Its flight characteristics combine to earn the U-2 a widely accepted title as the most difficult aircraft in the world to fly
In 1955, Disneyland opened its doors for the first time, Elvis made his first TV appearance, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, and the Vietnam War began with fighting between the South and North Vietnam Armies. General Motors became the first American corporation to make a billion-dollars profit in one year, actor James Dean was killed in a car accident and “Gunsmoke” made its television debut.
That same year, as explained by Kenji Thuloweit, 412th Test Wing Public Affairs in the article AF Plant 42 keeps the U-2 Dragon Lady flying at 60, the U-2 Dragon Lady made its first flight and continues to serve the U.S. military with its unique high-flying and reconnaissance capabilities.
The U-2’s mission is to provide high-altitude/near space, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance, day or night, in direct support of U.S. and allied forces. With its cameras, sensors and radar, 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.
On Oct. 14, 1962, Maj. Richard S. Heyser took off from Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in a U-2C borrowed from the CIA and flew to the Gulf of Mexico. He then made a photo-reconnaissance run over Cuba. The photos revealed the presence of Russian medium-range strategic missiles and launchers, which were sent to Washington D.C., thus igniting The Cuban Missile Crisis.
Routinely flown at altitudes over 70,000 feet, the U-2 pilot must wear a full pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts. The low-altitude handling characteristics of the aircraft and bicycle-type landing gear require precise control inputs during landing; forward visibility is also limited due to the extended aircraft nose and “taildragger” configuration. These characteristics combine to earn the U-2 a widely accepted title as the most difficult aircraft in the world to fly.
“The uniqueness of the aircraft, its difficulty to fly, and the fact that all the pilots are interviewed and hand-selected, is extremely unique,” said Maj. Jethro, U-2 flight test commander and government flight representative for the program depot maintenance contract for Lockheed Martin at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. “The biggest difference when you come to fly U-2s is the space suit. All of our flights above 60,000 are performed in the full pressure suit and makes things just a little more difficult.”
U.S. Air Force (USAF) pilots cannot become U-2 pilots right out of flight training. Trained pilots from all different backgrounds must put in some time before applying to become a U-2 pilot. U-2 pilots can be fighter pilots, tanker pilots and/or helicopter pilots.
Jethro remembered when he first decided to apply to become a U-2 pilot.
“At the time it looked really exciting, it looked completely different than any other airframe in the Air Force and it was an opportunity to be a part of a more select group; so it’s been a lot of fun.”
According to Jethro, a big part of the U-2’s longevity is traced back to Plant 42, where all U-2s are upgraded and refurbished.
“Our main job is sensor test; we test out any sensor that Lockheed, or whoever, wants to put on the jet,” said Jethro. “As the program office buys new sensors and equipment for the U-2, our job is to make sure it’s properly fitted and operates properly before we send it into the field.”
The U-2 program at Plant 42 also conducts depot maintenance, which the Air Force has a contract with Lockheed Martin to complete.
“Every six to seven years each [U-2] is brought in. The wings are taken off, the engines and all the electronics pulled out; it’s completely stripped of paint; everything is gone through and repaired and completely put back together. When that’s done, the Lockheed pilots will fly it on a couple sorties to make sure it’s good, and once they sign it off, I’ll go fly it and buy it back for the Air Force and return it to the fleet.”
U-2s are home based at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California, but are rotated to operational detachments worldwide. U-2 pilots are trained at Beale using five two-seat aircraft designated as TU-2S before deploying for operational missions.
Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955. Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other U.S. decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability. As mentioned, an Edwards AFB 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. When requested, the U-2 also provides peacetime reconnaissance in support of disaster relief from floods, earthquakes, and forest fires as well as search and rescue operations.
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds and Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings / U.S. Air Force