‘Tony LeVier [the test pilot who flew the first flight of the U-2] was sitting at Bob Gilliland’s bar when we arrived. The story of how the U-2 was named came up,’ Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird RSO.
The US Air Force (USAF) jointly managed U-2 development, testing and missions with the CIA from the start. Pilots for overflights of the USSR, though, were civilians working for the CIA. President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed sending military pilots over the USSR would be perceived as an act of war, so USAF Reserve fighter pilots voluntarily quit the service and went to work as CIA pilots. Officially, they were Lockheed test pilots.
The first U-2 flight over the USSR took place on July 4, 1956, and it brought back photos of Leningrad’s shipyards. Several more flights followed, and the photos they produced helped the US conclude that there was no “bomber gap” or “missile gap” in favor of the Soviets, as many feared. Eventually the CIA flew 24 U-2 missions over the USSR, and numerous flights over other communist nations.
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.
My Dad recalls how the U-2 got its name in his unpublished book, “The Very First” by Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO).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” [I.E. you too].
‘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 Pages Habubrats SR-71 and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin and Linda Sheffield Miller