The Lockheed U-2 is one of the most distinctive aircraft in the US Air Force. It looks like the bastard child of an F-104 Starfighter and a sailplane and is painted a sinister flat black. It’s also incredibly difficult to fly, only takes half its wheels with it when it takes off (the other ones just push-fit into sockets under the wings, and fall off as soon as the plane’s weight is off them) and flies so high the pilot needs to wear a space suit. Remarkably, it’s been in service since 1956 and there still isn’t anything around that can replace it.
Despite that, the Air Force was looking at scrapping its U-2 fleet in 2019. For the last few years, the USAF’s annual spending plan has listed that as the end of service date for the iconic spy plane, estimating that getting rid of them would save them $2.2 billion a year. That seems like a lot of money to operate a few dozen aircraft, but almost nothing about the U-2 is normal. It can’t even use standard jet fuel because it’s too volatile at the extreme altitudes where the U-2 flies.
The Air Force plan was to use the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV to carry out U-2 missions in the future, but that would have meant some loss of capabilities. The RQ-4 is a very capable platform but it isn’t as flexible as the current fleet of U-2S aircraft, which have large underwing pods for extra sensors. Now it seems they’ve found some squeeze room in the budget to keep the U-2 in service for the foreseeable future.
As well as its continuing value as a surveillance system there’s a lot of history attached to the U-2. It was designed early in the Cold War when the CIA discovered that Soviet nuclear weapons research was being done in closed cities that it was almost impossible to run agents in. The only way to get information was by aerial photography, but the USAF’s RB-29 and RB-36 reconnaissance planes flew too low and slow to survive the Soviet defences; the RB-57, a copy of the British Canberra, was fast and flew higher than Soviet fighters but didn’t have the range to get to the research facilities deep inside the USSR’s huge interior. The U-2 was designed to have an immensely long range, and the altitude to sail along high above the defenders’ reach.
Despite this, when the first missions over the USSR were planned President Eisenhower said no. Although the USAF believed the U-2 flew too high to be detected by radar, trial runs over East Germany had seen Soviet fighters vainly trying to climb to intercept altitude. To avoid a political crisis Eisenhower didn’t want an American pilot to be captured after crashing on Soviet soil. Frustrated, the CIA asked the Royal Air Force if they were willing to fly the missions, then trained four British pilots on the U-2C.
When the CIA told Eisenhower what they’d done he finally agreed to the overflights. The four U-2s at Incirlik AFB in Turkey were “transferred” to the RAF, repainted in British markings and started overflying Soviet bomber bases and factories. They brought back an incredible amount of intelligence, and none of them were intercepted. That helped the CIA persuade Eisenhower that it was safe to send American pilots on the missions. The U-2s got their USAF markings back and CIA pilots prepared to start photographing Soviet targets.
Unfortunately, they didn’t ask the ingeniously devious RAF pilots for any help in planning their missions. The first CIA flight, in April 1960, took off from Peshawar in Pakistan before photographing the ballistic missile defense site at Sary Shagan and landing in Iran. That was easy – a relatively short in and out flight – but it made the CIA dangerously overconfident. Their second mission was much more ambitious; it would take off from Peshawar, photograph three separate targets including the Baikonur and Plesetsk rocket sites, then land in Norway. The pilot was Francis Gary Powers – and on 1 May 1960, he was shot down by a SAM near Sverdlovsk, 1,800 miles north of Peshawar and deep inside the Soviet Union.
As Eisenhower had feared, the capture of a US pilot was a huge propaganda coup for the USSR. Khrushchev tricked the USA into releasing an elaborate cover story involving NASA research planes and failed oxygen systems, then revealed that Powers was alive and under interrogation. The embarrassment was painful, and U-2s never crossed the USSR’s borders again. But they still have plenty of other uses, so it’s nice that the Air Force has decided to keep them around for a while longer.