The U-Deuce

The secret to a spyplane’s eternal youth is a new set of gadgets installed on a classic chassis.

Even the wing tips and the midwing "super pods," which look like fuel tanks, are crammed with sensors and electronics. Its paint scheme makes it look stealthy, but a U-2 is detectable by radar. (Denny Lombard/Lockheed Martin)
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“What will a new sensor do to the other systems?” Jim Kaplan, Lockheed’s mission systems senior manager, wonders aloud. The wiring that carries electrical power creates enough electromagnetic noise to degrade the intelligence. Some of the systems can interfere with their own mission, but the U-2S is supposed to pick up signals, not listen to its own wheezing.

So with Block 10, the Power/Electro-Magnetic Interference Program, every aircraft is completely rewired with shielded, grounded, low-emission copper, fiber optic, and other cables. And the word “power” means providing enough electrical generators to carry out current missions while having enough in reserve for the future without having to rewire yet again.

The update called Block 20 is the most radical and important. It is formally known as the Reconnaissance Avionics Maintainability Program—RAMP. Less formally, it is called the glass cockpit, and it converts the U-2S cockpit to a current digital standard.

That New-Airplane Smell
Comparing the old instrument panel and the new one shows the difference between the two aircraft vividly. The analog panel was crowded with the two dozen or so little gauges and dials that showed heading, airspeed, altitude, engine performance, turn-and-bank angle, and the rest. There was even a telescope that showed the pilot the ground below. Many of the instruments had to be scanned regularly, with the pilot interpreting their readings and performing a lot of mental gyrations to maintain a picture of the airplane’s position and attitude in three-dimensional space.

The glass cockpit is dominated by three six- by eight-inch multi-function displays—small TV screens arranged in a compact triangle. These take the same information and combine it into single interactive displays. All three are completely interchangeable. Each can display the route the aircraft is on, its location on that route, and significant geographic features, such as towns and lakes. And they do it in color: Land is tan and water is light blue. Or they can provide a closeup of the terrain below without forcing the pilot to peer through a telescope.

People in the program say that the point is better maintainability, not just improved performance. They also emphasize that common parts are used whenever possible. When it was decided to replace the old optical telescope used to scan the ground below with an electronic eye that would display a similar picture on one of the multi-function displays, a standard commercial Sony camera was modified to withstand the minus-76-degree Fahrenheit temperature at altitude. Use of available equipment is called COTS, for commercial off the shelf.

Other improvements involve the life support systems (see “Life Support: Flying in Rarefied Air,” p. 24), which have always been plagued with problems in flights at ultra-high altitudes and lasting hours.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, don’t have those problems. UAVs are also the U-2S’s implacable rivals. The Global Hawk, one of the newest and largest UAVs, is manufactured by Northrop Grumman’s Ryan Aeronautical Center in San Diego (see “Send in the Global Hawk,” Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005). Its promoters note that it can fly its long-duration mission without risking a life. Its detractors in the U-2S fraternity note that it cannot think.

It is Lockheed Martin policy not to get into mud-slinging with its rivals and instead to take the safe there’s-plenty-of-work-for-everybody stance—what is officially called a “balance” between manned and unmanned systems. But some individuals can’t resist discreetly straying across the company line. They quietly explain that the human in the cockpit can override the flight program to take advantage of new target opportunities, evade a sudden, unexpected threat, or cope with an unpredictable flying environment. The point is made by color pictures hanging around the office that show a helmeted head with the caption “The Ultimate Computer.”

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