The Buzz

America's U-2 Spy Plane: Still Spying on America's Enemies (At Almost 60 Years Old)

U-2 spy planes are still flying across the world sixty years after they entered CIA service. Few aircraft can claim to have had such an impact on world history—not only because the information they obtained influenced U.S. foreign policy, but also because the high-flying plane proved not to be as untouchable as hoped.

High-Altitude Spy Gliders

Churchill famously stated that the Soviet Union had built an “iron curtain” in Eastern Europe—and U.S. spies were literally dying to take a peek behind it. Photo reconnaissance aircraft were a proven and effective means of gathering intel, but Soviet jet fighters guided by radar made deep penetration of Soviet air space suicidal.

How could spy planes avoid Soviet MiG fighters, which would eventually be supplemented by early surface-to-air missiles? The U.S. Air Force figured that flying at extremely high altitude might do the trick—and possibly even make radar detection impossible, as the Soviet Union’s early radars, donated by the United States during World War II, were thought to have a maximum detection altitude of sixty-seven thousand feet. Twenty specialized high-altitude RB-57Ds were converted to do the job, but they still couldn’t fly quite high enough.

In 1953, Lockheed’s legendary designer Kelly Johnson proposed the CL-282 spy plane to the Air Force, a design that was as much a glider as an airplane, with a long fuselage and enormous wings. The CL-282 was so stripped down it even lacked its own landing gear, and would have had to land on its belly. The Air Force walked out on the concept, but the CIA was intrigued and told Lockheed to do more work on the idea.

Lockheed developed what would become the U-2 under conditions of absolute secrecy. The plane was designated with “U” for Utility, usually reserved for light transports, in order to disguise the plane’s purpose as a reconnaissance plane. Lockheed claimed to subcontractors that it was designing a high-altitude weather plane.

President Dwight Eisenhower became personally involved in the plane’s operation, persuaded by arguments that it would politically dangerous to send military personnel on overflights of the Soviet Union. After first trying to operate the U-2 solely with non-U.S. citizens, the CIA ultimately settled for decommissioning Air Force pilots and entering them into CIA service as “drivers.” The joint CIA–Air Force project was code-named “Dragon Lady”, an appellation which stuck.

The airplane that Lockheed produced had a long, thin fuselage and enormous eighty-foot wings to enable it to fly as high as seventy-two thousand feet. The space-like conditions at such altitudes required pilots to wear a partial-pressure suit. The stress from the high air pressured typically caused pilots to lose six pounds of body weight on an eight-hour mission, despite liquidized meals available through a tube connected to the helmet.

A single J58 turbofan, using special JP-7 jet fuel designed not to evaporate at high altitude, propelled the U-2 up to 430 miles per hour, roughly the speed of a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter. A later U-2C variant used J75 engines, boosting maximum altitude to seventy-five thousand feet. The ungainly aircraft’s stalling speed when flying high was only ten miles per hour lower than its maximum speed, forcing pilots to remain constantly alert.

The U-2’s payload was a camera with 180-inch focal length lenses which could take high-resolution photos of the ground tens of thousands of feet below. This was soon supplemented by signals-intelligence gathering equipment.

Unlike the CL-282, the U-2 did have a landing gear under the nose and tail—and used two “pogo” wheels that were discarded during takeoff. The extraordinary lift provided by the U-2’s wings made it extremely difficult to land, a problem worsened by the poor visibility from the cockpit, requiring a chase car to drive alongside landing U-2s to radio corrections. On the upside, the combination of altitude and lift allowed the U-2 to glide very long distances—one U-2 that experienced an engine failure was able to glide three hundred miles to land at a base in New Mexico.

Over sixty years, only 950 pilots have been certified to fly the finicky plane, including nine female pilots. The show MythBusters did a segment on whether the U-2 was “the most difficult aircraft to fly”—you can check out this clip to see the discarding take off wheels, pressure suit and high altitude flight, and see the landing with the chase car here.

Dragon Ladies over Russia, Cuba and China

Despite Eisenhower’s fears that overflights could trigger war, U-2s of CIA Detachment A stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany embarked on the type’s first spy mission over Eastern Europe on June 20, 1956, followed by the first overflight of the Soviet Union on July 4.

Any hopes that Soviet radars would be unable to track the U-2 were swiftly dispelled—but the MiG-15 and -17 fighters sent to intercept the U-2s simply couldn’t climb high enough! The United States went on to lend U-2s for operation by British Royal Air Force pilots, both as a form of repayment for using bases in the UK as well as to increase the volume of incoming intelligence.

The CIA also launched Project Rainbow to upgrade the U-2 into a stealth plane with a low radar cross section. However, it proved unsuccessful, leading to Lockheed proceeding with the A-12 program, which would produce the SR-71 Blackbird.

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