To Lockheed Skunk Works aeronautical engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the super-secret spyplane he designed in the mid-1950s was “Angel.” To the Central Intelligence Agency, which used it extensively during the cold war, it was “Article.” To the rest of the world, which learned of its existence when the Soviet Union shot one down in 1960 and forced the U.S. government’s hand, it was a marvel. The Lockheed U-2 could fly at 70,000 feet—higher than any other aircraft had flown. On missions that stretched 6,400 miles, it could photograph secret bases and hidden missile sites while eluding enemy fighter aircraft, if not always surface-to-air missiles.
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On its most famous spy mission, it spotted Soviet nuclear missiles deployed 90 miles from Key West, Florida, a 1962 sighting that touched off the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since that time, it has for the most part matched its high altitude with a low profile, surreptitiously watching the enemy in virtually every U.S. conflict from the Vietnam War to Iraq. But the Dragon Lady is a difficult airplane to handle. And Air Force pilots flying the U-2 today to gather intelligence on insurgents in Afghanistan are flying longer, more stressful missions than those who flew the first variant, nearly 60 years ago.
FOR THE U-2, the 1960s began inauspiciously. On May 1, 1960, pilot Francis Gary Powers, flying a U-2 mission as part of a joint operation between the Air Force and the CIA, was shot down over Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union and taken prisoner. The incident forced the United States to ramp up another way to get reconnaissance: the Corona satellite program. (Powers was later exchanged for Soviet spy Vilyam Fisher, also known as Rudolf Abel.)
But satellites couldn’t go where the U-2 could. In 1964, the spyplane gave the CIA a detailed look at France’s new nuclear test site at Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia. (France had picked the remote South Pacific atoll to replace its test site in Algeria after that country became independent.)
As the Vietnam War intensified, U-2s started flying in Southeast Asia to detect Viet Cong forces. Both the CIA and the U.S. Air Force were increasingly flying the Dragon Lady over Cambodia, Laos, and the two Vietnams (in 1964, the Air Force took over all U-2 flights over Southeast Asia, and the CIA focused on China). Until 1968, Nationalist Chinese pilots in Taiwan flew the U-2 over mainland China to monitor military activity (see “Lin Xu’s Obsession”).
In 1964, with foreign governments increasingly reluctant to allow basing and overflight rights, the CIA began flying the U-2 off of and onto aircraft carriers. That operation, dubbed Project Whale Tale, lasted about a decade. In August 1974, the CIA handed off all U-2 operations to the Air Force.
THE END OF THE VIETNAM WAR brought a new mission for the U-2: Take over from drones and DC-130s the airborne monitoring of communications from North Korea. In May 1974, not long after the flights over North Korea began, the U-2 flew its last mission over Cuba. The Air Force handed off that duty to the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
During the 1970s, U-2s were dispatched to the Middle East to monitor the Arab-Israeli ceasefire, and Somalia, where the Soviets had set up a naval base.
But the aircraft also flew humanitarian missions, supplying aerial photography to the government of Guatemala after an earthquake ravaged that country in February 1976. Five stunningly sharp images were released to the U.S. media, writes Chris Pocock in 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the Dragon Lady, “[and] the publicity left a lasting and favorable impression of the aircraft.”
NASA got a pair of the airplanes in 1971 to conduct Earth surveys. (It replaced them a decade later with the Earth Resources version of the U-2, Lockheed’s ER-2.) Based at Dryden Flight Research Center in California, NASA’s U-2s and ER-2s have flown more than 4,500 data missions and test flights.