Cold War Era

How the iconic U-2 got its name: Test Pilot Tony LeVier gave Kelly Johnson the finger, Johnson returned giving LeVier the finger and yelled, “U-2”!

During the first flight at the Ranch, Kelly Johnson was on the radio telling Tony LeVier how to land the U-2, front wheel first…

In complete secrecy, a team headed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” in Burbank, Calif., designed and built the U-2 to fly surveillance missions. With sailplane-like wings suited for the thin atmosphere above 55,000 feet (over 70,000 feet for later models), this single-engine aircraft made its first flight in August 1955. Entering operational service in 1956, its use remained secret until May 1, 1960, when a surface-to-air missile shot down a Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 on a reconnaissance flight over Soviet territory.

Still today the U-2 provides high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance, day or night, in direct support of US and allied forces. It delivers critical imagery and signals intelligence to decision makers throughout all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, low-intensity conflict, and large-scale hostilities.

Kelly Johnson and the iconic U-2 spy plane

My Dad recalls how the U-2 got its name in his unpublished book, “The Very First” by Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO).

‘The first six SR-71 crew members (Gray Sowers, Cos Mallozzi, John Storrie, Richard Sheffield, Al Hichew and Tom Schmittou) were invited to Bob Gilliland’s house looking over Los Angeles.

‘Tony LeVier [the test pilot who flew the first flight of the U-2] was sitting at Bob’s bar when we arrived. The story of how the U-2 was named came up. During the first flight at the Ranch, Kelly [Johnson] was on the radio telling Tony how to land the U-2, front wheel first. Every time Tony tried landing front wheel first the aircraft would bounce up into the air. Kelly insisted, finally Tony gave Kelly the finger as he bounced by, Kelly returned giving Tony the finger and yelled, “U-2”.

Test pilot Tony LeVier

‘The staff quickly wrote down the name.’

“Butch” Sheffield continues;

‘We had been briefed not to tell anyone why we were in Southern California or that we were Air Force Officers visiting the Skunk Works (SW). We were told to stay at a hotel on Hollywood Way a few miles from the SW. After a few days, one of the people working at the hotel said; “Why are all you Air Force Officers visiting the SW?” ‘We guessed that because of our Air Force issued “hack” watches and our short haircuts that anyone could guess who we were.

SR-71 pilot Grey Sowers and SR-71 RSO Richard (Butch) Sheffield

‘The first six crewmembers did not have any time in the simulator before their first flight it wasn’t ready yet.’

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin and Linda Sheffield Miller

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. U-2S Dragon Lady “Senior Span”, 9th RW, 99th RS, 80-329
Linda Sheffield Miller

Grew up at Beale Air Force Base, California. I am a Habubrat. Graduated from North Dakota State University. Former Public School Substitute Teacher, (all subjects all grades). Member of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolutionary War). I am interested in History, especially the history of SR-71. Married, Mother of three wonderful daughters and four extremely handsome grandsons. I live near Washington, DC.

View Comments

  • Cute story, but total BS and not true. Nomenclature for US military airframes has always been established during the contract phase, based upon the designation and which design iteration was awarded I the contract year. U-2 would imply "Utility" and the 2nd design awarded in that contract year (1954). The U-2's designation was already predetermined long before any test flights occured.

    • Just curious: were you there with Tony Levier and Kelly Johnson for the U-2's first flight?

  • Neither was the author Dario. And just like you being purely curious people lie for effect even if it makes them look like dumdums.

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