Early versions of the U-2 were involved in several events through the Cold War, being flown over the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. In 1960 Gary Powers was shot down in a CIA U-2A over the Soviet Union by a surface-to-air missile. Another U-2, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., was lost in a similar fashion in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The U-2 is one of a handful of aircraft types to have served the USAF for over 50 years. The newest models (TR-1, U-2R, U-2S) entered service in the 1980s. The current model, the U-2S, received its most recent technical upgrade in 2012. They have taken part in post-Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and supported several multinational NATO operations.
The highest-flying aircraft available to America and its allies at the time was the English Electric Canberra, which could reach . The British had already produced the PR3 photo-reconnaissance variant, but the USAF asked for English Electric's help to further modify the Martin B-57—the American licensed version of the Canberra—with long, narrow wings, new engines, and a lighter-than-normal airframe to reach during flight. Air Research and Development Command mandated design changes that made the aircraft more durable for combat, but the resulting RB-57D aircraft of 1955 could only reach 64,000 feet. The Soviet Union, unlike the United States and Britain, had also improved radar technology after the war, and could track aircraft above 65,000 feet.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 5–7.
Johnson's design, named CL-282, was based on the Lockheed XF-104 with long, slender wings and a shortened fuselage. The design was powered by the General Electric J73 engine and took off from a special cart and landed on its belly. It could reach an altitude of 73 ,000 feet and had a 1,600-mile radius.Jenkins 1998, p. 6. The reconnaissance aircraft was essentially a jet-powered glider. In June 1954, the USAF rejected the design in favor of the Bell X-16 and the modified B-57. Reasons included the lack of landing gear, usage of the J73 engine instead of the more proven Pratt & Whitney J57 (like the competing designs), and not using multiple engines, which, the USAF believed, was more reliable. General Curtis LeMay of Strategic Air Command (SAC) walked out during a CL-282 presentation, saying that he was not interested in an airplane without wheels or guns.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 11–16.
Edwin Land, the developer of instant photography, and another member of the panel proposed to Dulles through Dulles' aide, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., that his agency should fund and operate this aircraft. Land believed that the military operating the CL-282 during peacetime could provoke a war. Although Dulles remained reluctant to have the CIA conduct its own overflights, Land and James Killian of MIT told President Eisenhower about the aircraft; Eisenhower agreed that the CIA should be the operator. Dulles finally agreed, but some U.S. Air Force officials opposed the project because they feared it would endanger the RB-57D and X-16. The USAF's Seaberg helped persuade his own agency to support the CL-282, albeit with the higher-performance J57 engine, and final approval for a joint USAF-CIA project—the first time the CIA dealt with sophisticated technology—came in November 1954. Lockheed had meanwhile become busy with other projects and had to be persuaded to accept the CL-282 contract after approval.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 29–37.
Procurement of the aircraft's components occurred secretly. When Johnson ordered altimeters calibrated to from a company whose instruments only went to , the CIA set up a cover story involving experimental rocket aircraft. Shell Oil developed a new low-volatility, low vapor pressure jet fuel that would not evaporate at high altitudes; the fuel became known as JP-7, and manufacturing several hundred thousand gallons for the aircraft in 1955 caused a nationwide shortage of Shell's Flit insect repellent. The aircraft was renamed the U-2 in July 1955, the same month the first aircraft, Article 341, was delivered to Groom Lake. The "U" referred to the deliberately vague designation "utility" instead of "R" for "reconnaissance", and the U-1 and U-3 aircraft already existed.Pedlow & Welzenbach 1992, pp. 59–62, 66. The CIA assigned the cryptonym "Aquatone" to the project, with the USAF using the name "Oilstone" for their support to the CIA.Pocock 2005, p. 24.
James Baker developed the optics for a large-format camera to be used in the U-2 while working for Perkin-Elmer. These new cameras had a resolution of from an altitude of . The aircraft was so crowded that when Baker asked Johnson for six more inches of space for a lens of 240-inch focal length, Johnson replied "I'd sell my grandmother for six more inches!"; Baker instead used a 180-inch f/13.85 lens in a 13" by 13" format for his final design.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 54–55.
When the first overflights of the Soviet Union were tracked by radar, the CIA initiated Project Rainbow to reduce the U-2's radar cross section. This effort ultimately proved unsuccessful, and work began on a follow-on aircraft, which resulted in the Lockheed A-12 Oxcart.Suhler 2009, p. 45.
High aspect ratio wings give the U-2 some glider-like characteristics, with an engine out glide ratio of about 23:1, "U2 Utility Flight Handbook." Department of Defence, 1959, p. 135. comparable to gliders of the time. To maintain their operational ceiling of , the early U-2A and U-2C models had to fly very near their never exceed speed (VNE). The margin between that maximum speed and the stall speed at that altitude was only below its maximum speed. This narrow window was referred to by the pilots as the "coffin corner", - 1182.html "High-flying U-2 takes its final bow." Flight International, 29 April 1989, p. 24. because breaching either limit would likely cause the wings or tail to separate.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 75–76. For 90% of the time on a typical mission the U-2 was flying less than five knots above stall speed. A stall would cause a decrease in altitude, possibly leading to detection and overstress of the airframe.
The U-2's flight controls are designed around the normal flight envelope and altitude at which the aircraft was intended to fly. The controls provide feather light control response at operational altitude. However, at lower altitudes, the higher air density and lack of a power assisted control system makes the aircraft very difficult to fly. Control inputs must be extreme to achieve the desired response in flight attitude, and a great deal of physical strength is needed to operate the controls in this manner. The U-2 is very sensitive to crosswinds, which, together with its tendency to float over the runway, makes the aircraft notoriously difficult to land. As it approaches the runway, the cushion of air provided by the high-lift wings in ground effect is so pronounced that the U-2 will not land unless the wing is fully stalled. A landing U-2 is accompanied on the ground by a chase car and an assisting U-2 pilot calling off the angles and decreasing aircraft height as the aircraft descends. Chase cars have included , Chevrolet Camaro SSs, , Pontiac G8 GTs, and .Hennigan, W.J. "New Camaros tear down runway to help U-2 spy planes." Los Angeles Times, 22 November 2012, Retrieved: 8 January 2013.Smith, Sam. " Chasing the U-2 Spy Plane—In a Pontiac GTO" Popular Mechanics, 28 August 2012. Retrieved: 12 September 2014.
Instead of the typical tricycle landing gear, the U-2 uses a bicycle configuration with a forward set of main wheels located just behind the cockpit, and a rear set of main wheels located behind the engine. The rear wheels are coupled to the rudder to provide steering during taxiing. To maintain balance while taxiing, two auxiliary wheels, called "pogos" are added for takeoff. These fit into sockets underneath each wing at about mid-span, and fall off during takeoff. To protect the wings during landing, each wingtip has a titanium skid. After the U-2 comes to a halt, the ground crew re-installs the pogos one wing at a time, then the aircraft taxis to parking.Bennett, Christopher W. "The U-2 World, January 1991 – July 1994, May – October 1996." Blackbirds.net, 16 January 1997. Retrieved: 8 March 2009.
Because of the high operating altitude and the cockpit's partial pressurization, equivalent to 28,000 feet, the pilot wears a partially pressurized space suit, which delivers the pilot's oxygen supply and provides emergency protection in case cabin pressure is lost. While pilots can drink water and eat food in squeezable containers through a self-sealing hole in the face mask, they typically lose up to six pounds of weight on an eight-hour mission. Most pilots chose to not take with them the suicide pill offered before missions. If put in the mouth and bitten, the "L-pill"—containing liquid potassium cyanide—would cause death in 10–15 seconds. After a pilot almost accidentally ingested an L-pill instead of candy during a December 1956 flight the suicide pills were put into boxes to avoid confusion. When in 1960 the CIA realized that a pill breaking inside the cockpit would kill the pilot, it destroyed the L-pills and its Technical Services Division developed a needle poisoned with a powerful shellfish toxin and hidden in a silver dollar. Only one was made because, as the agency decided, if any pilot needed to use it the program would probably be canceled.Pedlow & Welzenbach 1992, pp. 62–66, 124–25.
To prevent hypoxia and decrease the chance of decompression sickness, pilots breathe 100% oxygen an hour prior to take off to remove nitrogen from the body. A portable oxygen supply is used prior to entering the aircraft.Polmar 2001, p. 64. Since 2001, more than a dozen pilots have reportedly suffered the effects of decompression sickness, including permanent brain damage in nine cases; initial symptoms include disorientation and becoming unable to read. Factors increasing the risk of illness since 2001 include longer mission durations and more cockpit activity. Conventional reconnaissance missions would limit pilot duties to maintaining flight path for camera photography. Operations over Afghanistan included more real time activities, such as communication with ground troops, increasing their bodies' oxygen requirements and the risk of nitrogen bubble formation. U-2 pilots now exercise during oxygen pre-breathing.Betancourt, Mark. "Killer at 70,000 feet: The Occupational Hazards of Flying the U-2." Air & Space magazine, May 2012, pp. 42–47. In 2012, modifications were initiated under the Cockpit Altitude Reduction Effort (CARE), increasing the cabin pressure from 3.88 psi to 7.65 psi, a 15,000 foot altitude equivalent. The urine collection device also was rebuilt to eliminate leakage.Nickel, Senior Airman Shawn. "CARE Modifications Place Pilots at Better Elevation." Beale Air Force Base, 13 February 2012. Retrieved: 21 May 2013.
The aircraft carries a variety of sensors in the nose, Q-bay (behind the cockpit, also known as the camera bay), and wing pods. The U-2 is capable of simultaneously collecting signals, imagery intelligence and air samples. Imagery intelligence sensors include either wet film photography, electro-optic, or radar imagery – the latter from the Raytheon ASARS-2 system. It can use both line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight data links. One of the most unusual instruments in the newest version of the U-2 is the off-the-shelf Sony video camera that functions as a digital replacement for the purely optical viewsight (an upside down periscope-like viewing device) that was used in older variants to get a precise view of the terrain directly below the aircraft, especially during landing.
Beyond not using American military personnel to fly the U-2, Eisenhower preferred to use non-US citizens. the nationalities of the foreign pilots recruited remains classified. The language barrier and a lack of appropriate flying experience proved problematic; by late 1955, foreign pilots were out of the program.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 73–74. Turning to Americans, pilots had to resign their military commissions before joining the agency as civilians, a process referred to as "sheep dipping", and were always called "drivers", not pilots. The program only recruited from SAC fighter pilots with reserve USAF commissions, as regular commissions complicated the resignation process. The program offered high salaries and the USAF promised that pilots could return to their units at the same ranks as other officers. The CIA's standards for selection were higher than the USAF's once the latter began its own U-2 flights; although more candidates were rejected, the CIA's program had a much lower accident rate. Test pilot Tony LeVier trained other Lockheed pilots to fly the U-2, who by September 1955 trained six USAF pilots, who in turn trained "sheep-dipped" pilots. As no two-seat trainer model was available for the program's first 15 years, training was done before the trainee's first solo flight and via radio. Pilots had to adjust to the U-2's unusual combination of jet engines and enormous, high-lift glider wings; because of the "coffin corner" they learned of the need to pay complete attention to flying when not using the autopilot.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 59, 74–76.
By January 1956, the U-2 so impressed SAC that it wished to purchase its own aircraft. The U.S. Air Force would purchase a total of 31 U-2s through the CIA; the transaction's code name, Project Dragon Lady, was the origin of the aircraft's nickname. Meanwhile, U-2s conducted eight overflights of the U.S. in April 1956 that convinced the project that the aircraft was ready for deployment. As often happens with new aircraft designs, there were several operational accidents. One occurred during these test flights, when a U-2 suffered a flameout over Tennessee; the pilot calculated that he could reach New Mexico. Every air base in the continental United States had sealed orders on what to do if a U-2 landed. The commander of Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque was told to open his orders, prepare for the landing of an unusual aircraft making a deadstick landing, and get it inside a hangar as soon as possible. The U-2 successfully landed after having glided more than 300 miles, and its strange, glider-like appearance and the space-suited pilot startled the base commander and other witnesses.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 76–79.
Not all U-2 incidents would be so benign, with three fatal accidents occurring in 1956 alone. The first fatal accident was on 15 May 1956, when the pilot stalled the aircraft during a post-takeoff maneuver that was intended to drop off the wingtip outrigger wheels. The second occurred on 31 August, when the pilot stalled the aircraft immediately after takeoff. On 17 September, a third aircraft disintegrated during ascent in Germany, also killing the pilot.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 79–80. There were other non-fatal incidents, including at least one that resulted in the loss of the aircraft.
With approval from the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA)'s director Hugh Dryden, Bissell's team at the CIA developed a cover story for the U-2 that described the aircraft as used by NACA for high altitude weather research; the cover story would be used if the aircraft were lost over hostile territory. To support the story, U-2s several times took weather photographs that appeared in the press. The civilian advisers Land and Killian disagreed with the cover story, advising that if an aircraft was lost that the United States forthrightly acknowledge its use of U-2 overflights "to guard against surprise attack". Their advice was not followed, and the weather cover story led to the disaster that followed the May 1960 U-2 loss.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 89–90, 156-157, 216.
Eisenhower remained worried that despite their great intelligence value, overflights of the Soviet Union might cause a war. While the U-2 was under development, at the 1955 Geneva Summit he proposed to Nikita Khruschev that the Soviet Union and the United States would each grant the other country airfields to use to photograph military installations. Khruschev rejected the "Open Skies" proposal, and the CIA told the president that the Soviets could not track high altitude U-2 flights. This belief was based on studies using old Soviet radar systems and American systems that, unknown to the U.S., were not as effective at high altitudes as current Soviet systems. Although the Office of Scientific Intelligence issued a more cautious report in May 1956 that stated that detection was possible, it believed that the Soviets could not consistently track the aircraft. DCI Dulles further told Eisenhower, according to presidential aide Andrew Goodpaster, that in any aircraft loss the pilot would almost certainly not survive. With such assurances and the growing demand for accurate intelligence regarding the alleged "bomber gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union, Eisenhower approved in June 1956 10 days of overflights.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 96–100.
The first U-2 overflight had already occurred, using existing authorization of Air Force overflights over Eastern Europe. On 20 June 1956 a U-2 flew over Poland and East Germany, with more flights on 2 July. The fact that radar had—contrary to the CIA's expectations—successfully tracked the aircraft worried Eisenhower, but he approved the first Soviet overflight, Mission 2013 on 4 July. U-2 Article 347's main target was the Soviet submarine construction program in Leningrad, as well as counting the numbers of the new Myasishchev M-4 "Bison" bomber. A second flight on 5 July continued searching for Bisons, photographed Moscow (the only ones taken by the program), and examined rocket factories at Kaliningrad and Khimki. Eisenhower knew from the earlier overflights that his hope of no Soviet detection was unrealistic, but ordered that the overflights stop if the aircraft could be tracked. The CIA found that the Soviets could not consistently track the U-2s, and they therefore did not know that Moscow and Leningrad had been overflown. The aircraft's photographs showed tiny images of MiG-15s and MiG-17s attempting and failing to intercept the aircraft, proving that the Soviets could not shoot down an operational U-2.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 100–108.
U-2 missions from Wiesbaden would depart westward in order to gain altitude over friendly territory before turning eastwards at operational altitudes. The NATO Air Defence mission in that area included No. 1 Air Division RCAF, which operated the Canadair Sabre Mark 6 from bases centred on the northeastern corner of France. This aircraft had a service ceiling of 54,000 feet and numerous encounters between the U-2 and RCAF 'ZULU' alert flights have been recorded for posterity.Gummeson, Ray. "RCAF F-86 and U-2 Encounters." Archived Pinetree Line Website, March 2004. Retrieved: 25 October 2012.
Part of the reason for the May reauthorization was that the CIA promised that improvements from Project RAINBOW would make the majority of U-2 flights undetected. On 2 April 1957, a RAINBOW test flight crashed in Nevada, killing the pilot. The U-2's large wingspan slowed its descent during crashes, often leaving its remains salvageable; Lockheed was able to rebuild the wreckage from the incident into a flyable airframe, but that it could do so should have been evidence to the CIA that its cover story might not be viable after a crash in hostile territory. The RAINBOW anti-radar modifications were not very successful, and their use ended in 1958.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 128–133.
Soviet overflights resumed in June 1957 from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska to the Russian Far East, which had less effective radar systems. Others originated from Lahore, Pakistan. A Lahore flight on 5 August provided the first photographs of the Baikonur Cosmodrome near Tyuratam: the CIA had been unaware of its existence up to then. Other flights examined the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and the Saryshagan missile test site.Heppenheimer 1998, p. 193.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 135–139. After a few more overflights that year, only five more would occur before the May 1960 incident because of Eisenhower's increasing cautiousness. The president sought to avoid angering the Soviets as he worked to achieve a nuclear test ban; meanwhile the Soviets began trying to shoot down even U-2 flights that never entered Soviet airspace, and the details in their diplomatic protests showed that Soviet radar operators were able to effectively track the aircraft. The Soviets developed their own overflight aircraft, variants of the Yak-25, which in addition to photographing various parts of the world through the early 1960s acted as a target for the new MiG-19 and MiG-21 interceptors to practice for the U-2. Lockheed painted the aircraft in a blue-black color that helped them blend in against the darkness of space, and the CIA aircraft received the more powerful J75-P13 engine that increased maximum altitude by 2,500 feet, to 74,600.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 143–144, 147–152.
In April 1958, CIA source Pyotr Semyonovich Popov told his handler George Kisevalter that a senior KGB official had boasted of having "full technical details" of the U-2, leading Bissell to conclude the project had a leak. The source of the leak was never identified, although there was speculation that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, then a radar operator at a U-2 base in Japan.Nigel West (2007), Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence, Scarecrow Press, p. 350
Khruschev claimed in his memoir that the April flight should have been shot down by new Soviet (SAMs), but the missile crews were slow to react. By this time, the CIA had concluded internally that Soviet SAMs had "a high probability of successful intercept at 70,000 feet providing that detection is made in sufficient time to alert the site", and the April flight was tracked quickly. Despite the now much greater risk, the CIA failed to stop the overflights because of overconfidence from the years of successful missions, and because of the strong demand for more missile site photos. By this time, the U-2 was the major source of covert intelligence on the Soviet Union; the aircraft had photographed about 15% of the country, resulting in almost 5,500 separate intelligence reports. Eisenhower authorized one more overflight to occur no later than 1 May, because the important Paris Summit would begin on 16 May.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 157, 169–172, 316.
Bissell and other project officials believed that surviving a U-2 accident from above 70,000 feet was impossible, so used the preexisting cover story. On 3 May, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, the successor to NACA) announced that one of its aircraft, making a high altitude research flight in Turkey, was missing; the government planned to say, if necessary, that the NASA aircraft had drifted with an incapacitated pilot across the Soviet border. By remaining silent, Khruschev lured the Americans into reinforcing the cover story until he revealed on 7 May that Powers was alive and had confessed to spying on the Soviet Union. Eisenhower turned down DCI Dulles' offer to resign and publicly took full responsibility for the incident on 11 May; by then all overflights were canceled. The Paris Summit collapsed after Khruschev, as the first speaker, demanded an apology from the U.S., which Eisenhower refused.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 177–181.
Powers had little instruction on what to do during an interrogation. Although he had been told that he could reveal everything since the Soviets could learn what they wanted from the aircraft, Powers did his best to conceal classified information while appearing to cooperate. His trial began on 17 August 1960. Powers—who apologized on advice of his Soviet defense counsel—was sentenced to three years in prison, but on 10 February 1962 the USSR exchanged him and American student Frederic Pryor for Rudolf Abel at Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and Potsdam, Germany. Two CIA investigations found that Powers had done well during the interrogation and had "complied with his obligations as an American citizen during this period". Although the government was reluctant to reinstate him to the USAF because of its statements that the U-2 program was civilian, it had promised to do so after CIA employment ended. Powers resolved the dilemma by choosing to work for Lockheed as a U-2 pilot.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 181–186.
Detachment G pilots began using the unmarked Taiwanese "Detachment H" U-2 for North Vietnam overflights in February 1962, but as tactical intelligence became more important, after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 1964 SAC took over all U-2 missions in Indochina. In late November 1962, Detachment G was deployed to Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, to carry out overflights of the Chinese-Indian border area after Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru requested military aid following the Sino-Indian War in October–November 1962. In 1963, India agreed to an American request for a permanent U-2 base for Soviet and Chinese targets, offering Charbatia, although it was only briefly used and Takhli remained Department G's main Asian base.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 230–234.Raj, Yashwant. "India used US spy planes to map Chinese incursion in Sino-Indian war." Hindustan Times, 16 August 2013. After the Vietnamese cease fire in January 1973 prohibited American military flights, CIA pilots again used the unmarked Detachment H U-2 over North Vietnam during 1973 and 1974.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 246–247.
In 1963, the CIA started project Whale Tale to develop carrier-based U-2Gs to overcome range limitations. During development of the capability, CIA pilots took off and landed U-2Gs on the aircraft carrier and other ships. The U-2G was used only twice operationally. Both flights from Ranger occurred in May 1964 to observe France's development of an atomic bomb test range at Moruroa in French Polynesia.Scott, Jeff. "U-2 Aircraft Carrier Operations." aerospaceweb.org, 28 October 2001. Retrieved: 8 March 2009.Richelson 2006, pp. 212–213.
In early 1964, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) sent a detachment of U-2s from the 4080th to South Vietnam for high altitude reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam. On 5 April 1965, U-2s from the 4028th SRS (Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron) took photos of SAM-2 sites near Hanoi and Haiphong harbor. On 11 February 1966, the 4080th Wing was redesignated the 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (100 SRW) and moved to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. The SRS detachment at Bien Hoa AB, South Vietnam, was redesignated the 349th SRS.Hobson 2001
The only loss of a U-2 during combat operations occurred on 8 October 1966, when Major Leo Stewart, flying with the 349th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, developed mechanical problems high over North Vietnam. The U-2 managed to return to South Vietnam where Stewart ejected safely. The U-2 crashed near its base at Bien Hoa. In July 1970, the 349th SRS at Bien Hoa moved to Thailand and was redesignated the 99th SRS, remaining there until March 1976.Hobson 2001, p. 269.
In 1969, the larger U-2Rs were flown from the carrier . The U-2 carrier program is believed to have been halted after 1969.. Retrieved: 26 December 2009.
In June 1976, the U-2s of the 100 SRW were transferred to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (9 SRW) at Beale Air Force Base, California, and merged with SR-71 aircraft operations there. When the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was disbanded in 1992, the wing was transferred to the new Air Combat Command (ACC) and redesignated the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (9 RW).
In 1977, a U-2R was retrofitted with an upward-looking window so that it could be used for high altitude astronomical observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This experiment was the first to measure definitively the motion of the galaxy relative to the CMB, and established an upper limit on the rotation of the universe as a whole.G. F. Smoot, M. V. Gorenstein, and R. A. Muller. "Detection of Anisotropy in the Cosmic Blackbody Radiation." Physical Review Letters 39, pp. 898–901.
In 1984, during a major NATO exercise, Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Mike Hale intercepted a U-2 at a height of , where the aircraft had previously been considered safe from interception. Hale climbed to in his Lightning F3.Ross, Charles. "Lightning vs Concorde." lightning.org.uk, Lightning Association, 14 November 2004. Retrieved: 30 June 2011.
In 1989, a U-2R of 9th Reconnaissance Wing (RW), Detachment 5, flying out of Patrick Air Force Base, Florida successfully photographed a space shuttle launch for NASA to assist in identifying the cause of tile loss during launch discovered in the initial post-Challenger missions.
On 19 November 1998, a NASA ER-2 research aircraft set a world record for altitude of in horizontal flight in the weight class. "NASA Aircraft Sets New World Altitude Record." Science Daily, 24 October 1998. Retrieved: 8 March 2009. General Aviation World Records, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), Lausanne, Switzerland. Retrieved: 30 June 2011.
Retirement of the U-2 has been delayed by gaps in capability if the fleet was removed from service. In 2009, the Air Force stated that it planned to extend the U-2 retirement from 2012 until 2014 or later to allow more time to field the RQ-4 Global Hawk as a replacement.Tirpak, John A. 2009/0209course.aspx "12 Miles High, Changing Course." Arlington, VA: Air Force magazine, Air Force Association, February 2009. Retrieved 8 March 2009. Beginning in 2010, the RQ-170 Sentinel began replacing U-2s operating from Osan Air Base, South Korea.Min-seok, Kim. "US to base new unmanned spy plane in Korea." Joong Ang Daily, 19 December 2009. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
Upgrades late in the War in Afghanistan gave the U-2 greater reconnaissance and threat-detection capability.Evans, Michael, Pentagon Correspondent. "U2 eye-in-the-sky spy plane wins new lease of life in Afghanistan." The Times online, 24 March 2010. As of early 2010, U-2s from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron have flown over 200 missions in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom; as well as Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.Sturkol, Scott. "Dragon Lady Fires Up for Another Combat Mission in Southwest Asia." 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, 29 April 2010. Retrieved: 1 June 2010. A U-2 was stationed in Cyprus in March 2011 to help in the enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya,Grier, Peter. "Libya intervention: What's the endgame?" The Christian Science Monitor, 21 March 2011. Retrieved: 21 March 2011 and a U-2 stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea was used to provide imagery of the Japanese nuclear reactor damaged by the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.Eshel, Tamir. "Satellite Imagery, U-2 Chart Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami Devastation." Defense Update, 4 March 2011. Retrieved: 12 December 2011.
In March 2011, it was projected that the fleet of 32 U-2s would be operated until 2015.Brook, Tom Vanden. "After Five Decades, The U-2 Is Still Flying High." USA Today, 28 March 2011. Lockheed Martin determined in 2014 that the U-2S fleet has gone through only one-fifth of its design service life and is one of the youngest fleets within the US Air Force. "Five Ways the U-2 Goes Above and Sees Beyond". Lockheed Martin, 19 February 2014. Retrieved: 13 September 2014. In 2011, the U.S. Air Force intended to replace the U-2 with the RQ-4 before fiscal year 2015; proposed legislation required any replacement to have lower operating costs.Majumdar, Dave. "Global Hawk to replace U-2 spy plane in 2015." Air Force Times, 10 August 2011. Retrieved: 22 August 2011. In January 2012, the Air Force reportedly planned to end the RQ-4 Block 30 program and extend the U-2's service life until 2023.Shalal-Esa, Andrea. "U.S. Air Force to Kill Global Hawk UAV." Aviation Week, 24 January 2012. Retrieved: 24 January 2012.Majumdar, Dave. "Sources: USAF To Kill Block 30 Global Hawks." Defense News 25 January 2012. Retrieved: 25 January 2012. The RQ-4 Block 30 has been kept in service due to political pressure over Air Force objections, who state that the U-2 costs $2,380 per flight hour compared to the RQ-4's $6,710 as of early 2014. Analysts predict A-10, U-2 retirements in FY15 - Flightglobal.com, 7 February 2014. Critics have pointed out that the RQ-4's cameras and sensors are less capable, and that it lacks all-weather operating capability; however, the Air Force may install some of the U-2's sensors upon the RQ-4. Global Hawk Trails U-2 Despite Retirement Plans - DoDBuzz.com, 27 February 2014. Retirement of the U-2 would not begin until FY 2016, at which point the RQ-4 Block 30's capabilities are planned to match the U-2's; the replacement effort is motivated by decreases in the RQ-4's cost per flying hour..
In May 2014, a U-2 was accused of inadvertently causing an air traffic disruption in the Western US due to an apparent ERAM software glitch... The Air Force stated the U-2 did not cause the problems because it did not emit any electronic signals that could have scrambled the control center’s computers. Technicians resolved the issue.. In analyzing the problem, the FAA determined the cause to be a flight plan entry error that overwhelmed the memory capacity of the air traffic system..
The U-2's retirement was calculated to save $2.2 billion. $1.77 billion will have to be spent over 10 years to enhance the RQ-4, including $500 million on a universal payload adapter to attach U-2 sensors onto the RQ-4. Air Force officials fear that retiring the U-2 while the RQ-4 is being upgraded will lead to a capability gap; other high-altitude ISR platforms would be used to substitute including satellites and the secretive RQ-170 and RQ-180 UAVs.. In the House Armed Services Committee's markup of the FY 2015 budget, language was included prohibiting the use of funds to retire or store the U-2; it also requested a report outlining the transition capabilities from the U-2 to the RQ-4 Block 30 in light of capability gap concerns.
In late 2014, Lockheed Martin proposed unmanned U-2 version with greater payload capability to compete with the Global Hawk.Butler, Amy. " Lockheed Updates Unmanned U-2 Concept" Aviation Week & Space Technology, 24 November 2014. Accessed 24 November 2014. Archived on 24 September 2014 In early 2015, the Air Force was directed to restart modest funding for the U-2 for operations and research, development, and procurement. Funding is to be provided through FY 2018, keeping the Global Hawk from replacing it at least until then.. The former head of the USAF Air combat Command, Gen. Mike Hostage helped extend the U-2S to ensure combat commanders receive sufficient ISR intelligence and support coverage. Hostage stated "it will take eight years before the RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet can support 90% of the coverage of the U-2 fleet.Clark, Colin. and Sydney J. Freedberg, ed. "Air Force, riding Budget Boost, Warns on Sequester; U-2 Is BACK!". Breakingdefense.com, 2 February 2015. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
Although the RAF unit operated as part of Detachment B, the UK formally received title to the U-2s their pilots would fly, and Eisenhower wrote to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that because of the separate lines of authority, the nations were conducting "two complementary programs rather than a joint one".Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, p. 156. A secret MI6 bank account paid the RAF pilots, whose cover was employment with the Met Office. While most British flights occurred over the Middle East during the two years the UK program existed, two missions over Soviet missile test sites were very successful. Like Eisenhower, Macmillan personally approved the Soviet overflights. The British direct involvement in overflights ended after the May 1960 U-2 downing incident; although four pilots remained stationed in California until 1974, the CIA's official history of the program stated that "RAF pilots never again conducted another overflight in an Agency U-2."Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 156–157, 181. In 1960 and 1961 the first four pilots received the Air Force Cross, but their U-2 experience remained secret.
The USAF desired to provide the U-2 to Taiwan. A group of ROC pilots trained to fly the aircraft in 1959, but the CIA opposed exporting the U-2 because it would affect the CIA's cover story. After the May 1960 incident revealed the aircraft's existence, however, Eisenhower approved the transfer because ROC pilots flying ROC aircraft could not be formally connected to the U.S. The CIA called the two U-2s that arrived in Taoyuan Air Base "Detachment H"; one aircraft was left unpainted for CIA use. Both the American and Taiwanese governments approved each flight, and the U.S. processed the film and gave copies to the ROC. Overflights of China began on 12 January 1962 with a visit to the Shuangchengzi missile test range; future flights photographed the Lanchou nuclear test site and air bases at Kunming. The first loss occurred on 9 September 1962, when the PRC shot down a U-2 near Nanchang. The pilot Chen Huai (Chen was his last name) was seriously injured and later died in the hospital. The U.S. denied PRC accusations of involvement in the ROC flights, noting that the previous Eisenhower administration had sold the U-2s to Taiwan. This was a cover story, however, as the CIA maintained Detachment H's U-2s and replaced them as necessary, and CIA pilots from Detachment G began using Detachment H's unmarked U-2 for flights over North Vietnam in February 1962.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 222–230.
The demand for intelligence on the Chinese nuclear program grew but so did the number of PRC SAM sites and use of the Fan Song radar, and ROC overflights became more dangerous. Two more ROC U-2s were shot down, one on 1 November 1963 and one on 7 July 1964, and the Taiwanese demanded improved electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment. Detachment H's U-2s had the System XII radar detector but not the sophisticated System XIII radar jammer, because the United States Department of Defense feared its loss to the PRC. The need for intelligence on the Chinese nuclear program was so great that the Defense Department agreed to install improved ECM equipment, but insisted that pilots not turn System XIII on until System XII detected FAN SONG. After another ROC U-2 was lost in circumstances that remain classified , Taiwan refused to conduct further overflights unless its pilots could use System XIII whenever over the PRC. All U-2 PRC overflights ended in 1968, however, because the SA-2 missile and MiG-21 interceptors were now too dangerous. In 104 overflights, five U-2s had been shot down, with three pilots killed and two captured. Detachment H still conducted flights near the Chinese border. All ROC Detachment H operations ended in March 1972, after President Richard Nixon visited China.Pedlow and Welzenbach 1992, pp. 234–246.
In 1958, ROC and American authorities reached an agreement to create the 35th Squadron, nicknamed the Black Cat Squadron, composed of two U-2Cs in Taoyuan Airbase in northern Taiwan, at an isolated part of the airbase. To create misdirection typical of the time, the unit was created under the cover of high altitude weather research missions for ROCAF. To the U.S. government, the 35th Squadron and any U.S. CIA/USAF personnel assigned to the unit were known as Detachment H on all documents. But instead of being under normal USAF control, the project was known as Project Razor, "Project RAZOR." Taiwan Air Blog, updated 11 April 2007. Retrieved: 14 September 2009. "Project RAZOR." Taiwan Air Blog, updated 15 April 2007. Retrieved: 14 September 2009. and was run directly by CIA with USAF assistance.
Each of the 35th Squadron's operational missions had to be approved by both the U.S. and the Taiwan/ROC presidents beforehand. To add another layer of security and secrecy to the project, all U.S. military and CIA/government personnel stationed in Taoyuan assigned to Detachment H were issued official documents and ID with false names and cover titles as Lockheed employees/representatives in civilian clothes. The ROCAF pilots and ground support crew would never know their U.S. counterparts' real names and rank/titles, or which U.S. government agencies they were dealing with.
A total of 26 of 28 ROC pilots sent to the U.S. completed training between 1959 and 1973, at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. "Taiwan Air Power, U-2 Page, pilots." taiwanairpower.org. Retrieved: 24 February 2010. On the night of 3 August 1959, a U-2 on a training mission, out of Laughlin AFB, Texas, piloted by Major Mike Hua of ROC Air Force, made a successful unassisted nighttime emergency landing at Cortez, Colorado, that was later known as Miracle at Cortez, and Major Hua was later awarded the U.S. Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the top secret aircraft. "U-2 Landing at Cortez (August 3, 1959)." cortezeaa1451.org. Retrieved: 12 December 2011. "50th Anniversary Night Forced Landing in Cortez, CO (Slideshow/video in both Chinese and English)." hmhfp.info. Retrieved: 14 February 2010.Steves, Bob. "There I was ..." Air Force, February 1989. Retrieved: 14 February 2010. "A Miracle At Cortez." Air Force Magazine, August 1989. Retrieved: 14 February 2010.
In July 1960, the CIA provided the ROC with its first two U-2Cs, and in December the squadron flew its first mission over mainland China. Other countries were also covered from time to time by the 35th Squadron, such as North Korea, "Target North Korea." Taiwan Air Blog, updated 23 April 2009. Retrieved: 15 September 2009. North Vietnam and Laos, but the main objective of the ROC 35th Squadron was to conduct reconnaissance missions assessing the PRC's nuclear capabilities. For this purpose the ROC pilots flew as far as Gansu and other remote regions in northwest China. Some of the missions, due to mission requirements and range, plus to add some element of surprise, had the 35th Squadron's U-2s flying from or recovered at other U.S. air bases in Southeast Asia and Eastern Asia, such as K-8 (Kunsan) in South Korea, or Tikhli in Thailand. All U.S. airbases in the region were listed as emergency/ alternate recovery airfields and could be used besides the 35th Squadron's home base at Taoyuan airbase in Taiwan. Initially, all film taken by the Black Cat Squadron would be flown to Okinawa or Guam for processing and development, and the U.S. forces would not share any of the mission photos with Taiwan. Only in late 1960s did the USAF agree to share a complete set of mission photos and help Taiwan set up a photo development and interpretation unit at Taoyuan AB.
In 1968, the ROC U-2C/F/G fleet was replaced with the newer U-2R. However, with the coming of the Sino-Soviet split and the rapprochement between the U.S. and the PRC, the ROC U-2 squadron stopped entering Chinese airspace, and instead only conducted electronic intelligence-gathering plus photo-reconnaissance missions with new Long Range Oblique Reconnaissance (LOROP) cameras on the U-2R while flying over international waters. The last U-2 aircraft mission over mainland China took place on 16 March 1968. After that, all missions had the U-2 aircraft fly outside a buffer zone at least around China.
During his visit to China in 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon promised the Chinese authorities to cease all reconnaissance missions near and over China, though this was also made practical because U.S. photo satellites by 1972 were able to provide better overhead images without risking losing aircraft and pilots, or provoking international incidents. The last 35th Squadron mission was flown by Sungchou "Mike" Chiu on 24 May 1974. "The End of an Era." Taiwan Air Blog, 7 April 2006. Retrieved: 14 September 2009.
At the end of ROC's U-2 operations, out of a total of 19 U-2C/F/G/R aircraft operated by the 35th Squadron from 1959 to 1974, 11 were lost. "U-2 page: Aircraft." Taiwan Air Power. Retrieved: 26 December 2009. The squadron flew a total of about 220 missions, "U-2 page: Missions." Taiwan Air Power. Retrieved: 26 December 2009. with about half over mainland China, resulting in five aircraft shot down, with three fatalities and two pilots captured, and another six U-2s lost in training with six pilots killed. On 29 July 1974, the two remaining U-2R aircraft in ROC possession were flown from Taoyuan AB in Taiwan to Edwards AFB, California, US, and turned over to the USAF. "Thou Shalt Not Fly ... Ever." Taiwan Air Power, 1 August 2009. Retrieved: 14 September 2009."Brief History of U-2." Defence International Taiwan, ROC (全球防衛雜誌), Vol. 35, Issue 5, May 2002.
Central Intelligence Agency - 1956-1974