The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014: A rare TU-2S returned to service after a nearly three-year repair odyssey

The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014: A rare TU-2S returned to service after a nearly three-year repair odyssey

By Dario Leone
Mar 25 2024
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Rebirth of the Silver Dragon: Rare TU-2S returned to service

TU-2S Dragon Lady 1078’s silver frame stood out in the sunny blue sky, Feb. 15, 2024 at Beale Air Force Base (AFB) as it conducted its first flight in 1,030 days. After almost three years of extensive maintenance in a collaborative effort between the 9th Maintenance Group and Lockheed Martin, aircraft 1078 spread her wings again.

As told by Staff Sgt. Frederick Brown, 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs, in the article TU-2S Dragon Lady 1078’s Resurrection: Rebirth of the “Silver Dragon,” on Apr. 21, 2021, Aircraft 1078 was involved in a flightline accident that left her wing damaged and unable to be moved. Fortunately, no one was hurt, however, aircraft 1078 could not be flown to US Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, where Lockheed Martin typically provides Program Depot-level Maintenance (PDM) for these aircraft.

The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014: A rare TU-2S returned to service after a nearly three-year repair odyssey
U.S. Air Force TU-2s Dragon Lady 1078 prepares to taxi out for a flight to U.S. Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, where it will undergo normal Program Depot-level Maintenance (PDM) and be painted black, after almost three years of maintenance at Beale Air Force Base, California, Feb. 29, 2024. 

This situation sparked an innovative solution. The 9th Maintenance Group at Beale Air Force Base joined forces with Lockheed Martin technicians to perform the complex PDM repairs entirely on-site. This marked the first time a U-2 underwent such a comprehensive maintenance overhaul outside of its usual location. The collaborative effort highlights the expertise and adaptability of the maintenance crews.

The first time a U-2 undergoes PDM repairs at Beale

The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014: A rare TU-2S returned to service after a nearly three-year repair odyssey
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rhodes, 9th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, performs an aircraft launch for TU-2S Dragon Lady 1078’s first high flight after almost three years of maintenance at Beale Air Force Base, California, Feb. 22, 2024.

“Since 1078 was stuck at Beale, the decision was made to do the wing repair and all PDM work at Beale instead of Plant 42,” said Maj. Brandon, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) Detachment 4 chief of flight test operations. “A small team of Lockheed Martin technicians and Det 4 personnel operated remotely out of Beale to complete the PDM restoration on 1078”.

AFLCMC is the arm of Air Force Materiel Command responsible for the entire service of life of various Air Force assets, including the U-2 Dragon Lady. Brandon is the deputy at Detachment 4 (Det 4), which is charged with being the government’s on-site representation co-located with Lockheed Martin at Plant 42 to oversee this process for the U-2.

The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014: A rare TU-2S returned to service after a nearly three-year repair odyssey
U.S. Air Force TU-2s Dragon Lady 1078 taxi’s out for its first high flight after almost three years of maintenance at Beale Air Force Base, California, Feb. 22, 2024.

Every seven years, each U-2 is flown to Plant 42 for PDM, refreshing the entire aircraft for another seven years of service. The aircraft is totally disassembled, the engine comes out, the wings come off, parts and components are replaced, the aircraft is reassembled, repainted, test flown by a specially-certified pilot, and finally returned to Beale AFB.

The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014

The repair process wasn’t without its milestones. Notably, the restored 1078 became the first silver U-2 to fly since 2014, taking to the skies for a series of test flights before receiving its signature black paint job at Plant 42 in Palmdale. After passing a series of tests, aircraft 1078 was allowed to fly to Palmdale for a fresh coat of paint.

The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014: A rare TU-2S returned to service after a nearly three-year repair odyssey
U.S. Air Force TU-2s Dragon Lady 1078 taxi’s out for its first high flight after almost three years of maintenance at Beale Air Force Base, California, Feb. 22, 2024.

“Flight checkouts included a taxi test to evaluate systems prior to a flight, a low functional check flight to conduct safety checks, and a high functional check flight taking the airplane to the limits and ensuring all systems operate normally to check all components,” said Lt. Col. Joshua, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron student flight commander. “Its restoration returns a valuable asset back to the 1st RS allowing access to three two-seat trainers. This provides better aircraft availability to the newest class of U-2 pilots, especially after the retirement of TU-2S 1065 in 2023 and the tragic loss of aircraft 1068 in 2016. Originally, only five TU-2’s were ever built.”

The last test flight was conducted in the high-altitude pressure suit at an altitude in excess of 70,000 feet. After passing all the tests, Brandon took aircraft 1078 on a solo flight to Plant 42 in Palmdale. Aircraft 1078 returned to Beale, March 21st, with a fresh coat of black paint ready for service.

The first silver U-2 to fly since 2014: A rare TU-2S returned to service after a nearly three-year repair odyssey
US Air Force TU-2s Dragon Lady 1078 conducts its first flight in 1030 days after undergoing extensive maintenance at Beale Air Force Base, California, Feb. 15, 2024.

The U-2S

The return of 1078 is particularly significant for the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron (1st RS). According to Alert 5, with only five TU-2S Dragon Lady trainers ever built, the loss of aircraft 1068 in 2016 and the retirement of 1065 in January 2024 created a strain on training resources. The restored 1078 brings the active trainer fleet back to three, providing much-needed availability for the newest generation of U-2 pilots.

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

The U-2S is a single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude/near space reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft providing signals, imagery, and electronic measurements and signature intelligence, or MASINT. Long and narrow wings give the U-2 glider-like characteristics and allow it to quickly lift heavy sensor payloads to unmatched altitudes, keeping them there for extended periods of time. The U-2 is capable of gathering a variety of imagery, including multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar products which can be stored or sent to ground exploitation centers. In addition, it also supports high-resolution, broad-area synoptic coverage provided by the optical bar camera producing traditional film products which are developed and analyzed after landing.

U-2s are home based at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale Air Force Base, California, but are rotated to operational detachments worldwide. U-2 pilots are trained at Beale using two-seat aircraft designated as TU-2S before deploying for operational missions.

U-2
This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Frederick Brown and Senior Airman Alexis Pentzer / U.S. Air Force


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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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