The U-2 spy plane, known affectionately as “The Dragon Lady” (for reasons I will explain later in this article), is part of a highly exclusive aerial fraternity, one of a pantheon of planes that have remained in military service for over 50 years, along with the, the , Hercules, and Stratotanker. Two common threads amongst those five planes are: (1) none of them are fighter planes, and (2) none of them have supersonic speed. Which, I suppose, that “Slow and steady wins the race.”
That said, let’s take a deeper look into the history of the venerable Dragon Lady and how she’s kept on flying for all of these decades.
A (Spy Plane) Star Is Born
The U-2 made her maiden flight on 1 August 1955 and officially entered into service in 1956, first withand soon thereafter the U.S. Air Force. (For a sense of historical backdrop, this was during the days of “ ” and when Elvis’s meteoric career was just getting started.) It was yet another successful creation of Lockheed’s legendary program and its resident genius-in-chief . As noted by Lockheed Martin’s on the U-2, “Johnson envisioned a light high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft capable of flying above the reach of Soviet anti-aircraft fire.” Incredibly (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that is), the plane was projected to have an operational life of just two years!
Kelly Johnson and his R&D ended up designing a subsonic (as in cruise speed of 475 mph/764 kph/ 413 knots/ Mach 0.61) single engine jet plane with day & night all-weather intelligence-gathering capability and a70,000 feet (21,336 meters). For the first few years, this altitude was indeed sufficient to avoid Soviet interceptors, AAA fire, and SAMs, and the U-2s overflew Soviet airspace with seeming impunity.
Then along came the, known in NATO parlances as the SA-2 “Guideline.” On 1 May 1960 (the Soviets’ May Day holiday ironically enough), one of these Soviet-designed missiles shot down CIA U-2 pilot , thus causing massive humiliation for the Eisenhower Administration and the United States as a whole, and the U-2’s twin airs of invincibility and invisibility came crashing down both literally and figuratively. (Both bad puns intended.) To add further insult and injury, USAF U-2 pilot was shot down and killed whilst flying over Cuba during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (though his sacrifice was most assuredly not in vain).
Those setbacks aside, the U-2 spy plane has soldiered on, outlasting the SR-71 Blackbird (still the world’s fastest air-breathing airplane all these years after its retirement). In the words of then-Director of Central Intelligenceback in 1998:
The U-2 was, indeed, one of the CIA’s greatest intelligence achievements. In fact, it may be one of the greatest achievements of any intelligence service of any nation. It was a triumph of government, great industrial partners, and courageous people–a triumph which must be replicated again and again if we are to protect our country. We are fortunate to have this great legacy to build on.
Meanwhile, that aforementioned Lockheed Martin info page will give the readers some appreciation of the Dragon Lady’s versatility:
When equipped with a wide variety of sensors, the U-2 has morphed into everything from a high-tech NASA platform for conducting physics experiments to a high-altitude tool for tracking the migration of destructive spruce bark beetles through the forests of Alaska.
Today, U-2s are used as aerial eavesdropping devices; U-2s survey dirt patterns for signs of makeshift mines and IEDs over Iraq and Afghanistan, making these dynamic high-flyers as effective today as they were nearly 60 years ago.
Some 1st-Person Perspective
Last but not least, in order to garner some firsthand perspective from someone who’s actually flown the U-2, I turned to my friend and fellow Air Force veteran Thomas “TA” Anderson, Lt. Col. (Ret.), Pilot #743. Here’s what “TA” had to say about the U-2 experience:
I can go with the universal saying that we have in the community. The reason why we called her the dragon lady is because some days when you go fly, you’re fighting the dragon and other times you’re dancing with the lady. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. You always have to bring your ‘A’ game as she demands your highest respect. A senior mentor in the program once told me, ‘the day you think you have everything figured out in this airplane every single hair on the back of your neck better stand up, because you’re about to die.’ There’s a reason we have a two-week long interview process. This airplane is challenging to fly and not everyone is meant for it. It doesn’t mean you’re the best pilot in the world if you get hired, or the worst pilot if you fail the interview. It just means you are ‘wired just right’ for it. It’s by far the most rewarding and satisfying airplane of my entire 31 year flying career thus far. I feel honored and privileged to have had the opportunity and be part of a very small community that just recently went over 1000 pilots in the 67 years it’s been operational (and still is to this day.)
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in and . Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the (NOUS).