Lockheed Martin Skunk Works tests U-2 new advanced capabilities in first flight of the Dragon Lady's Avionics Tech Refresh program

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works tests U-2 new advanced capabilities in first flight of the Dragon Lady’s Avionics Tech Refresh program

By Dario Leone
Sep 27 2023
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Lockheed Martin Skunk Works completed the first flight of the U-2 Dragon Lady’s (ATR) program.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, in partnership with the US Air Force (USAF), completed the first flight of the U-2 Dragon Lady’s Avionics Tech Refresh (ATR) program at Palmdale, California.

The successful first flight tested the new advanced capabilities aboard the U-2 as part of the ATR contract, including:

  • An updated avionics suite (communications, navigation, display, etc.) that modernizes the U-2’s onboard systems to readily accept and use new technology.
  • A new mission computer designed to the US Air Force’s open mission systems (OMS) standard that enables the U-2 to integrate with systems across air, space, sea, land and cyber domains at disparate security levels.
  • New modern cockpit displays to make pilot tasks easier, while enhancing presentation of the data the aircraft collects to enable faster, better-informed decisions.

During this mission the aircraft successfully performed a low-altitude functional check flight to integrate new avionics, cabling and software.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works tests U-2 new advanced capabilities in first flight of the Dragon Lady's Avionics Tech Refresh program
A U-2 Dragon Lady takes off for the first flight of the Avionics Tech Refresh program in Palmdale, California.

U-2 Avionics Tech Refresh

“The successful first flight of the U-2 Avionics Tech Refresh is a significant moment in our journey to rapidly and affordably field new capabilities,” said Sean Thatcher, U-2 Avionics Tech Refresh program manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, in a company news release. “Leveraging the platform’s open architecture, we’re expediting these capabilities needed for the future Joint All-Domain Operations battlespace.”

The ATR first flight marks a milestone in the U-2’s modernization efforts and its path to be the first fully OMS-compliant fleet. Further testing will solidify a mature software baseline before mission systems are introduced to ensure both functionality and interoperability to meet operational needs.

The U-2 ATR contract was awarded by the US Air Force in 2020 and valued at $50 million.

As already reported, the USAF will retire the iconic U-2 spy plane in 2026. But until then, besides being used for ISR missions, the Dragon Lady will be used to test out technology that may be used on future aircraft.

U-2 print
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According to Col. Joshua Williams, program executive officer for ISR and special operations forces, the U-2 is not just used for ISR but also in innovative ways and as a surrogate platform, decreasing risk for F-22 and F-35 fifth-gen fighters.

The U-2

Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955.

In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis. In more recent times, the U-2 has provided intelligence during operations in Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The Dragon Lady gained the headlines again earlier this year when one flew over the Chinese surveillance balloon transiting the continental US. The Pentagon subsequently released an image from the U-2 cockpit showing the balloon.

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

U-2
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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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