100-year-old veteran pioneer on U-2 project

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A U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft, similar to the one piloted by Gary Powers, on display in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photograph)
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LANCASTER, Calif. — Getting to the century mark is interesting enough by itself, but Lou Arnold also took part in a couple of aviation’s most historic developments of World War II and the Cold War.

Arnold worked on support teams and air crew in the U-2 spy-plane program that helped win the Cold War, and the Norden bombsight development team that helped win World War II.

His friends on the volunteer team at Antelope Valley Hospital just think he’s a great guy who continues to show up after 31 years. If life is 90 percent about showing up, Lou has been showing up for most of his 100 years.

Arnold, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, enlisted in the Army Air Corps In 1939, two years before the United States was plunged into World War II following Japan’s sneak attack at Pearl Harbor.

AV Hospital volunteer and World War II veteran Lou Arnold. (Photograph by Dennis Anderson)

The Army Air Corps was building up quickly in the late 1930s, with the emergence of new technologies and all-metal, multi-engine bombers, like the B-17 Flying Fortress, a plane bristling with machine guns to defend itself. Additionally, the B-17, and its counterpart, the B-24 Liberator, would have an additional weapon. It wasn’t a gun, or a bomb. It was a piece of optics classified Top Secret; the Norden bombsight.

The Army Air Corps “had me working on the Norden,” Arnold said in an interview, surrounded by family. The Norden sight essentially operated as a computer that calculated wind drift on bombs to target. That, and its superior optics, made it one of the closely guarded secrets of the war.

Clearly, Arnold knows how to keep a secret. But, having reached the age of 100, he also has a few stories worth telling.

Arnold’s journey to the age of 100 has had its ups and downs, but mostly up. He has had nothing if not a high-flying career. And he is too modest to put much into words about work on projects that saved civilization from tyranny, or helped to prevent World War III. “Mostly, I just worked with very interesting people,” he said. “People who were easy to be with.”

Master Sgt. Lou Arnold (Courtesy photograph)

Arnold, and his wife, Edna, moved to the Antelope Valley in 1957. He had been working with pioneering aviation genius Bill Lear (of Learjet fame); with the CIA on a project called “Ox Cart;” and another plane with superior optics, the U-2 spy plane.

The U-2, an overhead reconnaissance platform with optics so advanced they could spot missiles in siloes tens of thousands of feet below, was invaluable to national security. The plane, which flew over the Soviet Union with impunity for years, enabled President Dwight D. Eisenhower to know with confidence what the Russians were capable of in strategic terms. That ended in April 1960 when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in Soviet air space. Powers flew from a secret base in Turkey. Initially described as a NASA weather plane that flew off course, the cover story disintegrated and embarrassed Eisenhower when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev produced the wreckage, and the pilot, Powers. Powers was tried, and held in Soviet captivity until 1962, and returned in a spy swap.

“We delivered the aircraft that Powers flew,” Arnold said.

Historical speculation endured for decades on how the Soviet anti-aircraft crew and missile volley finally managed to destroy a U-2. Arnold believes he has the most precise solution. The U-2 was in some ways a delicate aircraft because of the super-wide wingspan that lifted it to great, classified altitude. The Soviet missiles detonated near enough to the aircraft without hitting it “to push it through the sound barrier where the aircraft came apart.”

Francis Gary Powers, a CIA pilot, was shot down flying over the Soviet Union in April 1960. Powers flew from a secret base in Turkey. Powers was tried, and held in Soviet captivity until 1962, when he was returned to the United States in a spy swap. (Courtesy photograph)

Arnold had worked in classified locations around the world, including Cyprus, England, Turkey, Thailand and, of course, “what they call Area 51, we called ‘The Ranch.’” Arnold arrived at “The Ranch” soon after Lockheed’s designer of the U-2, Kelly Johnson, identified the remote Nevada dry lake and former artillery range as the ideal place in the Cold War 1950s to keep secret things the government wanted to remain secret. “I never talked about it with my wife,” he said. “I never told anything about where I was, or what we had been doing.” He added, “We usually were only gone for about 30 days at a time.” His granddaughter Michelle rolled her eyes and smiled, “Only 30 days!”

Later he worked at Lockheed on the SR-71 Blackbird. He retired at age 65, and has been volunteering at the hospital for 31 of those 35 years.

On Nov. 25, AV Hospital CEO Ed Mirzabegian, joined by elected Hospital Director Kristina Hong, presented Arnold with a certificate celebrating his public service and 100th birthday.

“My highest rank was master sergeant,” he said. “It just means a little bit higher pay.” He spent 8 1/2 months on Okinawa, working on B-29 Super Fortress bombers, which were used to bomb North Korea during the Korean War. “We were lucky,” he said. “We flew missions every day, without escorts. We never lost one.”

Part of the U-2 wreckage on display at Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. (Courtesy photograph)

He married his sweetheart, Edna, in 1942, and they were together for 67 years, until she died. Along the way, they had two children, one boy and one girl, four grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

So, for their family, this year, is a look back at 100 years of Lou Arnold, with many of those years invested in some of the key developments in aerospace that helped keep the United States safe, and the world out of another world war that would have used nuclear weapons if not for the U-2 and its ability to spy from high in the sky.

Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson served as an Army paratrooper during the Cold War. During a long career with United Press International and the Associated Press, he covered the military, the space shuttle program, and advances in aerospace. Three of his ”technothriller” genre novels about military aviation were published and treated on spy planes and technology advances in aviation during World War II.

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