by Dario Leone
U.S. Navy LSO explains how the U-2 intelligence plane operated on the deck of an aircraft carrier

“From the LSO perspective, the problem was that the U-2 was a glider with an engine. It did not want to stop flying,” Lonny ‘Eagle’ McClung, former U.S. Navy LSO

In the early 1950s, because of the poor quality of intelligence estimates on Soviet strategic capabilities, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Lockheed Corporation jointly developed a high-altitude single-engine reconnaissance aircraft called the CL-282, more famously known as the U-2.

In the following years this iconic aircraft gathered strategic intelligence that proved crucial for American political and naval planners alike.

In mid-1963, the Office of Special Activities set in motion Project Whale Tale to examine the possibility of adapting the U-2 aircraft for operations from an aircraft carrier: CIA planners believed that, if U-2s could be modified to operate from aircraft carriers, the U.S. could avoid the political problems involved in seeking permission to base U-2s in other nations.

The first test of the U-2s capability for carrier operations took place in August 1963 from the USS Kitty Hawk operating in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego, California. Lockheed modified three U-2As into U-2Gs by beefing up the landing gear, installing wing spoilers and adding a tailhook. Company pilots trained in T-2 Buckeyes and then carrier qualified aboard USS Lexington before carrier qualifying in the U-2 aboard USS Ranger in March 1964 off the California coast.

U.S. Navy LSO explains how the U-2 intelligence plane operated on the deck of an aircraft carrier
U-2 aircraft carrier tailhook on display in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

The U-2 performed only one operational mission from an aircraft carrier when one aircraft was launched from USS Ranger in May 1964 in the far Pacific to check on French nuclear weapon tests on Mururoa Atoll.

The U-2R was much larger and had foldable wings and an integral tailhook. This version of the U-2 was used to qualify five CIA pilots on USS America in November 1969.

U.S. Navy LSO explains how the U-2 intelligence plane operated on the deck of an aircraft carrier

As Lonny “Eagle” McClung, one of the U.S. Navy Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) involved in the program, explained in Robert R. “Boom” Powell, Commander, USN (Ret.) book Wave-Off! A History of LSOs and Ship-Board Landings, “From the LSO perspective, the problem was that the jet [the U-2] was a glider with an engine. It did not want to stop flying. The wing was equipped with effective spoilers to kill lift in the descent and landing pattern. Due to the low approach speed, plus the requirement for precise line-up control, the optimum wind over the deck was determined to be approximately 20 knots. This limited the burble induced by the ship’s island to enhance line-up control. The glide slope was set 3 degrees. LSO/Pilot technique was to fly a normal approach and utilize two cuts. A verbal “Cut 1 was the signal for the pilot to pull the power to idle. “Cut 2” was to deploy the spoilers and set the landing attitude with slight back pressure on the yoke. LSO technique was to back up the radio call for cuts with activation of the installed cut lights on the Fresnel lens. It was not uncommon to have a blue water “Cut 1.” Normal aircraft weights were used on the arresting gear.”

According to McClung once aboard the carrier the aircraft could be towed around normally. “The U-2 did not have the normal tie-down hard points that U.S. Navy jets do, so the planes were stored on the hangar deck. To put the plane on the hangar deck, the nose gear was modified so that it rotated 90 degrees The tail wheel was set on a small dolly that allowed the jet to move sideways. The jet was pushed out on the elevator with one wing extending over the water, and the elevator was lowered, then the jet was pushed sideways into the hangar bay.”

As McClung recalls “carrier launch of the U-2 was a deck run. Shore-based operations required devices we called “pogos” on the wing. They were shackle-shaped spring devices with rollers on the bottom that held the wing tips up. They allowed the aircraft to taxi without the wing tips dragging the ground. When the U-2 lifted off, the pogos fell off and were retrieved by the ground maintenance crew. For ship deck launch the 20 knots of wind over the deck was enough to give the ailerons some aerodynamic authority. Maintenance personnel held the wing tips up when the pilot applied power for the launch, they simply let go and the wings had enough aerodynamic authority to control the aircraft during launch. Climb speed was 165 knots with a high thrust-to-weight ratio, so the U-2 had a very steep climb angle.”

The following video is the original footage of the U-2 tests conducted aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force 

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The Aviation Geek Club
Welcome to The Aviation Geek Club, your new stopover aviation place. Launched in 2016 by Dario Leone, an Italian lifelong - aviation geek, this blog is the right place where you can share your passion and meet other aviation enthusiasts from all over the world.
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