come to light that, as with the earlier RB-45C missions, some of those U-2 missions in 1958-59 were flown by RAF pilots. This has never been officially admitted by the UK government.

SR-71 Blackbird

The SR-71, also designed by Kelly Johnson, first flew in 1964, nine years after the U-2’s first flight, and four years after the U-2 piloted by Frances Gary Powers had been shot down over the Soviet Union. Where the U-2 had relied on high altitude to remain invulnerable, the SR-71 relied on raw speed!

When it was operational, almost everything about the SR-71 was highly secret. However, since then, a vast amount of information has been declassified; you can even download a copy (only slightly redacted) of the SR-71 pilots’ flight manual!