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Operation Crowflight 1960 Part 1

The Australian Broadcasting Commission in Victoria, ABV2, had taken on a film director. He was the first, in as much as all the directing had been done previously by the film editors.  He had no experience of film editing except, presumably, to supervise the editing of  those films he had directed. He regarded himself as an artist and I suppose to some extent he was. His name was Louis Mattli, he was Swiss.  Around the beginning of October 1960, Louis was commissioned to direct a film about an American Air Force flight that had come to Australia to do some meteorological studies. It was called “Operation Crowflight”.  The Americans were based at R.A.A.F. East Sale which is about 100 miles East of Melbourne. Louis went off to do his research and kept matters close to his chest.  He retired to an office to work out how he was going to tackle this subject.  After a while, he announced that he would be ready to film the subject sometime in December and he would need to be shooting for six days.  All of this was accepted without question, after all, it was about time some subject was given plenty of lead time, plenty of production time and adequate funds.

What, apparently, seemed to be an unrelated event took place on November 2ndJohn Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected President of the United States. Some weeks later, Gerald Lyons, who had been producing the “Operation Crowflight” project got a phone call from the Colonel in charge of the operation at R.A.A.F. East Sale.  He told Gerald that they had been ordered to return to the States. At this point, I knew little or nothing about this project.

On Friday 9th December 1960, John Cameron, Studio Manager, asked me to attend an emergency meeting in his office.  Also in attendance was Gerald Lyons, Louis Mattli and Les Hendy (Chief Cameraman). Gerald announced that the project was now in jeopardy since the Americans were now offering the A.B.C. only one day in which to film the whole project.  Not only that, the chosen day was the following Tuesday, 13th December. Louis was in a state of apoplexy.  On the desk in front of him was his twenty-page script that he had lovingly prepared during the previous month.  He was almost in tears and said that there was no way that he was going to continue with the project, he said that it could not be done in one day.

Oh! He of little faith.  Louis left the meeting at the request of John Cameron who then turned to me and asked me if I would do it. Being a newsreel man, it was, to me, in this instance, a piece of cake to bring in a filmed programme in one day, a whole day !  Lead me to it. There was relief all round and I, not knowing what I had let myself in for, started to worry that I should not have volunteered. I was then briefed on the subject. “Operation Crowflight” consisted of three aircraft.  They were U2s.  Wow!!   I asked if they were the same as the U2 of Gary Powers who, some months before, had been shot down over Russia and who almost caused World War Three.  Yes, they were.  Why were they being recalled ?  Because the President elect said so, he wanted to start with a clean slate with the Russians.  He did not want any U2s flying anywhere in the world.

Operation Crowflight opening title

Operation Crowflight opening title

Les asked me to choose my team.  I chose Kirby Rickards on camera, Keith Taylor as camera assistant and Don Calder on sound.  Kirby had been a newsreel cameraman with Pathe News, he was an obvious choice if we were being forced to work quickly. We were told that the pilots of the aircraft might be able to take pictures of the earth from high up through their special observation device.  This, apparently, was a telescopic viewer which was housed between the pilot’s knees.  It had two positions, one to show fifteen square miles, the second to show one square mile, this from 70,000 feet.  I had a small Bell and Howell camera, already loaded, dispatched to East Sale on the previous Saturday. They had asked me how the camera should be used and I recalled my taking of a photograph through a telescope off Algiers in 1956, so I told them to do the same as I had done, set the film camera to infinity and shoot at will through their telescopic viewer. I did not really expect to get anything from that camera.

Keith Taylor had been an assistant in Ren Leslie’s shop in Frankston.  Ren was a ABC freelance cameraman. Keith had been taught to use a movie camera so that he could operate when Ren Leslie was absent.  Later he joined the A.B.C. as a camera assistant.  Many years later, he would re-appear as one of the world’s great wild-life cinematographers, working on some of the best documentaries that Australia produced. Before going, I had a meeting with Nandor Jenes who was to edit the film.

The broadcast date was the following Thursday night. So we were going to have around forty-eight hours to complete post production.  Processing, editing, track-laying, commentary recording and title making.  We cleared the decks and Nandor said he would stand by from the early hours of Wednesday morning. We went in the A.B.C. camera car which took all the gear, the crew of four and Gerald Lyons.

We set off from Ripponlea at about 4am with 100 miles of not terribly good road before us.   A large part of the journey was in the dark with very few other vehicles on the road.  Eventually, we saw the sky getting lighter in front of us and then the rising sun.

We arrived at about 7.45am and were immediately taken into the R.A.A.F. Officers Mess. There, we received our first bit of bad news.  Gerald had got permission to use the R.A.A.F. Air-Sea Rescue DC3, which was based at East Sale, as an aerial camera platform to do air-to-air shots with the U2s.  They told us that there was a ship foundering in the Great Australian Bight and the DC3 had gone to help and would not be back until later.  In fact it did not return that day. I asked if there was any other aircraft available.  They scratched their heads for a while and one officer said, “Well, you could use the Winjeel, but that’s got a maximum speed of 110knots”.  We did not have a choice, so I said, “We’ll take it”.

I assembled the team outside and gave them a little talk.  The gist of it was that, as we had already seen, things can go wrong.  I said that we must not stand idle waiting for anything to happen and that we must be filming something at all times.  Nothing was to be left until later, some things might not happen at all. We started shooting.  Don Calder had brought along, for the first time, a newly acquired radio microphone.  This was a very crude affair by today’s standards, but it was the latest product available at the time. The receiver was a cube of 1’ x 1’ x 1’ with a coaxial tape aerial which came out of the box for about six feet when it joined, in its middle, a cross-piece of the same material which was also about six feet long. While we had been talking, Don and Keith had been trying to get it to work by carefully laying out the aerial.  Nothing they tried would work, so I said, we will have to do without it.  Don said “Sod it !” and then screwed the coaxial tape into a ball and threw it at the receiver.  The aerial lay in all directions when Keith, with the head phones on, said “That’s it, it’s perfect !” From then on, that’s how we used the radio microphone, just throwing the aerial anywhere.  It always worked.

Our camera equipment consisted of an Auricon sound camera, recording the sound on the side of the film, this with a Zom-Berthiot zoom lens, we had an Arriflex camera for silent shots and for our air to air shots. We had a Bell and Howell hand camera for emergencies. The next piece of bad news was that the three aircraft were all airborne and would be back later.  How much later ?  I decided to do as much as we could before they got back so that we could give them all our attention.

Gerald Lyons - piece to camera Operation Crowflight December 1960

Gerald Lyons – piece to camera Operation Crowflight December 1960

So, to the first shot.  I decided that, to be smart, we would demonstrate the radio mike that nobody in Australia had ever seen, or should I say heard, before (and not many people around the World had either). I placed the camera on the roof of a hangar and Gerald, with the microphone in his hand, at about sixty yards range, walked toward the camera with R.A.A.F. East Sale in the background.  Briefly he told the story of these aircraft that fly to “the fringe of space”.  He started off as a very small speck in the middle of the screen, but grew as he walked toward the camera and Kirby eased in with the zoom lens.

Next we found the medical officer, Captain Ryan, in charge of flying suits and Gerald interviewed him. The wind got up and soon it was blowing gale force across the airfield.  In those days, we had no proper device to lessen the unwanted noise.  He gave a wonderful account of how these uniforms were, in fact, space suits with pressurised head-gear that looked very much like the space suits we came to know years later.  He said that blood boiled at 60,000 feet without any help and, therefore, it was necessary to provide a suit that was tight and could hold the body together to create a pressurised environment.  Because of this, the suits were made to measure and the pilots had to stick to a strict diet.


Image by scopeland via Flickr

This was all demonstrated by one of the spare pilots.  He looked like a spaceman, he was a spaceman. On the pilot’s helmet was the word “King” and on the side “U-8”. It was quite obvious, even at that stage, the pilots of Operation Crowflight were hand-picked.  They were the elite.

Years later, I wondered how many of them had been considered for the space programme. Using an internal mock-up, we staged a radio communication between the C.O.  Colonel McCaslin and one of the U2s coming in.  It was typical radio talk and we used it to usher in the first landing.  “Unity control, unity control…..come in…”.

Up to now, we had not seen a U2, so we did not know what to expect.  They told us.  Its landing gear consisted of two wheels, one in front of the other and that, when it landed, and slowed down, it would fall over to one side or the other.

Because of the amount of technical equipment built into the aircraft, there was no room for a conventional landing gear. The wingspan of 80 feet (almost 25 metres) was enormous in relation to its length. At the end of the runway, there would be some aircraftsmen who would go along with two pieces of iron to prop the aircraft up. The pieces of iron were bowed like an old car’s rear spring.  It had a T-bolt at the top and a castor wheel at the bottom.  They seemed terribly crude alongside the most modern aircraft they supported.

The Colonel told us that one of the aircraft had had a “flame-out” 300 miles out in the Pacific at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet.   A Flame-out was when the jet engine switched itself off.  He said that, under normal circumstances, a pilot could try to restart his engine by going into a dive, however, being so far out at sea, if he failed, he would have run out of options.  He decided to glide in the final 300 miles and he reached R.A.A.F. East Sale without major trouble.  No other aircraft could have done that.

The first aircraft was coming in. Its registration number was (5) 66715. I had not seen this event before and I could only go by what I was told by the Colonel.  Kirby Rickard was sent off to his Winjeel so that he could do some air-to-air shots of the incoming aircraft. We had a second camera and it was my intention, from the outset, to get Keith Taylor to operate.  We drove off to the start of the runway.  There, the Colonel was in front of us, on the runway in his station wagon, waiting to talk down the U2.  This was necessary because the aircraft was designed in such a way that the pilot could not see the ground in front of him when landing.  This was the case with Concord and later the Space Shuttle which had to be “seen down” by accompanying jet fighters.  For the U2, with a very low stalling speed, a fast car would do. We waited at the head of the runway.  The Colonel with his driver and Gerald Lyons with his radio microphone in the same car.  Don, located by the side of the runway, would record the conversation between the Colonel and the incoming pilot.  He would do this recording on a machine, a 16mm magnetic film recorder, that he had designed and built himself.

Keith Taylor and I were set up on the runway so that the U2 would appear into our frame from behind our left shoulder.  We were not quite prepared for the roar of the engine as it came in.  The aircraft was only about thirty feet from us with an altitude of about forty feet when it reached the runway.  Its speed, however, would have been little more than 100 knots. The Colonel’s car had already taken off to gain speed.  What happened in his car, I would find out when we came to edit. The Colonel, already overtaken by the U2, was telling the pilot his altitude: “You have eight feet, you have eight feet, you have seven feet, you have seven feet, you have seven feet, you have five feet, you have five feet…” and so on until “You have one foot, you have one foot…”  After that, the pilot would know that he was on the ground.


Image by scopeland via Flickr

One more instruction: “You have a good ‘chute”.  This was the drag parachute that was deployed by the U2 pilot to slow down the aircraft on the runway.  After a few hundred yards, the ‘chute was discarded.

All this time, Kirby was flying round in his Winjeel like some mad flyer from “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”.  If only I had had my camera with me.  We waited for the second aircraft to come in.  It first over flew the airfield with Kirby and his pilot in hot pursuit.  Kirby going flat out at 110 knots and the U2, obligingly, slowing to almost stalling speed to allow Kirby to get close.  The sight of the Winjeel was amazing, Kirby was standing up in the rear seat as if he was travelling in a sports car.   The whole of his body above his waistline was outside the aircraft. He wanted to get above his own pilot and the wings of the Winjeel.  He could not have been wearing any safety harness. It was an unbelievable sight and a picture of it would have won an award, or, at least, a lot of money.  He filmed air to air on the third U2, registration number (5) 66714. For the second aircraft, we placed Keith and his camera in the Colonel’s car and shot the whole process from the Colonel’s point of view. This aircraft had the registration number (5) 66705. Kirby had finished his air-to-air shooting and he joined us at the end of the runway.  We now shot the third aircraft coming in from two cameras, now, we were able to follow it until it fell over on one side.

Gerald Lyons interview pilot of U2 aircraft for "Operation Crowflight" documentary.

Gerald Lyons interview pilot of U2 aircraft for “Operation Crowflight” documentary.

We filmed the propping up procedure and then followed the aircraft to its parking site. The day was going fast and we still needed more material.  We arrived at the parking bay in time to film the pilot descending.  He was quite surprised to see us.  Gerald moved in for an interview. We were not given his name, nor those of the other pilots.  I am sure the pilot had been warned that he would be interviewed, but I am also sure that he had not been briefed as to what to say, or perhaps, more likely, what not to say.  He seemed very nervous during the interview and often glanced towards the Colonel to see if he was doing it right. Gerald talked to him about the job they had come to do.  This was, ostensibly, to make meteorological observations (Project HASP – “High Altitude Sampling Program”) and collect data off the south coast of Australia. This was the pilot who had been handed our spare camera.  He told me that he had taken a shot of Ninety-mile Beach by doing a panning shot of not more than ten degrees.  Wow!  I could not wait to see it.

Kirby found a Coventry-Climax stacker which he commandeered together with the driver.  He placed a palette on the lowered prongs and set up his camera on a tripod.  He then proceeded to have it driven right round the U2 at a range of about 40 feet, just missing the wing tips as he went.  This turned out to be a remarkable shot.

Gerald then interviewed the Colonel and he asked him if he knew anything about the Gary Powers U2.  He said ”As far as we were aware, we were the only unit flying U2s, we did not know about any others”. Then came the thunderbolt question from Gerald.  He said “What will follow the U2 ?Will there be a new generation of these aircraft ?” The Colonel said “No, I believe that this is the last manned aircraft to be used for this purpose.  In future, we will use satellites”.   In fact U2s were to fly for another thirty years or more. Off camera he said ”There will be Geostationary satellites capable of communication”. Remember that this was 1960 and all that had happened in space prior to that was Sputnik.

Image by scopeland via Flickr

It was now getting into early evening and we had run out of things to film.  We had run out of light and, sure as hell, we had run out of energy. We had a short rest before getting back into the camera car and heading back to Melbourne. For what seemed a long while, there was silence in the car.  We were all trying to absorb what we had seen and heard.  Also, we were all exhausted.

I said “I wonder how many civilians have even seen a U2 ?”  Gerald Lyons said “I’ll bet that Louis will be sorry that he gave up so easily”. We then got talking about the interview with the Colonel.  Satellites, geostationary, satellite communications, all phrases destined to become well used.  We all worked in television and we could see immediately what was likely to happen.  The sky would be filled with satellites and that television signals could be bounced anywhere, if you could get enough of them up there.  It meant that you could bounce a signal right round the world. Here we were, working in television where we could not even put a direct or indirect signal between Melbourne and Sydney, less than 600 miles away. The feeling was that it would be a very long time before these things would happen.  Little did we know.

What we did know was that we were in on the beginning of the space age and space age communications. On that journey home, we were able to visualise almost everything that was to happen over the next thirty years. If I had not had all those years at Movietonews, I doubt that I could have achieved what I did on that day.  It was all there, every aspect of Operation Crowflight all shot in one day. If it had not been for the crew I had with me, it could not have been done. What a crew to have on a job like that ! I started to wonder what Louis would have done with his week-long schedule.  He never said. We would have a lot of work to do when we got back to Melbourne.  Processing of the film, re-recording the sound, editing track-laying, re-recording with commentary and titling.  The story will be completed in Operation Crowflight Part Two.

Additional links: – detailed website on the U2s. – list of U2 registration numbers, including the three U2s mentioned. – “Revealed: secrets of the spies in our skies”, the true story behind Operation Crowflight. – footage of (5) 66714 preparing for flight, taxiing and taking off, in August 1960.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2010.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Keith Basterfield #


    Thank you for posting this material. I found it extremely interesting. I have recently been reading three of the now released National Archives of Australia files on Operation Crowflight. My research was to see if any of the Crowflight aircraft caused UFO reports to be made. My reading suggests perhaps 4 UFO reports logged by the RAAF may indeed have this cause.

    Thanks again.

    October 28, 2010
    • Hi Keith,

      Thanks for your comments. There seems to be some unreasonably strict security surrounding Operation Crowflight, the anomaly being that the aircraft was on open display in the States on November 2nd 1960; in the book “Remembering the Dragon Lady” a pilot James W May recalls an open day to the public at East Sale RAAF.

      We had total access in December 1960 at East Sale, while in England, there was a total press blackout which remained until, at least, the end of 1962. I believe that the secrecy in Australia is concerning the mission rather than the aircraft.

      One Australian historian claims that Operation Crowflight did not commence until May 1961, but I made the film in December 1960. I was in England in May 1961. I never heard anyone talking about U.F.Os at that time. We have, however, heard that Les Hendy, the Chief cameraman of ABC Ripponlea (ABV2) claims to have seen a UFO in 1965.

      October 28, 2010
  2. Keith Basterfield #

    Hi Terry

    Thanks for your response above.File 694/7/22 available in digitised form on the wesbite of the National Archives of Australia is a former Department of External Affairs file. It indicates that the first temporary deployment of Crowflight U-2 aircraft at East Sale was between 17 Oct 1960 and 15 Dec 1960.

    I have just posted more information gained from the files on a blog at:

    October 31, 2010
    • Hi Keith,

      Thanks for your message. I have been trying to verify the dates of the filming. As a result of your information, I can say that we shot the film on Tuesday 13th December 1960 and the film was broadcast on Thursday 15th December 1960. This would have been the last day of Operation Crowflight in Australia until the return in May of 1961.

      Thanks also for the link on your website.

      October 31, 2010
  3. Corin #

    I was based at RAAF East Sale 1962-1963 and U2’s were definitely operating from there at that time. There were also rumours that U2’s were operating from a secret base at Giles WA.

    July 3, 2011
    • As you know, the film was shot at East Sale in December 1960 – and broadcast on Thursday 15th December, this is an indisputable fact. We were told that Operation Crowflight would be ended and that the aircraft would return to the States. I cannot confirm that the aircraft did return to the States, but we were obliged to shoot our material in a hurry.

      According to the article in the Age (see link above):

      “The US Air Force planned to take high altitude air samples simultaneously at various sites around the world during November 1960 and May 1961. The initial flights were carried out from the RAAF base at East Sale and involved three U-2 and four JB-57 aircraft (modified Canberra bombers) supported by two C-54 search-and-rescue aircraft. Up to 200 personnel were involved.

      Operation Crowflight continued until early 1966″.

      It was stated at the time that the U2s were part of the HASP Project – “High Altitude Sampling Program”.

      There is no doubt that there is an element of confusion, if not obfuscation, connected with the history of Operation Crowflight in Australia.

      July 9, 2011
  4. To all my film making, photographer friends – I was privileged to have heard this story from Terry himself, which you can now read and perhaps learn why he was acknowledged to be among the very best of documentary film makers. Having heard the story and seen the film, I can’t wait for it to be put together.

    August 12, 2015

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