August 3, 2005 Fifty years ago this week the famous high altitude (70,000 ft, 21,000 m plus) U-2 spy plane made its first flight – since that time it has been one of the most consistent providers of critical intelligence information to the United States in peacetime and all phases of conflict. Developed with a reportedly unlimited budget supplied by the CIA, the plane was developed in record time by Lockheed Martin and in operation for four years providing continuous day and night, high-altitude, all-weather surveillance before the famous incident where US pilot Gary Powers was shot down over a Russian nuclear missile base in 1960 and tried as a spy.

The U-2 is now 40% larger than it was in 1955 due to the plethora of electronic eyes and ears it carries, but it is still immensely useful in wartime having provided 88% of battle field imagery during the Iraq invasion.

The U-2 was responsible for identifying the threat of Cuban-based ballistic missiles that became the Cuban missile crisis and took the world closer to nuclear war than any other point in history. All of the imagery used in identifying the build-up of missiles came from the U-2. The U-2 has been the backbone of US airborne intelligence collection operations for FIVE DECADES and is expected to continue in the role for at least another decade.

Though the U-2 is slow, it’s extreme height makes it very difficult to shoot down – in fifty years of flying only seven U-2s have ever been shot down: one over the Soviet Union flown by Francis Gary Powers, five over China, and one over Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis.

Because of the hazardous physiological regime of high altitude flying (U-2s typically fly higher than 60,000 feet -- twice as high as a commercial airliner), pilots need to wear an astronaut-like flight suit and must breathe pure oxygen for an hour prior to take off to reduce the amount of nitrogen in their blood stream. The U-2 was expected to be superceded by the SR-71 Blackbird long-range, strategic reconnaissance aircraft in 1964 but the Blackbird was retired in 1990 and the U-2 is still flying. Just the same, the Blackbird was an incredible aircraft and whilst in service was the world's fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. In 1976, an SR-71 set a world speed record of 2,193.167 mph (3,529.56 km/h) and an aircraft altitude record of 85,068.997 feet (25,929 m).

The aircraft completed an upgrade to the General Electric F-118-101 engine in 1998, primarily to increase maintainibility by replacing the aging J-75 (Pratt & Whitney) engine that had first been developed in the '50s. Significant side benefits of the newer GE engine was better fuel economy, reduced weight and increased power. To increase longivity the GE engine was de-tuned to roughly match the output from the PW engine. Other upgrades to the sensors and the addition of the Global Positioning System increased collection capability and provides superimposed geo-coordinates directly on collected images.

In 2002 Lockheed Martin delivered the first U-2S reconnaissance aircraft equipped with state-of-the-art cockpit displays and controls to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing based at Beale Air Force Base, CA.

The U-2S Reconnaissance Avionics Maintainability Program (RAMP) upgraded the 1960s-vintage cockpit with newly installed equipment, including three 6x8 inch multifunction displays, an up-front control and display unit, and an independent secondary flight display system. The entire fleet of 29 U-2S models and five two-cockpit trainers will be modified before the project is completed in 2007. As a result of the upgrade, along with other sensor modifications, the U-2S will continue to provide leading-edge intelligence collection capabilities for years to come.

Further reading

Fascinating coverage of all post-war intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft plus all post war aircraft with the abiliy to gather intelligence such as AEW aircraft, UAV's, Recce Pods, Losses, Recce aircraft that were cancelled or not developed and a look at what the future might hold.

James S Huggins U2 Spy Plane resource

Links to articles overviews and resources on the U-2 written by the brother of a U-2 pilot, so very accurate and authentic

A wonderful overview of the key publicly released surveillance images of our time and the immense political power they wielded. Pics taken by spy planes and satellites have been used to sway public opinion ever since President John F. Kennedy declassified U-2 images of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba four decades ago. Since then, the release of such photographs—sometimes officially sanctioned, sometimes not—has played a crucial role in geopolitics, never more intensely than in recent years. Here, examine a series of influential images released between 1962 and 2002 such as a bioweapon plant in Sudan, the Cuban missile images, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melt-down, mass graves in Kosovo plus many more.

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