The famous Lockheed U-2 "Dragon Lady" spyplane was born in the thick of the Cold War (1947-1991) years during the content between East and West. Work on the iconic aircraft began in 1954 with an American need for a purpose-built very-high-altitude spyplane / reconnaissance platform. The designation "U-2" was used as a rouse so as to not draw attention to the aircraft's true spying role - the "U" signifying "utility". The high-altitude operation of the aircraft was intended to keep it out of harm's way, namely to counter the threat of the impressive Soviet air defense capabilities of the early Cold War period.
Despite its Cold War roots, it continues to function in its same role today (2020), nearly sixty-five years after its maiden flight. Today the platform flies in a highly-modernized form to better contend with the dangers of the modern battlefield. The U-2 was slated to be replaced by the unmanned Northrop Grumman "Global Hawk" surveillance drone but these plans have been shelved - instead, the United States Air Force has elected to further evolve the manned U-2 platform for the foreseeable future.
The aircraft was designed by famous Lockheed aeronautics engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson supported through Lockheed's own secretive "Skunk Works" development branch. A first-flight was had on August 1st, 1955 and serial production of the type followed shortly thereafter with 52 total units being ordered. In all, 104 examples would be completed from 1955 to 1989.
The iconic U-2 features several unique traits in its design. First and foremost is its glider-like wide spanning wing mainplanes seated at midships. These provide the necessary control and long-range qualities needed of a reconnaissance platform - going against traditional thinking and the use of swept-back wing members concerning the mainplanes. Secondly is the undercarriage which sports a single twin-wheeled main landing gear leg under center mass. The rear of the aircraft is supported by a smaller twin-wheeled leg which outriggers are positioned under each mainplane to support their span while ground-running. All are retractable into the design to maintain aerodynamic efficiency.
Vision out-of-the-cockpit is poor due to the forward instrument panel, smallish canopy screens, and raised dorsal fuselage spine. All of this makes for dangerous landing actions in which a "chase car" assists the pilot in maneuvering. The aircraft must come down to an altitude of two feet over the runway and stall before descending. During this time, it is imperative for the pilot to receive altitude calls from the ground.
Beyond these traits, the overall configuration of the aircraft is conventional. The cockpit is situated some distance away from the nose cone and the fuselage is general of tubular shape. A split-intake arrangement feeds the single engine installation while a single exhaust port is positioned under the tail. The tail unit is comprised of a single rudder and low-mounted horizontal planes.
Sensors are removable from the nose assembly and can be found in underwing pods as well as the forward fuselage section. Some models are further outfitted with the "Senior Span" SATellite COmmunications (SATCOM) system for realtime data sending/receiving. These models are clearly identified by the teardrop-shaped pod sitting atop the fuselage dorsal spine.
While typically photographed in its flat black paint spyplane scheme, the U-2 has come in a variety of liveries over the course of its service life. An near-all-white scheme was used by NASA while the USAF model showcased at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. is displayed with a blue/gray camouflage pattern. Another approach saw the U-2 covered in a two-tone grey scheme with a dividing blue line.
As soon as July 1956, the aircraft began running reconnaissance flights over Soviet and allied territories from bases in West Germany and Turkey. Following the first two squadrons, a third was added in 1957 based from Japan. From the outset, the U-2 was a true success in the high-altitude role and served the United States Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) well.
However, the dangerous nature of these flights was soon thrust into the forefront when, on May 1st, 1960, a Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored U-2 carrying pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 air defense missile over Sverdlovsk. The wreckage of this aircraft, a U-2C model, ended on display at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. The loss of this U-2 severely curtailed American operations over Soviet-controlled territories for the long-term.
U-2 spyplanes were later featured in secret flights over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 - at which point another U-2 was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 missile on October 27th, 1962. This U-2F model's wreckage was claimed by the Cubans an subsequently displayed at various museums across the country.
The British Royal Air Force (RAF) operated the U-2 under CIA Detachment B, Turkey from 1958 to 1974.
The Republic of China Air Force (Taiwan) and its Chinese Nationalist forces were also granted use of the aircraft for overflights concerning China - four were involved in the sorties with four eventually lost-in-action. These were operated by the RoCAF's 35th "Black Cat" Squadron from 1960 to 1974. The wreckage of one of these U-2C aircraft (downed by an SA-2 missile) was put on display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution.
Despite this, the aircraft's value was not diminished for it was continually featured over the skies of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) where it provided critical information on enemy strength and movements.
Variants of the U-2 family line began with the initial U-2A production models of which 48 were built carrying the Pratt & Whitney J57-P-37A turbojet engine. The U-2B was proposed as a missile warning platform but not furthered. The U-2C sported revised intake openings and powered by the PW J75-P-13 turbojet engine. The U-2D included a second crewman seated inline and modified for InfraRed (IR) detection sorties. The U-2CT became a two-seat trainer form.
The U-2E and U-2F both added an in-flight refueling capability with the former powered by the J57 and the latter by the J75 turbojet. The U-2G were specially-converted United States Navy (USN) mounts with strengthened undercarriages, spoilers, and arrestor hooks - three being converted from the existing stock. The U-2H was carrier-capable but also fitted with an in-flight refueling probe for extended ranges.
The U-2R saw an extensive revision of the airframe to make the aircraft some 30% larger than its forerunners. One primary failing of the early-generation U-2 systems was in their airframe hour limits - thus restricting their overall service lives - which the U-2R set out to rectify. Underwing fuel pods were added for increased operational ranges and additional sensors installed. Fourteen were built to the new specification. The U-2RT was a single-example, twin-seat trainer platform for the U-2R series.
The U-2EPX was a proposed USN maritime surveillance model of which only two were built.
The TR-1A (TR = "Tactical Reconnaissance") was the third major production form of the U-2 line and production facilities for the aircraft were reopened in 1979 specifically to build the new mount. This version brought with it all-new modernized avionics, enhanced Electronic CounterMeasures (ECMs), and support for Side-Looking Radar (SLR). In essence, the aircraft was the U-2R coupled with the ASARS-2 Battlefield Surveillance Radar (BSR) fit to form a potent spying combination. Thirty-three aircraft were built to the standard and these later fell under the "U-2S" designation.
U-2S aircraft were TR-1A and U-2R platforms powered by the General Electric F118 series turbofan (non-afterburning) engine. The re-engine program took place from 1992 to 1998 by Lockheed. Beyond this, the lot was given enhanced sensors and GPS. Thirty-one examples were completed with the express goal of the keeping the series viable until 2020.
U-2S specifications include an overall length of 63 feet, a wingspan of 105 feet, and a height of 16 feet. Empty weight is 16,000lb and MTOW reached 40,000lb when fully-equipped and fueled. Power is from a single GE F118-101 turbofan engine developing 17,000lb of thrust providing a maximum speed of 410 miles-per-hour with a range out to 7,010 miles, and a service ceiling up to 80,000 feet. Rate-of-climb is a strong 9,000 feet-per-minute.
The TR-1B followed as a pair of twin-seat trainer forms to satisfy TR-1A/U-2S training. TU-2S marked TR-1B trainer aircraft with uprated engines and some five were converted to the standard.
The ER-2 designation covered a pair of TR-1A airframes used for research under the USAF and NASA labels. Similarly, WU-2 were atmospheric / weather research platforms.
In August of 2011, it was announced that the Global Hawk UAV will formally replace the aged U-2 systems in USAF service beginning in 2016, bringing an end to the tenure of the decades-old, long-winged "Dragon Lady". There have been some complaints by political forces indicating that it is still more cost-effective to field the U-2 over the Global Hawk and the U-2 still represents greater inherent capabilities over that of the UAV.
In January of 2015, it was announced that the U-2 will be retained for ongoing service in the high-altitude reconnaissance role and paired with an upgraded radar system. The decision to initially mothball the storied Cold War aircraft proved highly unpopular in many circles though it appears that the Global Hawk initiative for the USAF will still stay on pace thanks to improvements made to the system. As such, the U-2 fleet will function a bit while longer than originally anticipated.
June 2017 - The USAF announced that its aging U-2 line, which expects to see service into the 2020s, has been linked to the F-35 aircraft series via the Lockheed's "Einstein Box", a special communications fit that allows the generations-apart military platforms to talk to one another.
February 2020 - The USAF U-2 fleet has become the recipient of the new Collins Aerospace "Senior Year" Electro-optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS-2C) infrared camera. This upgrade will allow the high-flying aircraft to better perform in adverse weather conditions, precisely track moving/stationary targets, and deliver pertinent target data to the latest USAF jets - namely the F-22 and F-35.
April 2020 - The USAF U-2S fleet is in line for an avionics upgrade in a move that will extend the operational service lives of these aircraft. In addition to upgrading the platform (complete with a touchscreen digital cockpit)), capabilities will also be enhanced through the planned "Dragon STAR" (Sensors Technology and Avionics Refresh) program to keep the U-2S fleet as a long-term surveillance solution despite the challenge from unmanned air systems such as the "Global Hawk" offered by competitor Northrop Grumman.
January 2021 - An AI-based co-pilot has been successfully demonstrated on a specially-modified U-2 platform.
Taiwan (former, limited); United Kingdom (former, limited); United States
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR), Scout
Surveil ground targets / target areas to assess environmental threat levels, enemy strength, or enemy movement.
Serving Special Forces / Special Operations elements and missions.
63.0 ft (19.20 m)
105.0 ft (32.00 m)
15.7 ft (4.80 m)
14,991 lb (6,800 kg)
41,006 lb (18,600 kg)
+26,015 lb (+11,800 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the Lockheed Martin U-2S Dragon Lady production variant)
1 x General Electric F118-101 non-afterburning engine developing 17,000 lb of thrust.
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Part of a network of sites that includes GlobalFirepower, a data-driven property used in ranking the top military powers of the world, WDMMA.org, the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft, and SR71blackbird.org, detailing the history of the world's most iconic spyplane.