Academic journal article Film & History

Spies That Fly (2002)

Academic journal article Film & History

Spies That Fly (2002)

Article excerpt

Spies That Fly (2002)

Directed by Larry Klein

Produced and distributed by WGBH/Boston

56 minutes

Spies in the Sky, a 2002 episode of the PBS television series Nova, explores the origins and early history of remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft. Its main narrative thread begins with Israeli operations over Lebanon's Bekka Valley in 1982 and ends with American operations over Afghanistan in 2001. It is, however, less a story about combat than a story about successive attempts to find a technological fix for a difficult military problem.

The problem - as the film's opening segments explain in some detail - was simple to state: how to acquire detailed, timely photographic intelligence over hostile territory. Piloted aircraft, like the U-2s whose cameras revealed Soviet missile sites in Cuba, were flexible but increasingly vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles. Satellites were immune to missiles, but incapable of lingering over a promising target and difficult to reroute on short notice. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were conceived in the 1960s as a third solution, one that provided the flexibility of a piloted aircraft without putting a pilot's life at risk. Making that "third way" work, however, proved to be more difficult than it appeared. The first American UAV, the jet-powered Lightning Bug of the 1960s, cost enormous amounts of money and delivered mediocre results. It took fifteen years before Israel fielded the first modern UAV: a small, radically simple, highly robust machine driven by a propeller and powered by a two-stroke engine.

American designers expanded on the Israeli approach to UAV design in two distinct ways, and Spies That Fly chronicles both. …

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