The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, though designed and developed in great secrecy five decades ago, has somehow never fully emerged from the shadows even though it has outlasted one successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, and its production line has been re-opened twice. Now, the U-2 carries imaging and signals intelligence sensors that are as sophisticated as any in the US inventory. Over Iraq during Desert Storm, then over Bosnia, Kosovo, and most recently over Afghanistan, these high-flying eyes and ears have proved indispensable. In the obscure world of aerial reconnaissance, most of the attention, and most of the praise, has gone to other platforms.
The last thing the architects of the U-2 program were seeking in late 1954 was attention. As a panel of six notable scientists from New England led by Dr. Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Company, their task was to advise President Dwight D. Eisenhower on how the United States might overcome the threat of a surprise nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. With the Iron Curtain fully drawn by this time, most Soviet military developments were masked from Western eyes.
The Land Panel championed a radical solution for aerial reconnaissance rejected by the US Air Force some months earlier, the CL-282 proposed by the Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank, California. Chief engineer Kelly Johnson took the fuselage from his recent XF-104 design, shortened it by five feet, and added a high-aspect, low thickness ratio wing. Weight could be saved in constructing these long wings thanks to an innovation known as gust control, the ailerons deflected upwards simultaneously to carry the increased loads encountered below 35,000 feet. Thanks also to other extraordinary weight-saving techniques, the CL-282 would reach 73,000 feet and fly for seven hours on the power of one GE J73 turbojet.
Johnson’s design met the stated performance requirements for an aircraft that could fly over hostile airspace without fear of detection or interception. But Air Force procurement specialists were nervous about choosing a single-engine aircraft for such long critical missions. Moreover, they favored modifying Pratt & Whitney J57 engines for high-altitude operation. A further concern was that the CL-282 possessed no undercarriage. Instead, it took off from a wheeled dolly and landed on its belly with no flaps.
The Air Force chose much heavier airplanes instead: a twin-engine proposed by Bell, and a modified version of the B-57 from Martin. But Johnson and his design had won a few influential friends in the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. These proponents brought the CL-282 to the attention of both the CIA and the Land panel. They also brought along another radical notion. Why assume the military should control a mission of such vital national importance, flying covertly over the Soviet Union?
Land’s panel took the ball and ran with it. They endorsed Johnson’s basic design approach and identified new camera and SIGINT technology to install in the aircraft. They persuaded the CIA to take on the project, though they noted that “strong staff assistance” would be required from the Air Force. The scientists, on the other hand, took note of a few Air Force objections to the CL-282. Johnson was persuaded to adopt the J57 engine even though it wouldn’t fit in the F-104-derived fuselage. He also promised to include an undercarriage, of sorts.
President Eisenhower gave the go-ahead on 24 November 1954. The CIA then assigned Yale and MIT whiz-kid Richard Bissell to run what became known as Project Aquatone. Within days, the Skunk Works had assigned twenty-five engineers to detailed design in the strictest secrecy. The contract, $22 million for twenty airplanes, came a month later. By that time, not much of the CL-282 was left except for that wonderful wing scaled up to support the heavier fuselage that now included a landing gear of tandem retractable wheels on the centerline balanced by wing-mounted outriggers that dropped clear on takeoff. The bigger wing allowed more fuel, stretching the endurance to ten hours and over 4,000 nautical miles.
The first flight took place within nine months of go-ahead, an incredible achievement from today’s perspective. Within another nine months, the first four aircraft were ready to deploy. This schedule was indeed concurrent development and production. The project could have gone so wrong. But the impossible was achieved thanks to the Land Panel’s basic vision; Johnson’s design expertise; the streamlined project management encouraged by the CIA; and the can-do spirit that prevailed throughout. Despite the misgivings of senior officers, such as Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force played a sterling role. The CIA’s liaison officer at the Pentagon was a very capable Air Force colonel, Ozzie Ritland. Within a few months, he was formally reassigned to project headquarters as Bissell’s deputy responsible for the aircraft’s deployment and operations support.
By early February 1955, wind tunnel tests and the major drawings were complete. An interim high-altitude version of the J57 had been chamber-tested. New cameras, new films, new fuels, and new navigation and communication systems were all being designed. “The effort has brought together the highest scientific and industrial skill of the country in a manner never before achieved in peace time,” the CIA noted in a briefing memorandum.
Security had also never been as tight, at least not since the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb ten years earlier. Subcontractors delivered to “front” companies, thus keeping Lockheed’s prime role as secret as possible. A remote dry lake in the Nevada desert was found for test flights, and a rapid construction program started in early May. The site was nicknamed “the Ranch.”
In early July, the static test airframe was ready. Fifteen days later, the flying prototype was essentially complete. “Terrifically long hours. Everybody almost dead,” Johnson noted in his journals. Ten days later, Article 001 was airlifted from Burbank to the Ranch. The aircraft, still unnamed, was referred to as “the Article.”
Tony LeVier made the first flight on 4 August 1955. Landing was a problem: an anti-porpoise valve was added to the main gear. The engines leaked oil through the high-pressure compressor into the cockpit air-conditioning system depositing a greasy film on the canopy. As a temporary solution, sanitary napkins were stuffed around the oil filter. As the Article soared higher, the gravity-fed fuel system proved inadequate. Pressure-feed had to be introduced, which added more weight when every extra pound cost ten feet in altitude.
Most seriously, the J57 engine kept flaming out in the thin air above 45,000 feet. Johnson was certain that the inlet design was producing near-perfect ram air distribution. Tension erupted between Lockheed and the Pratt & Whitney engineers. The engine fuel control was inadequate, and the bleed valves didn’t work properly.
Producing a powerplant that could be safely operated throughout an eight- or nine-hour cruise was tough. Pratt & Whitney engineers struggled to produce a higher-thrust, lower-weight J57 with forged blades to replace the interim engines.
Using the first four articles, four Lockheed test pilots explored the virtually unknown high-altitude regime. They were supported by fewer than thirty engineers on the ground. They tested the pressure suits and oxygen system. They established cruise-climb schedules even though the autopilots were not yet installed. They proved that the structure, which was designed for 2.5 g’s, could actually withstand 4 g’s despite all the weight-shaving.
They broke the official world altitude record (66,000 feet) on a daily basis—with no fanfare, of course.
The CIA wanted to use mercenary pilots for the Soviet overflights. Eight foreign flyers already on the CIA payroll were sent for jet training. Only four of them made it to the test site where a small group of Air Force officers responsible for training washed them out.
Instead, the program recruited flyers from the pool of young but experienced Strategic Air Command pilots who were becoming available as SAC disbanded its four strategic fighter wings. Many of these SAC pilots had flown the demanding, single-engine F-84 on long deployments over water, which seemed a good qualification. After a rigorous selection and security-screening procedure, these pilots were offered two-year CIA contracts to leave the military and join the project, ostensibly as employees of Lockheed.
The first group of six ex-Air Force pilots began training at the test site in early January 1956. They were part of Detachment A, the first of three self-sufficient detachments that the CIA planned to deploy to Europe and Asia to conduct the overflights. Each detachment consisted of about 120 people commanded by an Air Force officer with a CIA officer as his executive. Blue-suiters staffed operations. The CIA ran communications, security, and administration. All of the maintenance—planes, sensors, life support system—would be done under contract by civilian technical representatives. However, selection of targets and mission planning would be done at project headquarters in Washington, under CIA control.
At the Ranch, activity was still trial-and-error most of the way. For instance, the basic navigation aid was a driftsight that provided a 360-degree view beneath the aircraft. The aircraft had no radio-compass. But drift sights were hardly sufficient for long flights over hostile airspace, which might lack radio beacons and could be partly cloud-covered. The first solution was a high-frequency transmit/receive system to determine the aircraft’s position by triangulating with known ground stations in friendly territory. The system was complicated; it could betray the aircraft’s position to enemy defenses. Rather late in the day, the system was abandoned in favor of a sextant that could be coupled to the driftsight’s optics using a levered mirror. The first sextant did not arrive at the Ranch until mid-February.
The sensor systems were also arriving for flight test. An interim camera system consisted of three existing twenty-four-inch focal length cameras, carefully refurbished and fixed in a rig to look down, right, and left. A revolutionary hybrid camera that combined framing and panoramic techniques to offer horizon-to-horizon coverage through a thirty-six-inch lens was not yet ready. Neither was a new 180-inch sensor for technical intelligence-gathering. Miniaturized COMIT and ELINT systems had also been designed. All this gear had to work for hours in the extreme low temperatures prevailing at high altitude.
Won over by the extraordinary progress of Project Aquatone, the Air Force canceled its contract with Bell and placed its own order for twenty-nine of the Lockheed aircraft. The Article was given the military designation of U-2 (U for utility).
The basic flight test program was completed by the end of February; the first group of pilots passed its operational deployment test in mid-April. Meanwhile, a tremendous logistics effort was underway to support this group’s imminent deployment. Flyaway kits had to be prepared. The special fuel had to be positioned. The huge rolls of film had to be ordered and delivered. The engine complicated matters. The improved high-altitude J57 was still in flight test and would have to follow the airframes. No overflights would be made until the J57s arrived.
In early May, the four U-2s assigned to Detachment A were loaded into C-124 transports and flown to Europe. A cover story described the U-2 was a weather research aircraft flying for NASA. On 20 June, the first operation was launched from Wiesbaden in Germany over Czechoslovakia and Poland. Everything worked as advertised, including the arrangements for quick return, processing, and analysis of the film and tapes — all done in the United States. The flight was detected by communist air defenses, but no official response came from the Soviets. While the results from these flights were still being processed, President Eisenhower gave permission for flights over the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower wanted maximum coverage of vital Soviet targets, particularly bomber bases. But he was also very sensitive to Soviet protests, which had swiftly followed a recent, unsuccessful overflight program by camera-carrying balloons. He put a time limit of ten days on the Soviet operation.
Early on Independence Day, 1956, Hervy Stockman of Detachment A took off on an eight-hour forty-five-minute mission that covered high-priority Soviet targets around Minsk and Leningrad—mostly bomber bases, shipyards, and army training grounds. The next day, Carmine Vito took the same aircraft all the way to Moscow in another successful eight-hour mission.
But both flights had been detected by the Soviet air defense system. Peering through the driftsight, Stockman and Vito saw MiG fighters rising beneath them. But they were 20,000 feet below and posed no real threat. Provided, that is, the U-2’s engine did not flameout and force a descent to relight. When the aircraft’s SIGINT tapes were analyzed and correlated with data from ground intercept stations, analysts learned that Soviet early warning radars had periodically identified unknown aircraft and had managed to partially track them.
Meanwhile, bad weather prevented further missions on the three days following Vito’s flight. But on 9 July, pilot Marty Knutson ranged across much of European Russia, from the Baltic States, to the Ukraine. The next day, Glen Dunaway flew Detachment A’s longest excursion yet to the East, flying all the way to the Crimea and back.
Also on 10 July, the Soviet Union delivered a protest note to the US Embassy in Moscow. This described in some detail the “gross violations” of Soviet airspace “for the purposes of reconnaissance.” The Soviets thought they were being overflown by “a twin-engine medium bomber,” confirming that the MiG pilots had not come close enough to describe the U-2 accurately.
To the US President, though, that was scant consolation. He had been told that Soviet radar would not detect a relatively small aircraft flying at 70,000 feet. Eisenhower suspended further overflights.
At project headquarters, the mood was mixed. They already knew that the airfields overflown were virtually devoid of long-range Bisons and Bears, thus virtually disproving the alleged Soviet superiority in bombers. “Five operational missions have already proven that many of our guesses on important subjects can be seriously wrong,” noted CIA official Herb Miller. But Bissell was pessimistic, knowing how difficult gaining the president’s approval would be for future overflights from Europe, including the second planned U-2 deployment base in Turkey.
Eisenhower did change his mind and approved further flights, but only when he was assured that the U-2 had a good chance of penetrating Soviet airspace without detection. A third U-2 detachment was opened in Japan. A program to add radar-absorbing and canceling devices to the U-2 was started, but was ultimately unsuccessful. In the meantime, project headquarters discovered that the Soviet early-warning net was weakest between the Caspian Sea and the Himalayas. In August and September 1957, another hugely valuable series of eight overflights was mounted from Pakistan. Thereafter, though, the U-2 flew only rarely across Soviet territory until Gary Powers was shot down by an SA-2 SAM on 1 May 1960.
In the meantime, though, Lockheed’s unique design had proved itself capable of other missions where high altitude was either desirable or essential. They included radar reconnaissance, nuclear fallout sampling, and dedicated SIGINT monitoring. Even after the Powers shootdown, the U-2 was equipped with ECM and flown over Cuba, China, and Vietnam against SAM-equipped air defenses. None of the improved and enlarged versions introduced from 1968 have ever been lost to enemy missiles.
The U-2 has never been fashionable. But with accurate intelligence now so crucial to warfighters and peacemakers alike, Kelly Johnson’s “Article” has never been more needed. Equipped with a modern turbofan in the mid-1990s and finally now receiving a glass cockpit, the U-2S model functions as one of the Air Force’s most capable reconnaissance assets.
Chris Pocock is the author of The U-2 Spyplane: Toward the Unknown, a new history of the early years, published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd.