Though the U-2 remains in service after 50 years, it will probably always be most associated with the “Garry Powers incident” or “U-2 Crisis.” Since the 1950’s, the U-2 has only been used as a high-altitude surveillance aircraft for the United States Air Force.
The U-2 airplane was born out of necessity: The need by the CIA to secretly monitor the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Lockheed Corporation was tasked with designing an aircraft that could fly over the Soviet Union at an extremely high altitude while collecting top secret surveillance information for the Pentagon. The CIA believed that if the U2 could fly high enough, it would not be vulnerable to ground fire by hostile forces.
By August of 1955, the U-2 was activated for service. Polaroid Corporation developed and supplied the high resolution camera and photographic equipment necessary to capture detailed images of people up to 70,000 feet below on the ground.
In June 1956, the U-2 completed its first flight over the Soviet Union and on May 1, 1960, the world first learned about the U-2 when one of the aircraft, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, was shot down by the Soviets over its airspace.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U-2 was used to document the Soviet installation of nuclear warhead missiles in Cuba. Later, another U-2 was shot down over Cuba.
Because of the airplane’s unexpected vulnerability to Surface to Air Missiles (“SAMs”) the CIA concluded that replacement od the U2 was vital to US military and security interests. The first proposed solution was the Lockheed A-12 which later became the SR-71 Blackbird.
Ironically, the U-2 has remained in service even after the SR-71 has retired. By some accounts, the U-2 is expected to be decommissioned sometime between 2007 and 2011. Its replacement is uncertain.
The U-2 Dragon Lady is especially difficult to fly, in part because of its stall speed. The U-2 must fly at maximum speed in order to maintain its ceiling of 70,000 feet. However, the U-2’s stall speed is only five knots less than its maximum speed.
The aircraft’s long wings make it vulnerable to crosswinds thereby making the U-2 extremely challenging to keep on a runway. Because the U-2 flies at extremely high altitudes, the pilot is required to wear a space suit similar to those used by astronauts.
Some of the U-2’s specifications include:
Maximum speed: 510 mph
Range: 3,500 mi
Ceiling: 90,000 ft
Length: 62 ft 9 in
Wingspan: 103 ft
Height: 16 ft 1 in
Maximum weight: 41,000 lb
Empty weight: 14,990 lb
Engine(s): one 17,000 lbf Pratt & Whitney J75-P-13B turbojet
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