Lockheed’s U-2 “Dragon Lady” has spent half a century as an ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
OK, for the younger set, this story about the U-2 is not about Bono and The Edge … and U2 is missing a hyphen anyway. This is about the Lockheed U-2, an ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Commonly referred to as a “spy plane” it had its share of Cold War drama.
Nicknamed the “Dragon Lady,” the U-2 is a single-pilot, single-engine aircraft. It is one of the few planes that has served the U.S. Air Force for at least half a century.
After World War II as the Soviet Union and the U.S. faced off in the opening stages of the Cold War, American military leaders were desperate to keep tabs on what types of offensive and defensive weapons the Russians were developing.
Aerial surveillance – undetected, preferably – became a priority. The goal was to build an aircraft that could conduct photographic overflights at an altitude that would not be detected by Soviet radar nor reached by MiG fighters.
The U-2 could reach 70,000 and its powerful cameras were capable of photo resolution of two-and-a-half feet from 70,000 feet.
When the U.S. started overflights in the 1950s, the Soviets had developed radar that could detect planes at a greater height than was anticipated. However, it wasn’t until Russia developed surface-to-air missiles that U-2 flights became vulnerable.
With the launch of Sputnik and the Soviet Union’s edge apparent in its missile programs, nerves grew short in the White House and the Pentagon. An apparent “missile gap” led President Eisenhower to authorize more U-2 flights.
On May 1, 1960 – a poor choice for a mission date, considering it was May Day in Russia – Capt. Francis Gary Powers (pictured above) piloted a U-2 that was shot down by an S-75 Dvina. He was captured and held for over 21 months until released in a prisoner swap that was the central theme of the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies.”
Two years later, a U-2 overflight of Cuba detected an increase in MiG fighters, the presence of surface-to-air missiles and the construction of launch pads for ICBMs that put the United States under grave threat.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis raised tensions, Major Rudolf Anderson was killed when the U-2 he was flying was shot down by an SA-2 missile during a recon mission over Cuba. This incident was referenced in the Kevin Costner movie “Thirteen Days.”
Similar to the B-52 and the A-10, the U-2 has remained a valuable reconnaissance aircraft. While satellites are more technically advanced, positioning them over important sites takes time. The U-2 can take off and “spy” on short notice.
The SR-71 Blackbird, capable of Mach 3, was thought to be the next generation in aerial recon missions but it was retired in 1998. Development of the RQ-4 Global Hawk has run into the types of production issues and cost overruns that have plagued several modern military aircraft.
Over the last decade, the latest version – the U-2S – has undergone a complete modernization. It remains one of the most capable and dependable ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) high-altitude aircraft in the world.