Diary of a Spy

Events that made the U-2 the world’s most famous player in the game of espionage.

(Sagar N. Pathak)
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BY 1980, the U-2 fleet had a new home—Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, California, joining the Blackbird in the Ninth Reconnaissance Wing. The tension was apparent, wrote Ernest Gann in his 1989 book The Black Watch: “There is often a certain condescension in the manner of SR-71 pilots and their ‘backseaters.’ They are inclined to regard the U-2 as a work mule, with a speed to match that animal.

“The reaction of the U-2 people is hardly surprising…they refer to the SR-71 as the ‘sled,’ and since the sled drivers seem to make a more romantic impression on the public, they are said to deliberately fly towards thunderstorms because they mistake them for camera flashbulbs,” Gann wrote. Ultimately, U-2 pilots had the last laugh: The Blackbird was retired in 1999, while the Dragon Lady continues to fly.

The U-2 also got a new name—TR-1—after going into production for the third time. The spyplane was essentially the same as the second variant, the U-2R, but was updated for tactical reconnaissance (hence the “TR”) so it could do high-altitude surveillance of Eastern Europe. The new Dragon Lady featured state-of-the-art cameras and sensors that could peer 300 miles from the aircraft, an advanced imaging radar, and a precision locator to detect enemy radar and surface-to-air-missile sites.

The first TR-1 flew in August 1981, and was first deployed overseas in February 1983.

IT WASN’T LONG BEFORE the U-2 was back in combat. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the Air Force sent the Dragon Lady on photo-reconnaissance missions that imaged most of Iraq, including Baghdad. Included were locations of surface-to-air missile sites. Once the air war began in January 1991, a U-2 was the first aircraft to fly across the Iraqi border; it imaged fixed Scud missile sites at air fields and later recorded bomb damage from the initial F-117 attacks.

According to Air Force assessments, the U-2 provided more than half of all imagery intelligence and 90 percent of the Army’s targeting intelligence against Iraq. “So much for reconnaissance satellites,” writes Pocock. “They were often defeated by haze, smoke, or bad weather, and when they did take useful images, the product was simply not available to the right people at the right time.”

Later in the decade, the U-2 patrolled the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo and monitored the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.

WITH THE NEW CENTURY came modernization. The biggest upgrade for the aircraft was a glass cockpit: three large screens replaced the dials and switches that had been in place since the first flight of the U-2R in 1967. The touch controls were positioned so a pilot wearing the bulky high-pressure suit gloves could easily use them.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U-2 was called to assist in the invasion of Afghanistan by supplying allied ground forces with maps of the terrain. This time the Dragon Lady had company: the Global Hawk and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles. Early in the U-2’s career, some thought the airplane would be replaced by satellites; now the threat was the Global Hawk. But this past January, the Air Force announced that the U-2 would continue to fly surveillance missions because the Global Hawk’s costs kept escalating.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 marked the U-2’s biggest deployment yet, with at least 15 jets flown by 31 pilots on 169 missions. U-2 pilots were flying every three to four days on missions that averaged 10 to 11 hours.

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