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.
‘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”.
‘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.
‘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
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