US Air Force personnel assigned to The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) are now wearing a unit patch derived from a famous patch worn by U-2 pilots from the late 1950s through the early 1980s. The NGA employs some 14,500 people who exploit and analyze imagery and geospatial information for the US military, other government agencies, and the wider world.
The original “Toward The Unknown” (TTU) patch was designed in 1957 by early USAF U-2 pilot Cozy Kline and his wife. The USAF had recently assigned the nickname Dragon Lady to its U-2 operations, flown by the 4028th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. Cozy recalled: “my wife had taken art classes in college. There were some ground rules for security, such as nothing to suggest picture-taking. I had her draw a dragon entwined around an astrolabe, as used by ancient navigators to observe the position of the stars.”
That was an appropriate reference, since early U-2 pilots frequently relied on celestial navigation. The TTU legend was added beneath the insignia and was also appropriate, since the U-2 was exploring hitherto-unreached altitudes and locations. (It is not recorded whether this legend was inspired by the motto of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, which is Ad Inexplorata, the Latin equivalent).
The idea to revive TTU as a “morale patch” came from Matthew Wilcoxen, a USAF Lt Col and pilot assigned to the NGA. When the USAF re-authorized the wearing of such patches, Wilcoxen noticed that the NGA’s history page identified the Cuba Missile Crisis as a defining moment in the evolution of the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) business. That led him to the USAF’s U-2 squadron at the time, since the Dragon Lady provided the crucial imagery confirming the Soviet deployment of offensive missiles to Cuba in 1962.
The resulting patch (below right) is designed in subdued colors to be worn on combat uniforms. For pilots, the original TTU patch (below, left) was superseded in the 1980s by the “Solum Volamus” patch that features a dragon’s head, a globe, and a silhouette of the U-2. However, it is still worn by some mission planners (navigators) and other U-2 personnel.
Before finalizing his plan, Wilcoxen took advice from myself and Alan Johnson, another Brit, who is an authority on patches connected with secret programs.