The U.S. has been flying the U-2 spy plane since the mid-1950s, and the slim, long-winged aircraft seems not so much aging as ageless. It first gained notoriety 50-plus years ago in the thick of the Cold War when the Soviet Union downed the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers, and has continued much more recently to turn in reconnaissance and surveillance flights over war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Defense Department once had retirement for the U-2 penciled in for last year, with unmanned Global Hawk drones taking over the high-flying mission, but that didn't happen. In fact, the draft of the Pentagon's 2013 budget, unveiled this month, gives the U-2 (also known as the Dragon Lady) a longer lease on life.
Issues of expense, complexity, and delays have undermined the once promising future for the unmanned Global Hawk--to the benefit of the U-2 program. Under the proposed $154.3 billion base budget for the Air Force for fiscal 2013, the service will put an end to the rival RQ-4 "Block 30" Global Hawk program. "The U-2 is a stronger system," with superior performance at a lower operational cost, Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward L. Bolton Jr. said at a Pentagon news briefing on February 13, "so we're going to go with the stronger system."
The U.S. government's budget proposal for fiscal 2013 (PDF) says this about the two aircraft (see page 48 of the PDF): "The comprehensive strategic review, recently completed by the Department of Defense, reduced the requirement for the number of high altitude reconnaissance 'orbits' and this reduction allows the current fleet of U-2 aircraft to fulfill all requirements for high altitude reconnaissance. The decision to cancel Global Hawk production, therefore, will have little impact on operations, which will continue using the U-2. However, ending Global Hawk production will result in substantial long-term savings that can be used for other programs."
This photo shows a U-2 taking off for a mission over Iraq in April 2003.
Here we see a U-2 being refueled after a mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, providing near-real-time imagery and signals intelligence. That aircraft was based, the Air Force said coyly, "at a forward deployed location in Southwest Asia."
The U-2 has a wingspan of 103 feet. It is 63 feet long, and stands over 16 feet tall at its tail.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Hannen
The U-2 is built for soaring at high altitudes--it can go above 70,000 feet. When it comes to landing, however, the aircraft needs some assistance. Because of a combination of awkward low-altitude handling and a long nose impeding the pilot's view ahead at ground level, a second U-2 pilot typically offers guidance from a chase car racing down the runway. And the pilot coming in for a landing is likely to be tired; missions can last 10 to 12 hours. That protracted time aloft (waaay aloft) is one of the features that has long been one of the U-2's big selling points, and a key reason the five-decade-old design is still in service today.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Stephen Linch
Check-off before take-off
A pilot runs through his preflight checklist before taking off in a U-2S. Because of the great heights at which the Lockheed Martin-built spy plane flies, pilots have to wear full pressure suits like those that protect astronauts in space.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrea Knudson
View from 71,000 feet
At 71,000 feet over California, a U-2 pilot has the skies to himself in this photo from late 2006.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:Col. Chris Cook via U.S. Air Force
San Francisco in 1972
And here's an earlier view of California--an oblique shot of San Francisco and the Bay Area taken from a U-2 in June 1972. The small blue spot toward the top center is Lake Tahoe. Not all U-2 missions involve military surveillance and reconnaissance; this flight was in support of the NASA Ames Earth Resources project.
Notoriety attached itself to the publicity-shy U-2 in May 1960 when the Soviet Union brought down a CIA flight in which Francis Gary Powers was piloting the aircraft. The U.S. tried to pull a quick one, but the Kremlin knew better: "NASA issued a press release with a cover story about a U-2 conducting weather research that may have strayed off course after the pilot reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment. To bolster the cover-up, a U-2 was quickly painted in NASA markings, with a fictitious NASA serial number, and put on display for the news media at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on May 6, 1960," according to a write-up by the space agency. "The NASA cover story quickly blew up in the agency's face when both Gary Powers and aircraft wreckage were displayed by the Soviet Union, proving that it was a reconnaissance aircraft. This caused embarrassment for several top NASA officials."
This is the "glass cockpit" of today's updated U-2S aircraft--the controls are now largely digital and electronic, where they used to be mechanical. The S designation came about in the mid-1990s when the Dragon Lady fleet began receiving airframe, sensor, and engine upgrades. The last delivery of U-2 aircraft to the Air Force from Lockheed Martin was in 1989. Today, just over 30 are in service (including some two-seat trainers), out of a total of 104 built over the course of about 35 years.
All planes need regular maintenance, of course. In this case, hydraulic tubing in the fuselage of U-2 at a forward-operating base in Southwest Asia gets checked out by a Lockheed employee. In upgraded U-2S Block 10 models, fiber-optics have replaced legacy wiring. U-2S models pack a General Electric F118-101 engine that can push the aircraft to a cruising speed of about 475 mph and a range of better than 7,000 miles.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Alicia Flores
These U.S. Air Force avionics sensor technicians are loading a 100-pound roll of film into a U-2's optical bar camera, which supports high-resolution, broad-area synoptic coverage. Other imaging packages in the aircraft include multispectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar gear. "The U-2 also carries a signals intelligence payload," the Air Force says, without elaborating. "All intelligence products except for wet film can be transmitted in near real-time anywhere in the world via air-to-ground or air-to-satellite data links, rapidly providing critical information to combatant commanders."
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Tim Helton
An Air Force physiological support technician cinches up a parachute torso harness on a U-2 pilot in December 2011 at Beale Force Base in California.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/John Schwab
Here, a U-2 pilot gets help with the gloves of his pressure suit.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Justin Jacobs
O2 on tap
In an hourlong session before a mission from a forward-deployed location in Southwest Asia, this U-2 pilot--like all U-2 pilots--gets a dose of pure oxygen to reduce the amount of nitrogen in his blood stream.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Suzanne M. Jenkins
U-2 pilot in 1971
Here's what flight prep looked like in 1971, back in the day of the Apollo moon missions and when the first orbital mission of the space shuttle program was still a decade away.
And, back closer to the present day, a U-2 pilot walks to his aircraft at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, en route to South Korea, as a support technician keeps pace.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo
Cleared for take-off
Airmen make the final preparations for a U-2 to get off the ground for an October 2009 flight from a base in Southwest Asia.
Getting back to the topic of drones versus manned aircraft that kicked off this slideshow, we give you these words from an Air Force officer at that base: "Global Hawks and U-2s complement each other," Lt. Col. Kirt Stallings, commander of the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, said in an Air Force report at the time. "For example, if a U-2 pilot finds four different hot spots that need monitoring, they can reach out to other assets, like Global Hawks, to provide ISR needs. A U-2 is more capable, but a Global Hawk can remain on station after a U-2 has to turn back."
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
All systems go
The U-2 pilot signals that all systems are go for that October 2009 flight, his first combat mission.
Updated:Caption:Jon SkillingsPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski