The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", is a single-engine, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It provides day and night, very high-altitude (70,000 feet / 21,000 m), all-weather intelligence gathering. The U-2 has also been used for electronic sensor research, satellite calibration, and communications purposes.
The U-2 has prominently featured in several events during the Cold War, at stages of which U-2s commonly overflew the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Vietnam, and Cuba. In 1960, CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down while flying a U-2 over Soviet territory. In 1962, a U-2 piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. was shot down over Cuba by surface-to-air missiles during the Cuban missile crisis.
The U-2 has remained in service since the end of the Cold War and is one of several aircraft types that have been operated by the USAF in excess of 50 years. It has participated in conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and supported several multinational NATO operations. The role of the U-2 is increasingly performed by alternative platforms, such as surveillance satellites, unmanned reconnaissance drones such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, and conventional aircraft.
In the early 1950s, with Cold War tensions on the rise, the U.S. military desired better strategic reconnaissance to help determine Soviet capabilities and intentions. The existing reconnaissance aircraft, primarily bombers converted for reconnaissance duty, were vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery, missiles, and fighters. It was thought an aircraft that could fly at 70,000 feet (21,000 m) would be beyond the reach of Soviet fighters, missiles, and even radar. This would allow overflights to take aerial photographs.
Under the code name "Bald Eagle", the Air Force gave contracts to Bell Aircraft, Martin Aircraft, and Fairchild Engine and Airplane to develop proposals for the new reconnaissance aircraft. Officials at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation heard about the project and asked aeronautical engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson to come up with a design. Johnson was a brilliant designer, responsible for the P-38, and the P-80. He was also known for completing projects ahead of schedule, working in a separate division of the company jokingly called the Skunk Works.
Original U-2A at USAF Museum
Johnson's design, called the CL-282, married long glider-like wings to the fuselage of another of his designs, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. To save weight, his initial design did not have conventional landing gear, taking off from a dolly and landing on skids. The design was rejected by the Air Force, but caught the attention of several civilians on the review panel, notably Edwin Land, the father of instant photography. Land proposed to CIA director Allen Dulles that his agency should fund and operate this aircraft. After a meeting with President Eisenhower, Lockheed received a $22.5 million contract for the first 20 aircraft. It was renamed the U-2, with the "U" referring to the deliberately vague designation "utility". The CIA assigned the cryptonym "Aquatone" to the project, with the Air Force using the name "Oilstone" for their support to the CIA.
The first flight occurred at the Groom Lake test site (Area 51) on August 1, 1955, during what was intended to be only a high-speed taxi run. The sailplane-like wings were so efficient that the aircraft jumped into the air at 70 knots (81 mph; 130 km/h).
James Baker developed the optics for a large-format camera to be used in the U-2 while working for Perkin-Elmer. These new cameras had a resolution of 2.5 feet (76 cm) from an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,000 m). Balancing is so critical on the U-2 that the camera had to use a split film, with reels on one side feeding forward while those on the other side fed backward, thus maintaining a balanced weight distribution through the whole flight.
When the first overflights of the Soviet Union were tracked by radar, the CIA initiated Project Rainbow to reduce the U-2's radar cross section. This effort ultimately proved unsuccessful, and work began on a follow-on aircraft, which resulted in the Lockheed A-12 Oxcart.
Manufacturing was restarted in the 1980s to produce the TR-1, an updated and modernized design of the U-2]