U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane makes first flight with new avionics suite

U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane makes first flight with new avionics suite
The improved U-2 taking off
The improved U-2 taking off
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The improved U-2 taking off
The improved U-2 taking off

A vintage Cold War spy plane is getting a new lease on life as Lockheed Martin's notorious yet secretive Skunk Works completes the first test flight of a Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady with an upgraded avionics suite and cockpit displays.

First introduced in 1956, the U-2 was designed to fill a gap in providing reconnaissance of the Warsaw Pact territories that hadn't been properly photographed since the Luftwaffe went out of business.

The idea was to go one step beyond using variants of high-altitude bombers and fighters by creating a bespoke aircraft working from forward bases in Britain and elsewhere that could fly long distances at an altitude of 70,000 feet (21,300 m). This would allow the U-2 to fly well above the operative ceiling of then-current air defense systems.

That aspect went south in May 1960 when a U-2 flown by Gary Powers was shot down by Soviet missiles, but another feature of flying at such high altitude became part of the reason the U-2 is one of just a handful of aircraft to serve with the US Air Force for over half a century. By flying at such high altitudes, the U-2 is a quickly deployable plane that can see many thousands of square miles into enemy territory, both photographically and electromagnetically, while remaining safely in international airspace.

The problem is that the U-2 is notoriously difficult to fly, especially at lower altitudes, so there's always room for improvement if it's to remain in service. Under a US$50-million contract, the Avionics Tech Refresh (ATR) program includes a new avionics suite with a new mission computer that allows the U-2 to adopt the Air Force's Open Mission Systems (OMS) standard so it can integrate across various security levels with air, space, sea, land, and cyber domain systems.

Other aspects of the improvements are the ability to quickly accept new technology and a new cockpit with better digital displays to provide information more efficiently and allow the pilot to make faster and better-informed decisions.

During the first flight, the U-2 with updated avionics suite carried out a low-altitude functional check flight to integrate the new avionics, cabling, and software. Later tests will focus on improving the software baseline and new mission systems.

"The successful first flight of the U-2 Avionics Tech Refresh is a significant moment in our journey to rapidly and affordably field new capabilities," said Sean Thatcher, U-2 Avionics Tech Refresh program manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. "Leveraging the platform's open architecture, we're expediting these capabilities needed for the future Joint All-Domain Operations battle space."

Source: Lockheed Martin

Editor's note (Oct. 4, 2023): This article originally stated that the U-2 could "see for many thousands of square miles into enemy territory." This should have been "square miles". We apologize for the error which has now been corrected.

Over sixty years since they were first built, U-2 aircraft continue to serve the US in multiple venues and disciplines. No need to reinvent the wheel, just refit, modify, and enhance the existing one! I find that both astonishing and pleasing! Most excellent!
50 million to read a digital gauge vs an analog one - makes sense!
The history and politics of the U-2 are perhaps more fascinating than any other plane.

While my personal favorite plane remains the SR-71, the plane that was intended to replace the U-2, 25+ U-2’s remain in service almost 70 years after launch. The last U-2 was built surprisingly recently, in 1989. Little known, the U-2 briefly flew from air craft carriers in the mid to late ‘60’s. The U-2 is a slow plane, cruising at about 400 mph with a maximum altitude of “80,000 feet” and range of 7,000 miles… with a single engine. While the Gary Powers over Russia shoot down is the most famous, the U-2 has been shot down several times.