U-2: Sixty Years And Still Flying High

By Walter Boyne Posted 16 July 2015

The U-2, which has become one of the most significant reconnaissance aircraft in history, presented a challenge to the then-Lockheed Skunk Works when the program began more than sixty years ago. The U-2 seemed to contradict the Skunk Works’ experimental nature: the requirement for full-scale production of an aircraft with unprecedented—and what many considered unachievable—performance.

Need To Know
Gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union proved to be far more difficult for the United States than it had been to gather intelligence on Japan during World War II. The country’s vast size, the traditional Russian mindset, and Soviet counterintelligence efforts left the United States virtually void of information at the most critical period of its history.

Much of the anxiety generated by the Cold War stemmed from this lack of visibility into the Soviet Union. US clandestine intelligence amounted to nothing, and the best information available from defectors was always stale. The concern about the bomber and missile gap was real, and there was an urgent need to obtain hard intelligence.

The Soviet Union exploded its first hydrogen bomb on 12 August 1953, years earlier than the US thought possible. A new heavy bomber, the Myasishchev M-4 (NATO codenamed Bison) made its debut over Red Square on 1 May 1954. The launch of Sputnik in October 1957 shocked the world.

Thus, it seemed evident that, for the first time since 1812, a foreign power would soon be able to attack the homeland of the United States. Popular magazine and newspaper accounts superimposed the post-blast image of Hiroshima on aerial photos of New York and Washington to give an approximation of the devastating damage that could come from such an attack.

It became absolutely necessary to create an aircraft that could overfly the Soviet Union on strategic photoreconnaissance missions to determine how close the Soviets were to launching an attack.

Fortunately, at the same time that such reconnaissance became a requirement, technology had evolved to make it possible, and Air Force Maj. John Seaberg began advocating such a design.

Seaburg saw that jet engine operation at high altitude was becoming better understood, and the basic airframe design necessary was within the state of the art. The aircraft potential was matched by three simultaneous technology developments: Dr. Edwin Land (of Polaroid fame) had developed high-resolution cameras able to use new Hycon Corporation lenses, and Eastman Kodak had created the necessary Mylar-based film.

In March 1953, Seaberg helped the Air Force establish design requirements for an aircraft that could fly missions with a 1,500-mile radius, at an altitude of at least 70,000 feet, carrying up to 700 pounds of reconnaissance equipment. Weight considerations dictated a single-place aircraft, though this placed inordinate demands on the pilot.

Finding Answers
Three companies were invited to bid on Weapon System MX-2147, codenamed Bald Eagle: Bell, Fairchild, and Martin. Larger companies such as Boeing and Lockheed were excluded, figuring the smaller firms would give the project a higher priority.

By early 1954, the Martin entry, a highly modified version of the B-57 Canberra bomber with much larger wings and using Pratt & Whitney J57 engines, was accepted as an interim measure; twenty RB-57Ds were ordered. The Fairchild entry was dropped.

The winning Bell entry was designated X-16. Twenty-eight aircraft were ordered in September 1954 and construction got under way immediately.

The X-16 (the designation was selected for security reasons) was a very advanced aircraft with a fragile, foreign appearance. Its long wings seemed disproportionately wide for its sailplane heritage, while its fuselage seemed to be at once too short and too slender. The contract was important to Bell, which had no conventional aircraft in production and was moving steadily toward becoming a specialist manufacturer of experimental research planes and helicopters.

But the Air Force had not reckoned with Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson.

Johnson was intuitively aware of the military's requirements, often before the military was. He had begun design work in 1953 to see if the existing F-104 Starfighter could be modified to the high altitude, long-range reconnaissance role.

Enter The U-2
Under the company designation CL-282, the Skunk Works team developed an aircraft with a very long, high-aspect-ratio wing mated to a fuselage and empennage essentially similar to those of the XF-104. Like the World War II Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet rocket plane, the CL-282 was to use a jettisonable wheeled dolly for takeoff and skids for landing, saving the weight and space required for a conventional landing gear. Unlike the X-16, the cockpit was to be unpressurized, the pilot relying on a full pressure suit and helmet. The CL-282 was not yet the U-2—but it got attention.

With the encouragement of Air Force officials whom Johnson knew, he prepared a detailed proposal that was as advanced in its business sense as in its engineering—he offered to have Lockheed take complete maintenance and servicing responsibilities for the aircraft in the field. This was a completely new concept.

Johnson's proposal arrived on 18 May 1954, two months after the X-16 had been selected. Not surprisingly, it was rejected, mostly because a selection had already been made. Others might have been discouraged. Johnson persisted, going, as he so often did, to people at the very top.

Among these were Dr. Joseph V. Charyk, then in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency’s research programs, and Trevor Gardner, the brilliant, acerbic assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development.

The president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James R. Killian, chaired President Dwight Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee. That group voiced its concern about North America's vulnerability to a surprise Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile attack and put forward a requirement to obtain hard intelligence on Soviet capabilities.

The concept of a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that could traverse the Soviet Union received approval from both Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles. Their participation in a program of this nature meant that the security requirements would be extraordinary.

In a subsequent series of top-level meetings, analysis showed that the Lockheed CL-282 would be competitive if redesigned to accommodate the Pratt & Whitney J57 engine. The decisive factor was Johnson's pledge to have an aircraft in the air eight months after go-ahead, a reflection both of the urgency of the situation and Johnson's unbridled confidence in his team.

The U-2 Program
Richard Bissell, an economist, was nominated as Dulles's special assistant to direct the CIA's program, codenamed Aquatone. Bissell's Air Force counterpart was Col. Osmond "Ozzie" Ritland. Gardner visited Lockheed on 9 December 1954, to give formal authorization to proceed.

The U-2 program was begun under a cloak of secrecy that characterized the Skunk Works. The designation U-2 was given to convey that this was a utility aircraft like the Air Force version of the Cessna 310, which had been designated U-3.

Ed "Baldy" Baldwin sketched out the basic configuration. The CL-282 was redesigned with a longer fuselage, to allow additional space for fuel, accommodate the J57 engine, and provide a larger equipment bay for the cameras and other intelligence-gathering devices. It received a bicycle-style landing gear with two main wheels and smaller, twin tail wheels—still unusual, but less radical than the takeoff dolly/skid combination. The main gear was supplemented by outriggers that dropped out on takeoff and were reinserted by the ground crew upon landing.

The long, tapered, high-aspect-ratio wing looked as if it had been lifted from a sailplane. The combination of 565 square feet of wing area and excess power endowed the U-2 with a remarkably swift and steep climb capability.

Weight control was carried to—and as some early accidents revealed, beyond—the bounds of safety. The fragile U-2 wing weighed only three pounds per square foot—about one-third the weight of a conventional jet aircraft wing. The fragility imposed severe g-load limits upon the aircraft, just 2.5 g positive and 1.5 g negative. The U-2 would have to be flown with delicate hands.

Johnson carefully chose his engineering team, which initially numbered about fifty, and ultimately reached just over eighty. They worked in darkest secrecy in a room in Plant B-6 in Burbank, California, next to the experimental manufacturing area.

First Flight
Development of the U-2 aircraft was done in parallel with the test and installation of mission equipment along with the acquisition of a secret test area northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. The location had been scouted by test pilot Tony LeVier and promised good security.

The first flight of the U-2 was made by accident on 1 August 1955, when the aircraft casually leaped into the air during a high-speed taxi trial. The official first flight took place on 4 August 1955. LeVier was the pilot, with Johnson and test pilot Bob Mayte observed from a chase aircraft.

The forty-five-minute test flight went off without incident, except for the landing, when the light weight and large wing area conferred an extreme amount of float—even at idle power, the aircraft simply didn’t want to stop flying. When touching down on the main wheels first, the aircraft bounced into the air, and LeVier took it around. A second try had the same results; finally after several tries, LeVier bled off airspeed close to stall speed and flying with a nose-up attitude so that the aircraft settled to the ground, tail wheels first, followed by a light bounce and then a smooth rollout.

Kelly Johnson had not quite made his prediction of eight months from contract signing to first flight, but he was close—only one month off.

Testing proceeded rapidly as construction of the first batch of twenty aircraft continued. The U-2 was demanding to fly and to land, and the criteria for becoming a U-2 pilot were high. The missions were long and the full pressure suit was not only uncomfortable, but also a potential source of danger. The first U-2 fatality occurred when test pilot Robert Sieker, flying the prototype aircraft, had the faceplate of his helmet blow out at high altitude. He lost consciousness and the aircraft crashed.

Despite the obvious hazards, the challenge of the mission was irresistible to military pilots, who had to drop out of the service and pretend to be employees of Lockheed to disguise their CIA relationship. The process was called sheep-dipping, and the pilots retained their seniority and promotion possibilities.

CIA Operational Use
The potential use of the U-2 induced Eisenhower to propose his Open Skies plan at the July 1955 Geneva summit meeting. He suggested that the Soviet Union and the US and their allies put forward their existing force structures, which could then be verified by a specified number of reconnaissance flights each year.

The Soviets had handled Western reconnaissance attempts roughly, shooting first and refusing to answer questions later. It downed almost fifty aircraft in the decade after World War II, some of which had simply strayed off course.

Eisenhower's offer was ignored, and he was virtually forced into a position in which he had to sanction U-2 operations, as fraught with risk and uncertainty as they were. The Soviets could easily consider them a causa belli, for the thin veneer of civilian operation postulated by the CIA could have been exposed or ignored.

The first U-2 mission was flown on 4 July 1954. Originating in Wiesbaden, Germany, the flightpath went over Moscow and Leningrad. The results were all that could have been hoped for—photographs that revealed otherwise unobtainable secrets about Soviet defenses and industrial capability.

The hopes that the U-2's mission profile would elude Soviet radar proved to be unfounded. After the second overflight, the Soviet foreign ministry protested vehemently.

The U-2 would be able to traverse the Soviet Union for four years, making two dozen overflights as well as many flights on the periphery of the country. Electronic sensors became as important as cameras on these missions, as the US moved further into the electronic warfare age.

The operation gathered immense amounts of information, including some that, ironically enough, would prove burdensome to the Republican administration.

The U-2 flights revealed that the Soviet bomber fleet was not as impressive as had been thought. They also showed that while the enemy ICBM threat was very real, the tremendous missile gap claimed by the Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, didn’t exist. Eisenhower could not refute the charges for security reasons, and Kennedy hammered on the subject throughout his ultimately victorious campaign.

The United States stonewalled Soviet protests, which included rigorous diplomatic efforts and the threat of military reprisals if the overflights didn’t cease. Prestige prevented the Soviet Union from going public, so the US was able to contain the protests within ordinary diplomatic exchanges.

The Soviets were outraged that an enemy aircraft could gather intelligence with impunity, and terribly embarrassed that their vaunted missile and interceptor force could not operate effectively at the heights at which the U-2 flew. It was difficult for a man as volatile as Premier Nikita Khrushchev to keep his emotions contained, and the Soviet military desperately sought countermeasures.

May Day 1960
Francis Gary Powers was a US Air Force pilot temporarily transferred to the CIA. He enjoyed the clandestine work and had flown many U-2 missions, including several overflights of the Soviet Union. Soviet ICBM activity had accelerated, and a mission was approved for the 1 May Soviet holiday, when it was hoped that the defense systems might be less vigilant.

Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, to begin a flight of almost 4,000 miles; his planned recovery point was Bodø, Norway. En route, he was to photograph Soviet ICBM installations.

Over Sverdlovsk, at an altitude of about 70,000 feet, Powers's U-2 was broken up by the blast effect of no fewer than fourteen surface-to-air missiles, the telephone-pole-sized and shaped SA-2s that would become so familiar in Vietnam.

Powers was almost trapped in the cockpit, managing to escape after a harrowing fall of more than 50,000 feet. He was captured and later placed on trial by the jubilant Soviet government. Khrushchev, with typical histrionics, used the news to publically demand an apology. Eisenhower refused, and the Paris summit broke up on 17 June.

Powers was formally charged with espionage and given a typical Soviet show trial. On 17 August, he was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp for espionage. After two years of covert negotiations, he was released in an exchange for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

Although overflights of the Soviet Union ended, the U-2 continued operations elsewhere. Control of the U-2, after several jurisdictional disputes, eventually passed to the Air Force. The last (known) CIA missions took place in October 1974.

Watching The World
Despite the restrictions on overflying the Soviet Union (which led to the development of Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird and Corona satellites), the U-2 remained at the center of intelligence activities and continues in that role to today.

The most important missions of the U-2 took place over Cuba in August 1962. These provided clear photographic evidence of the installation of Soviet intermediate range ballistic missile sites and led to the historic confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. On 27 October, the pilot of one on these Cuban overflight missions, Maj. Rudolph Anderson, was shot down by a SAM and killed. He posthumously became the first recipient of the Air Force Cross.

The U-2 distinguished itself over Communist China in operations from Taiwan, including missions that were flown by trained Nationalist Chinese pilots. U-2s served with distinction throughout the Vietnam War, flying hundreds of hours per month under difficult conditions.

Constantly modified, the U-2 would serve both the military and scientific communities over the next twenty years, including excellent service in Desert Shield/Storm and Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.

For an aircraft originally designed with one specific mission in mind, the basic U-2 design proved to be extraordinarily adaptable for military and civil use.

It was qualified aboard US aircraft carriers, from which operational missions were flown. It became the world's premier “sniffer,” sampling air at high altitudes to determine how and when and what kind of nuclear explosions had taken place. A variety of sensors were fitted for everything from electronic snooping to ocean reconnaissance. NASA (and its predecessor, NACA) used it for an equally broad spectrum of civilian tasks, ranging from weather reconnaissance to atmospheric physics experiments.

Still Flying High
Although the modifications varied the external appearance of the U-2 over the years, the basic size and shape of the airplane remained intact. A virtual redesign occurred with the U-2R, when the wingspan was increased to 103 feet and the fuselage lengthened to sixty-three feet. The larger dimensions resulted in an aircraft more closely matched to the power output of the J75 engines, and provided much greater space for equipment.

The US Air Force ordered twenty-five U-2Rs in 1968; ordinarily, these would have been the last production aircraft. Fortunately, Johnson and his team had the foresight to store the U-2 tooling. In 1979, the Air Force ordered an upgraded version of the U-2R, originally designated TR-1A. This marked the first time that a cold production line had been restarted. The U-2 later received a new engine, the GE F118, in the late 1990s. Additional upgrades continue today.

The many model designations include the U-2, U-2A/B/C/D/E/F/G/J/R/S and TR-1A/B. All of the R-model aircraft were re-designated U-2S in 1999, with two exceptions. The two-seat trainer version, accounting for five airframes, is referred to as the TU-2S. The NASA version, accounting for two airframes derived from the U-2S, is referred to as the ER-2 (ER for Earth Resources).

The official US Air Force name for the U-2 is Dragon Lady. That name can be traced to the Milton Caniff-drawn cartoon strip Terry and the Pirates that originated in the 1930s. The Dragon Lady character was the femme fatale who started out as the leader of a gang of pirates, but became an ally during World War II. The U-2 is often called Deuce and The Article by pilots. The prototype was referred to as Angel.

Approximately 105 aircraft were built, and more than forty have been lost in accidents, a record that reflects the dangerous nature of their missions and the structural compromises necessary to achieve the desired performance. Most of all, it underlines the bravery of the U-2 pilots.

It is fitting that an aircraft that came into being to fly as high as possible over enemy territory would find its useful life extended by its ability to interface between specialized equipment on the ground and satellites based in space.

When Tony LeVier first flew the U-2 in 1955, its operational life was optimistically estimated to be about two years. The demonstrated capabilities of the U-2 platform and the advances in electronics equipment have kept it into service into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Even Kelly would be surprised.

Excerpted and updated from the author’s book, Beyond The Horizons: The Lockheed Story, published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 1998.