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U-2 The Plane Not the Band

Updated on August 15, 2017
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A U-2 at Andrews AFB, Maryland, May 2000.A view of the U-2 tail and an attachable wheel assembly.A U-2 at Andrews AFB, MD.
A U-2 at Andrews AFB, Maryland, May 2000.
A U-2 at Andrews AFB, Maryland, May 2000. | Source
A view of the U-2 tail and an attachable wheel assembly.
A view of the U-2 tail and an attachable wheel assembly. | Source
A U-2 at Andrews AFB, MD.
A U-2 at Andrews AFB, MD. | Source

H-2 Dragon Lady

The U-2 was designed and built at the Lockheed Skunk Works by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. It was built to fulfill a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) requirement for an aircraft that could fly reconnaissance missions over The Soviet Union. The U-2 had an F-104 fuselage and had long wings which gave it a wingspan of 80 feet[i]. Among the improvements with the U-2R was a wingspan increase to 105 feet.[ii] The unit costs for the U-2R was approximately $22 million in 1978 dollars.[iii] The U-2 has a bicycle landing gear. During landing a sports car, such as a Camaro Z-28, chases the landing U-2 and a U-2 pilot in the car radios the pilot flying the U-2 information about altitude and runway alignment.[iv] The U-2 made its first flight in August 1955 and U-2s are flying missions for the U.S. Air Force today. U-2 production ended in 1989.[v] From 1994-2017 the USAF spent $1.7 billion on modernizing the aircraft. There are 33 U-2s in operation, this includes 5 trainers and 2 operated by NASA.[vi] Lockheed Martin boasts the U-2 is capable of operating through 2045.[vii]


[i] Arsenal of Democracy III: America’s War Machine, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman, P. 194.

[ii] USAF Web Site U-2S/TU-2S Fact Sheet, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104560/u-2stu-2s/, last accessed 8/13/2017.

[iii] Arsenal of Democracy III: America’s War Machine, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman, P. 194.

[iv] A Camaro Z-28 was used to support U-2 operations in Operation Enduring Freedom.

[v] USAF Web Site U-2S/TU-2S Fact Sheet, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104560/u-2stu-2s/, last accessed 8/13/2017.

[vi] USAF Web Site U-2S/TU-2S Fact Sheet, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104560/u-2stu-2s/, last accessed 8/13/2017.

[vii] Lockheed Martin U-2 Dragon Lady, http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/u2.html, last accessed 7/30/17.

Operational History

U-2s began their service history flying for CIA. The first operational mission was a reconnaissance mission over Moscow and Leningrad on July 4, 1956. The CIA lost a U-2 over The Soviet Union in 1959.[i] U-2s flew too high for the Soviet aircraft and Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) to reach them. On May 1, 1960 Lockheed pilot Francis Gary Powers, under contract with the CIA, flew a mission over The Soviet Union. He had a flameout and was unable to start his engine. His U-2 lost altitude and a SAM shot him down. Powers ejected and the Soviets captured him and the wreckage of his aircraft. This was a propaganda coup for the USSR.

Soon after the CIA discontinued using the U-2. The USAF took over flying U-2s for reconnaissance. U-2s discovered evidence of the Soviets building missile bases in Cuba. This brought on the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 27, 1962, Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. flew his 6th mission over Cuba. He was flying at 72,000 feet when Soviet Lieutenant General Stepan Grechko ordered the U-2 be shot down. The Soviets fired 2 SAM-2 missiles. One exploded near Major Anderson’s U-2, killing him and destroying the U-2. Major Anderson was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross. He was the first recipient of the Air Force Cross.[ii] This shootdown showed the American public the Russian surface to air missile capability. The U.S. gave 6 U-2s to Nationalist China. The People’s Republic of China shot down 4 of the Nationalist Chinese U-2s and Nationalist China withdrew the surviving 2 from service in 1966[iii].

These communist successes against the U-2 and the U.S. developing less vulnerable intelligence systems may have made the U-2’s military future look bleak. The USAF U-2s carried out missions over Indochina throughout the Vietnam Conflict without losses due to enemy fire. Technological advances such as the UPD-X SLAR (Side Looking Airborne Radar) enabled the U-2 to complete its task with less exposure to enemy weapons. The U-2R, which first flew in 1967, is 40% larger than the original U-2s[iv]. The U-2s have flown missions supporting operations in Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq without a single loss to enemy action.

On July 25, 2001 Iraq fired a SAM at a U-2. The SAM exploded close enough for the U-2 pilot to feel the blast’s concussion. U-2s also flew support missions for United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq. Two U-2s on these weapons inspector support missions had to turn back because Iraqi fighters threatened them. U-2 pilot, Major Jeffrey Olesen, won the 2002 Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy for an October 2001 Operation Southern Watch Mission. The trophy recognizes outstanding airmanship by aircrew members who averted or minimized the seriousness of accidents. An inflight emergency forced Major Olesen to shut down the U-2’s engine and make a “dead stick” landing at an alternate airfield.[v] U-2s began flying reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan before the bombing campaign started. A U-2 on an Operation Enduring Freedom mission crashed on June 22, 2005. Major Duane W. Dively died in the crash.

U-2s have also flown missions to support disaster relief and search and rescue operations. In 1989 a U-2 photographed a space shuttle launch to identify the cause of heat tile loss. NASA flies its own U-2s and fly high altitude tests and Earth resources research. A NASA U-2 has been collecting interplanetary dust particles in the stratosphere.[vi]

The U-2 has flown many military, research, and humanitarian missions and will fly many more before the last of them are retired.


[i] U.S. Department of State, Office of the historian, U-2 Overflights and the Capture of Francis Gary Powers, 1960, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/u2-incident, last accessed 7/30/2017.

[ii] History.Com, http://www.history.com/news/the-cuban-missile-crisis-pilot-whose-death-may-have-saved-millions, last accessed 8/8/17.

[iii] Arsenal of Democracy III: America’s War Machine, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman, P. 194.

[iv] USAF Web Site U-2S/TU-2S Fact Sheet, http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104560/u-2stu-2s/, last accessed 8/13/2017.

[v] USAF News, http://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/139079/u-2-pilot-receiving-kolligian-trophy/, last accessed 8/13/17.

[vi] NASA Finds Remnants of Ancient Stars in Earth’s Upper Atmosphere, February, 27, 2003, https://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2003/feb/HP_news_03084.html, last accessed 8/13/17.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Francis Gary Powers in Soviet custody.Kelly Johnson and Francis Gary Powers with a U-2 in the background.Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr.The wreckage of a Nationalist Chinese U-2 shot down by the People's Republic of China at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, Beijing.
Francis Gary Powers in Soviet custody.
Francis Gary Powers in Soviet custody. | Source
Kelly Johnson and Francis Gary Powers with a U-2 in the background.
Kelly Johnson and Francis Gary Powers with a U-2 in the background. | Source
Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr.
Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. | Source
The wreckage of a Nationalist Chinese U-2 shot down by the People's Republic of China at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, Beijing.
The wreckage of a Nationalist Chinese U-2 shot down by the People's Republic of China at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, Beijing. | Source

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image
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      Robert Sacchi 6 weeks ago

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I got to see a NASA U-2 take off once. I was living at Moffett NAS that shared the base with NASA.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 6 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Robert

      Great article about the plane. I knew there were a couple of them, but not how many there were, or that NASA has a couple.

      Blessings

      Lawrence

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

      Thank you for reading, your kind comments, and for sharing. The title seemed a good way to let readers know the article isn't about the band. It seems you fiancé's story has an article or 2 in it.

    • profile image

      lori811 3 months ago

      Hey Robert! Wow! Another well researched and well-written article. I love the humor in the title!:)) I am sharing this with my fiance who served in Vietnam, was a marksman and loves planes. Continued success and God bless!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

      Budget is why the U.S. military has retired many planes and is planning to retire some others. A jack of all trades is more economical than a master of one.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 months ago from Houston, Texas

      It is nice if those older expensive airplanes can still be operational. Yes I am sure that cost is always a consideration.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. The need for the chase car has to do with the U-2's bicycle landing gear and its large wings. It is amazing the idea of having an aircraft with a 90 year old design flying operational missions. The reason the U-2 is still operational and the SR-71s were retired is cost. That's another story.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 months ago from Houston, Texas

      This was very interesting to read. I remember when Powers was captured and of course the Cuban Missile Crisis when it was happening. Good to know that the U-2 airplane will still be capable of operating until 2045. Those aircraft cost a small fortune to build and maintain.

      It was also fun to read about how the drivers of a sports car would chase the U-2 when landing to communicate about runway alignment and altitude. I would think that more advanced methods have been developed over the years to monitor such things as that.

      Very enjoyable article!