The late 1940s and 1950s were trying times for America. The emerging Cold War escalated the risk of a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union involving use of atomic weapons, including hydrogen bombs. In 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the world’s first sat-ellite, tested the world’s first ICBM, and began conducting flights with new advanced bomber aircraft. When these surprising events occurred, there was increasing alarm that the USSR had surpassed the US in both nuclear arms and bomber capability. The US accelerated its development of launch vehicles and combat aircraft. On the home front, the Office of Civil Defense was initiated, Americans started building fallout shelters, and school children began practicing “Drop Drills.”
If the face of these threats, it became clear that the US had limited intelligence about actual Soviet capabilities, especially in terms of operational bomber and ICBM advances and their ability to produce such weapon systems. There was much speculation about these capabilities, but a paucity of “hard” intelligence data. As early as 1950, the Soviets had begun conducting threatening intercepts against all aircraft approaching its borders. Our existing US reconnaissance aircraft, the RB-47 and RB-57D, were vulnerable to their missiles and fighters and thus were unable to acquire the needed intelligence. Given the compelling need for aerial photographs of the USSR, and the fact that space borne surveillance was not yet available, the only solution was to develop a high flying spy plane that could operate beyond the reach of Soviet weapons systems.
In 1953, the USAF released a study contract, termed Bald Eagle, for a surveillance aircraft that could reach 70,000 ft (beyond the estimated range of USSR fighters, missiles and radars), and fly 3,000 miles. The aircraft would be tasked to carry cameras that could image ground targets with a resolution of 2.5 feet.
Lockheed submitted a proposed design crafted by Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s renowned Chief Engineer and head of their “Skunk Works” division. Kelly’s already famous accomplishments included the P-38, P-80 and F-104 fighter aircraft, and would later include the famous SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
Lockheed’s proposed design was based on a modified version of the XF-104 fuselage, the use of a single engine of an existing design, jettisonable wheels and a landing skid, and long glider-like wings (in essence, a jet powered glider). The Lockheed proposal was rejected by USAF evalua-tors since they preferred a twin engine design and did not approve of the unconventional landing gear feature.
The project was essentially suspended until a group of notable scientists, who favored the Lock-heed design, presented their findings and recommendations to the CIA’s leader, Allen Dulles, and to President Eisenhower. Eisenhower, eager to find a solution to the intelligence gathering dilemma, recommended that a new reconnaissance program be initiated and that it be controlled by the CIA instead of the Air Force. Lockheed’s design was then covertly funded by the CIA under the banner Project “Aquatone.” Kelly Johnson’s team, racing in the face of urgent need, delivered the first aircraft in July of 1955, only eight months after contract start!
First U-2 Spy Plane
To meet this incredibly challenging schedule, Skunk Works engineers and fabricators worked elbow-to-elbow on the factory floor. Kelly handpicked his team and employed an instant hire/fire approach to staffing. The work hours were long (60 to 70 per week) and secrecy demanded that not only design features but even the very existence of the project be kept from everyone, including family members.
The U-2 first flew on August 1, 1955, with Lockheed’s famed test pilot, Tony LeVier, at the controls. The test location, referred to by several names (including Watertown, Paradise Ranch and Groom Lake) was a dry lake bed adjacent to the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AECs) proving ground north of Las Vegas, a secure location and airspace. During testing, the CIA supplied the mission pilots and aircraft while the USAF provided the jet engines and a majority of the support functions. Many challenging problems were uncovered during testing such as recurring engine flame-outs at high altitude, leaking seals, ineffective or overheating of wheel brakes, the need for special high altitude jet fuel, and pressure suit leaks and operating difficulties. In addition, the U-2 proved to be very difficult to land. It typically would “float” because of the ground effect, or cushion, caused by the long wings, and it also had a tendency to ground loop or porpoise. At high altitudes, the aircraft could experience an airframe “break-up” if it exceeded flight limits in the dangerous “coffin-corner” where maximum allowable speed and stall speed converge.
In tests done in early June, 1956, the U-2 reached 74,500 feet, exceeding its specification re-quirement of 70,000 feet. Throughout the test program, while design issues were being resolved, the U-2’s flight envelope was verified, flight and ground crews were trained, the camera and in-strument payload was proven, and operational test missions were flown. Shortly thereafter the U-2 was ready for service, allowing CIA pilots to begin flying missions (only CIA civilian pilots flew U-2 missions over hostile territory).
Before allowing overflights of the USSR, President Eisenhower strived to reach an “Open Sky” policy accord with soviet Premier Khrushchev, but failed. He then authorized the first U-2 missions, the beginning of many clandestine overflights of Eastern Europe and the USSR. Through-out the four year overflight period, U-2 aircraft were launched from Germany, Japan, Pakistan, Turkey and Alaska. During this time Eisenhower was very concerned about losing a U-2 over the USSR and exposing the spying nature of the missions, so he authorized each flight only on a “risk versus need” basis considering the importance of the desired intelligence data. It was be-lieved that a pilot would not survive a high altitude “shoot-down” so there was a cyanide capsule in the flight suit and a payload destruct mechanism on board. If an aircraft were lost, it would be explained as: “an errant high altitude research mission.”
As the number of missions increased, U-2 pilots observed numerous attempted Russian fighter intercepts and it became apparent that the Russian ability to radar track the U-2 was improving. To counteract radar tracking, several “stealth” U-2 designs were tried but none was successful. Finally, on May 1, 1960, a U-2 piloted by Frank Powers was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the USSR and Powers was captured alive. This event ended the CIA’s over-fly program. However, the approximately 30 completed flights provided the US with the greatest intelligence breakthrough of the 20th century. The U-2 photos provided details of USSR bomber strength, ICBM and nuclear weapon status, locations of military sites, and of transportation and communication networks. Approximately 90% of the hard intelligence data we had at the time came from U-2 cameras...
The loss in 1960 did not lessen the evolution of the U-2’s design or its future contributions as a high-flying data collection platform. From 1955 to the present the U-2 has experienced over a dozen design upgrades: the wing span has been increased from 80 feet to 103 feet; the weight has nearly doubled; modern cockpit instruments have been added; and a state-of-the-art turbofan engine has been installed. The range and altitude have been increased to 7,000 miles and 74,000 feet, respectively. Expanded payloads in the current version (the extended nose and wing pods shown in the following photo) now provide advanced sensor capability including signal intelligence gathering and synthetic aperture radar imaging. Supported missions after 1960 have included NASA science data collection, ICBM launch detection, Navy-specific operations using U-2s flown from aircraft carriers; event monitoring (e.g., floods, hurricanes, nuclear tests, Suez crisis); and tactical data gathering in support of Operations: Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Iraqi Freedom, Bosnia and Kosovo, and Afghanistan.
A tactical reconnaissance version, the TR-1, developed in the 1980s, served as a high altitude platform standing beyond a battle space to detect ground targets, such as tanks and troop movements, and to collect electronic intelligence information. The current version of the high flying machine, the U-2S, continues to serve as a cost-effective and highly mobile platform in support of military and science missions on a global basis.
Current Version of U-2
Written By Dr. Dirk Dedoes