The single-seat, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft Lockheed U2 that took of for the first time 66 years ago is one of the aircraft that drones and satellites were intended to replace but is still flying missions in an environment no other aircraft can operate in. This single-engine aircraft was operated by Central Intelligence Agency, NASA, Republic of China Air Force and is still used by United States Air Force. This airplane provides day and night, high altitude (77.000ft/21.300m) all-weather intelligence gathering.
Nicknamed “The Dragon Lady”, it has a 19m thin fuselage, two high-aspect, un-swept glider like wings, and a powerful engine made by Pratt & Whitney, which are designed to keep the plane at altitudes higher than 70.000 ft. It can deliver critical imagery and signals intelligence to decision-makers throughout all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, low-intensity conflict, and large-scale hostilities. The U-2 operates at such height and at such a wafer-thin margin between its maximum speed and its stall speed that pilots call its cruising altitude “coffin corner”. The missions there last hours at a time.
It was flown during the Cold War over the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. In 1960, Gary Powers was shot down in a CIA U-2C over the Soviet Union by a surface-to-air missile (SAM). Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. was shot down in a U-2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. U-2s have taken part in post-Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and supported several multinational NATO operations. The U-2 has also been used for electronic sensor research, satellite calibration, scientific research, and communications purposes. The U-2 is one of a handful of aircraft types to have served the USAF for over 50 years, along with the Boeing B-52, Boeing KC-135, and Lockheed C-130. The newest models (TR-1, U-2R, U-2S) entered service in the 1980s, and the latest model, the U-2S, had a technical upgrade in 2012. At 70.000ft, U2 still has the stratosphere largely to itself, just as did 66 years ago on its first flight. At this altitude, pilots face the constant danger of hypoxia and altitude-induced decompression sickness but in the pressurized cockpit the pilot sits in a bulky pressure suit with a large spherical helmet and it breathes 100% oxygen.
Initial design and manufacturing were done at Lockheed’s Skunk Works factory in Burbank, California and the procurement of the aircraft’s components occurred secretly. When the designer of the airplane, Clarence Johnson ordered altimeters calibrated to 80,000 feet (24,400 m) from a company whose instruments only went to 45,000 feet (13,700 m), the CIA set up a cover story involving experimental rocket aircraft. Shell Oil developed a new low-volatility, low vapor pressure jet fuel that would not evaporate at high altitudes; the fuel became known as JP-7, and manufacturing several hundred thousand gallons for the aircraft in 1955 caused a nationwide shortage of Esso’s FLIT insecticide. Realizing the plane could not be tested and flown out of Burbank Airport, they selected what would become Area 51, which was acquired and a paved runway constructed for the project. The U2 is hard to manipulate on the ground but very easy at its cruising altitude and the lightweight design makes the plane float over runways and often bounce back in the air if the landing was too hard.
James Baker developed the optics for a large-format camera to be used in the U-2 while working for Perkin-Elmer. The new camera had a resolution of 2.5 feet (76 cm) from an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,000 m). The U-2 is capable of gathering a variety of imagery, including multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar products which can be stored or sent to ground exploitation centers. In addition, it also supports high-resolution, broad-area synoptic coverage provided by the optical bar camera producing traditional film products which are developed and analyzed after landing.
In 1956 NACA announced that the USAF Air Weather Service would use a Lockheed-developed aircraft to study the weather and cosmic rays at altitudes up to 55,000 feet; accordingly, the first CIA detachment of U-2s (“Detachment A”) was known publicly as the 1st Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Provisional (WRSP-1) but the death of the British agent Lionel Crabb in 1956 while examining Soviet ships made the British to ask United States to postpone the flights from RAF Lakenheath base. To avoid delays, in June 1956, Detachment A moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, without approval from the German government, while Giebelstadt Army Airfield was prepared as a more permanent base. Eisenhower remained concerned that despite their great intelligence value, overflights of the Soviet Union might cause a war. While the U-2 was under development, at the 1955 Geneva Summit he proposed to Nikita Khrushchev that the Soviet Union and the United States would each grant the other country airfields to use to photograph military installations. Khrushchev rejected the “Open Skies” proposal.
When Eisenhower refused to approve the U2 flight over soviet airspace, CIA turned to MI6 to request authorization from Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Harold Macmillan, who approved the flights. Soviet radar monitored the U-2 incursion into Soviet airspace in real-time, with radar tracking starting from the time the aircraft crossed into East German airspace. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was informed immediately and was quite upset, believing correctly that the United States violation of sovereign Soviet airspace was casus belli. While contemplating appropriate retaliatory steps, he ordered Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Georgi Zaroubin, to protest vehemently to the U.S. State Department that very day, explaining that the recent trust-building to ease tensions between the two countries was undermined by the overflight provocations.
In May 1960, after Eisenhower authorized an overflight above USSR, and CIA approved the 24th deep-penetration Soviet overflight—Operation GRAND SLAM, an ambitious flight plan for the first crossing of the Soviet Union from Peshawar, Pakistan to Bodø, Norway. Francis Gary Powers, the most experienced pilot with 27 missions, was chosen for the flight. After delays, the flight began on May Day, 1 May. This was a mistake because, as an important Soviet holiday, there was much less air traffic than usual. The Soviets began tracking the U-2 15 miles outside the border, and over Sverdlovsk, four and a half hours into the flight, one of three SA-2 missiles detonated behind the aircraft at 70,500 feet, near enough to cause it to crash.
Powers survived the near miss and was quickly captured; the crash did not destroy the U-2 and the Soviets were able to identify much of the equipment.
Believing that surviving a U-2 crash was impossible, NASA announced that one of its aircraft, making a high-altitude research flight in Turkey, was missing; the government planned to say, if necessary, that the NASA aircraft had drifted with an incapacitated pilot across the Soviet border. By remaining silent, Khrushchev lured the Americans into reinforcing the cover story until he revealed on 7 May that Powers was alive and had confessed to spying on the Soviet Union.
U-2 pilots were told, Knutson later said, if captured “to tell them everything that they knew”, because they were told little about their missions other than targets on maps. Powers—who apologized on the advice of his Soviet defense counsel—was sentenced to three years in prison, but on 10 February 1962, the USSR exchanged him and American student Frederic Pryor for Rudolf Abel at Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and Potsdam, Germany. Two CIA investigations found that Powers had done well during the interrogation and had “complied with his obligations as an American citizen during this period”. In 2015, the Steven Spielberg movie called “Bridge of spies” tells the story of this exchange.
U-2 also helped the bay of pigs invasion of Cuba and made the discovery of the Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in San Cristobal.
Strategic Air Command(SAC) received permission to fly as many Cuban overflights as necessary for the duration of the resulting Cuban Missile Crisis. On a 27 October sortie from McCoy AFB, one of the U-2Fs was shot down over Cuba by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile, killing the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson; he posthumously received the first Air Force Cross. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was dismayed, warning President John F. Kennedy in a private message that U-2 overflights could inadvertently cause WWIII: “Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step?”. Also, on 28 July 1966, Captain Robert Hickman lost consciousness over Cuba after a failure of his oxygen system flew over Cuba and crashed into a mountain near Bolivia.
U-2 had many other flights over above Asia and it flew missions over China, Taiwan, or Indonesia. On 24 September 1959, an unmarked U-2, Article 360, crash-landed to Fujisawa Airfield of Japan. Armed American security forces in plainclothes soon arrived and moved away locals at gunpoint, increasing public interest in the crash. The same Article 360 was later shot down in the May 1960 U-2 incident. A month before the incident, another U-2 crash-landed in rural Thailand. Locals helped the US remove the aircraft without publicity. Detachment G pilots began using the unmarked Taiwanese “Detachment H” U-2 for North Vietnam overflights in February 1962, but as tactical intelligence became more important after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 1964 SAC took over all U-2 missions in Indochina. In late November 1962, Detachment G was deployed to Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, to carry out overflights of the Chinese-Indian border area after Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru requested military aid following the Sino-Indian War in October–November 1962.
In 1963, the CIA started the project Whale Tale to develop carrier-based U-2Gs to overcome range limitations. During the development of the capability, CIA pilots took off and landed U-2Gs on the aircraft carrier Ranger and other ships. The U-2G was used only twice operationally. Both flights from Ranger occurred in May 1964 to observe France’s development of an atomic bomb test range at Moruroa in French Polynesia.
The U-2 helped to pioneer the use of a data link to relay intelligence to ground stations that might be thousands of miles away, bouncing the signal first to a satellite above it.
Now, this role will become more important with the USAF’s ambition for all its computers, irrespective of which company made them, to be able to talk to each other. New sensors or cameras are to be added and removed from the plane quicker and cheaply than ever before and compared to it its rivals.
The U-2 does have one problem: it’s not particularly stealthy. And that means it cannot fly over the airspace of other countries without their knowledge. A U-2 was recently spotted by the Chinese military flying over their military exercises in the South China Sea. It now appears that US defense contractor Northrup Grumman has now built a small fleet of top-secret drones that look like its B-2 bomber to do precisely this.