Cold War: Lockheed U-2

Lockheed U-2. US Air Force

In the years immediately after World War II the US military relied on a variety of converted bombers and similar aircraft to collect strategic reconnaissance. With the rise of the Cold War, it was recognized that these aircraft were extremely vulnerable to Soviet air defense assets and as a result would be of limited use in determining Warsaw Pact intentions. As a result, it was determined that an aircraft capable of flying at 70,000 feet was needed as existing Soviet fighters and surface-to-air missiles were incapable to reaching that altitude.

Proceeding under the codename "Aquatone," the US Air Force issued contracts to Bell Aircraft, Fairchild, and Martin Aircraft to design a new reconnaissance aircraft capable of meeting their requirements. Learning of this, Lockheed turned to star engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and asked his team to create a design of their own. Working in their own unit, known as the "Skunk Works," Johnson's team produced a design known as the CL-282. This essentially married the fuselage of an earlier design, the F-104 Starfighter, with a large set of sailplane-like wings.

Presenting the CL-282 to the USAF, Johnson's design was rejected. Despite this initial failure, the design soon received a reprieve from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Technological Capabilities Panel. Overseen by James Killian of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and including Edwin Land from Polaroid, this committee was tasked with exploring new intelligence weapons to protect the US from attack. While they initially concluded that satellites were the ideal approach for gathering intelligence, the necessary technology was still several years away.

As a result, they decided that new spy plane was needed for the near future. Enlisting the aid of Robert Amory from the Central Intelligence Agency, they visited Lockheed to discuss the design of such an aircraft. Upon meeting with Johnson they were told that such design already existed and had been rejected by the USAF. Shown the CL-282, the group was impressed and recommended to CIA head Allen Dulles that the agency should fund the aircraft. After consulting with Eisenhower, the project moved forward and Lockheed was issued a $22.5 million contract for the aircraft.

Design of the U-2

As the project moved forward, the design was re-designated U-2 with the "U" standing for the deliberately vague "utility." Powered by the Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet engine, the U-2 was designed to achieve high altitude flight with a long range. As a result, the airframe was created to be extremely light. This, along with its glider-like characteristics, makes the U-2 a difficult aircraft to fly and one with a high stall speed relative to its maximum speed. Due these issues, the U-2 is difficult to land and requires chase car with another U-2 pilot to help talk the aircraft down.

In effort to save weight, Johnson originally designed the U-2 to take off from a dolly and land on a skid. This approach was later dropped in favor of landing gear in a bicycle configuration with wheels located behind the cockpit and engine. To maintain balance during takeoff, auxiliary wheels known as pogos are installed under each wing. These drop away as the aircraft leaves the runway. Due to the U-2's operational altitude, pilots wear the equivalent of a spacesuit to maintain proper oxygen and pressure levels. Early U-2s carried a variety of sensors in the nose as well as cameras in a bay aft of the cockpit.

U-2: Operation History

The U-2 first flew on August 1, 1955 with Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier at the controls. Testing continued and by spring 1956 the aircraft was ready for service. Reserving authorization for overflights of the Soviet Union, Eisenhower worked to reach an agreement with Nikita Khrushchev regarding aerial inspections. When this failed, he authorized the first U-2 missions that summer. Largely flying from Adana Air Base (renamed Incirlik AB on 28 February 1958) in Turkey, U-2s flown by CIA pilots entered Soviet airspace and collected invaluable intelligence.

Though Soviet radar was able to track the overflights, neither their interceptors nor missiles could reach the U-2 at 70,000 ft. The success of the U-2 led the CIA and US military to press the White House for additional missions. Though Khrushchev protested the flights, he was unable to prove that the aircraft were American. Proceeding in complete secrecy, flights continued from Incirlik and forward bases in Pakistan for the next four years. On May 1, 1960, the U-2 was thrust into the public spotlight when one flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk by a surface-to-air missile.

Captured, Powers became the center of the resulting U-2 Incident which embarrassed Eisenhower and effectively ended a summit meeting in Paris. The incident led to an acceleration of spy satellite technology. Remaining a key strategic asset, U-2 overflights of Cuba in 1962 provided the photographic evidence that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the crisis, a U-2 flown by Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. was shot down by Cuban air defenses. As surface-to-air missile technology improved, efforts were made to improve the aircraft and reduce its radar cross-section. This proved unsuccessful and work began on a new aircraft for conducting overflights of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1960s, engineers also worked to develop aircraft carrier-capable variants (U-2G) to extend its range and flexibility. During the Vietnam War, U-2s were used for high-altitude reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam and flew from bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. In 1967, the aircraft was dramatically improved with the introduction of the U-2R. Approximately 40% larger than the original, the U-2R featured underwing pods and an improved range. This was joined in 1981 by a tactical reconnaissance version designated TR-1A. The introduction of this model re-started production of the aircraft to meet the USAF's needs. In the early 1990s, the U-2R fleet was upgraded to the U-2S standard which included improved engines.

The U-2 has also seen service in a non-military role with NASA as the ER-2 research aircraft. Despite its advanced age, the U-2 remains in service due to its ability to perform direct flights to reconnaissance targets on short notice. Though there were efforts to retire the aircraft in 2006, it avoided this fate due to the lack of an aircraft with similar capabilities. In 2009, the USAF announced that it intended to retain the U-2 through 2014 while working to develop the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk as a replacement.

Lockheed U-2S General Specifications

  • Length: 63 ft.
  • Wingspan: 103 ft.
  • Height: 16 ft.
  • Wing Area: 1,000 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 14,300 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 40,000 lbs.
  • Crew: 1

Lockheed U-2S Performance Specifications

  • Power Plant: 1 × General Electric F118-101 turbofan
  • Range: 6,405 miles
  • Max Speed: 500 mph
  • Ceiling: 70,000+ ft.

Selected Sources

  • FAS: U-2
  • The CIA & the U-2 Program: 1954-1974
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: Lockheed U-2." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, September 9). Cold War: Lockheed U-2. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: Lockheed U-2." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).