R.I.P. Hervey Stockman, First Pilot to Fly a Spy Plane Over Soviet Territory

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Hervey Stockman, First Pilot to Fly a Spy Plane Over Soviet Territory

Hervey Stockman passed away today, leaving behind a legacy as the first man to pilot a dedicated spy plane in Soviet airspace. Taking the Lockheed U-2 into Communist territory in the middle of the Cold War, Stockman was able to collect data on the USSR while evading MiGs trying to intercept him. Stockman also happened to be the uncle of Giz reader Willy Pell, who has graciously shared some personal anecdotes told to him by Stockman.


According to the CIA, Stockman began his career flying combat missions as an Air Force pilot in World War II. Pell says he lied about his age to enlist when he was 17. After the war he went to school for industrial design and became an automotive designer for GM. But after the Cold War ramped up in the 50s, Stockman was recalled back to the Air Force just as Lockheed was finishing up work on the first purpose-built spy plane, the U-2.

The U-2, of course, is an aircraft capable of flying at at altitude of up to 70,000 feet while maintaining subsonic speeds. It can embark on missions lasting over eight hours. However, because of its light weight and glider-esque design, the U-2 is extremely difficult to pilot.

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Hervey Stockman, First Pilot to Fly a Spy Plane Over Soviet Territory

Because of his experience flying fighter planes (more than 65 missions), the Air Force considered Stockman a suitable candidate to carry out the first U-2 mission in Soviet territory. When Stockman embarked from West Germany on July 4, 1956, he took the U-2 over the Belarus border, passing through Poland and East Germany in the process. Once in Belarus, Stockman piloted the plane over bomber bases and naval shipyards in Minsk and Leningrad before turning the plane around and heading back to safe skies. In the process, the Soviets were able to track Stockman, but the MiG fighters were not able to locate and intercept the U-2.

Here's what Pell had to say about Stockman's flight:

The first U2 flight took place on the 4th or July which was also his birthday. He bore no U.S. markings or identification, and was ordered to eat a cyanide pill if he had to eject. The Russians had him on radar the whole length of the Soviet Union but the U-2 was too high to hit. When he landed, his fuel tank was crushed from wind (the U-2 was basically made of tinfoil), and it leaked gas all over the runway. The runway crew tried to drag him out of the plane before it caught fire and he would not move until he filled out his flight log. "I just flew the length of the Soviet Union," he said, "I'm not concerned about a leaky gas tank."


After carrying out multiple U-2 missions between 1956 and 1958, Stockman went back to combat missions for the Air Force. In 1967, Stockman was forced to eject from his F-4 Phantom fighter jet while flying over North Vietnam. Subsequently, he was held as a prisoner for nearly 6 years. According to Pell, he was held in solitary confinement for 18 months and made friends with John McCain:

He was tortured every day by a guy they named, "Big Ug." Since he was the commanding officer, he was tortured the most. For 18 months he lived in solitary confinement and as he says, "lost his humanity." Eventually he was put back in a normal cell and some young private nursed him back to life. To remember how to read and write they made books out of t-shirts and underwear. To entertain the men he had contests to see which pilot had the highest ejection, the lowest ejection, the fastest ejection and the slowest ejection. They communicated these stats through morse code on the plumbing.

When he got back to the states he held no grudge against the Vietnamese. He said something like, "It was a war, what do you expect?" I think the only person he despised was Jane Fonda.


After he was released from the prison camp, he finished out his military career working for NATO and the Air Force before retiring in 1978 with the distinction of Colonel. Meanwhile, the Lockheed U-2 was used in CIA missions until the mid-70s and is still in use by the Air Force today.

Rest in peace, Hervey Stockman.



Chip Skylark of Space

It's amazing how many people have long and interesting careers like this, and yet we've never heard of them. Just a bunch of folks doing their jobs, and doing it well. Willy, he sounded like a hell of a guy. I just read the next book that the woman who wrote Seabiscuit did (Unbroken), about the track star from the 1930s who ended up in the Air Corps and then in a POW camp, during World War II. Just another guy, doing his job.