U-2 Above All

After 50 years, the U-2 remains on the cutting edge

Story by Senior Airman Shawn Nickel, 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs
Video by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan, 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

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(Editor’s note: For security reasons, some individuals’ last names have been withheld.)

Whether people recognize it by the Snoopy-like nose or by the flat black paint and red lettering on the tail, the U-2 has become an Air Force reconnaissance icon in its 50 years of military operations.

Since the first model was assembled in the 1950s, the aircraft’s original, shiny aluminum skin has evolved to the current flat black paint scheme, and its mission has broadened as intelligence imagery techniques have improved.

It was originally designed to fly high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions during the Cold War to gather intelligence on opposition forces. Today the U-2S flies in support of a variety of missions from ground combat to disaster relief. The aircraft has been updated over the years with a 33 percent larger frame, fiber-optic wiring and an all glass cockpit. These improvements increase the aircraft’s payload and loiter time, making it easier to fly.

U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan

The U-2’s dynamic airframe can carry approximately 4,000 pounds of equipment, paving the way as a test platform for new technologies. With its immense and diverse payload capacity, it is capable of a multitude of missions. Some pilots describe it as the “Lego” airplane.

“It’s like Mr. Potato Head,” said Lt. Col. John, an instructor pilot with the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron. “You just take one part out and add a new one. There are so many new developments running through the works right now. New weapons systems are going to emerge and accelerate the curve of the U-2 even more.”

One of the aircraft’s primary missions is to capture imagery via the decades-old, wet-film camera, which is sharp enough to see roadside bombs from 70,000 feet and offers greater resolution than any digital sensors available.

Lake Tahoe (left) and the western United States are seen at altitude from the cockpit of a U-2 Dragon Lady.

The western United States are visible from the cockpit of a U-2. Flying above 70,000 feet, U-2 pilots are able to see the curvature of the Earth and the upper edges of the stratosphere. (U.S Air Force photo)

“The U-2 started out only carrying a wet-film camera. Now, with today’s technology, I’m alone up there, but I may be carrying 40 to 50 Airmen via data link who are back at a (deployable ground station),” John said.

In addition to its other capabilities, the U-2 provides service members on the ground with the intelligence they need to effectively carry out their mission, said Capt. Michael, a 1st Reconnaissance Squadron instructor pilot. This could include acting as an antenna to troops on the ground in Afghanistan or providing detailed imagery during a natural disaster.

“We are up there to make a difference,” Michael said. “We are there to make an impact on the troops we support.”

For operational security reasons, many details about the U-2 and its mission are unknown to the public. When the airframe was in its infancy, even pilots coming into the program knew very little about it. One of those men is retired Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua, one of the original Air Force U-2 pilots.

Since the jet was developed at the height of the Cold War, it was used extensively over the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other opposition countries. Bevacqua said every precaution was taken to keep the technology from leaking into enemy hands.

“I volunteered for an assignment I knew nothing about, and they wouldn’t tell me anything about the U-2,” Bevacqua said. “The aircraft was state-of-the-art back then; no one in the public knew about it.”

A U.S. Air Force U-2 high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft lands at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., August 6, 2012.

A U-2 lands at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. A “mobile” follows behind the aircraft in a chase car to assist the pilot with altitude and position calls. Mobiles are U-2 pilots who assist pilots during taxi, takeoff and landing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan)

This first class of pilots had to learn everything about the aircraft from the ground up. They developed the first U-2 training program in a matter of weeks, much of which is still used today.

“Before I joined the Air Force, I’d never even built a model airplane, but we trained hard to learn everything about the U-2,” he said. “After weeks of being the first pilots in the U-2, we became the instructors for the second class of pilots.”

The program is considered an exclusive group, with less than 80 current U-2 pilots.

“There are more people who have Super Bowl rings than there are U-2 pilots,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Rodriguez, the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron commander. “There are less than 1,000 pilots in the history of this program. That’s less than some airframes train in one year.”

After flying for years in other military airframes, a pilot from any U.S. service can apply to fly the U-2, Rodriquez said. Following a strict interview process, he sends these prospective aviators on a series of training flights to test the pilot’s aptitude.

“We interview applicants to screen for airmanship, maturity and ability to adapt to the U-2’s unique landing characteristics,” he said. “Allowing inter-service transfers brings lessons from outside the Air Force, which helps us at operating in a joint environment.”

A reflection of the Earth's atmosphere is seen in the glass shield of a U-2 pilot's helmet.

reflection of the Earth’s atmosphere is seen in the glass shield of a U-2 pilot’s helmet. U-2 pilots wear full-pressure suits and helmets that ensure survivability during depressurization.  (U.S. Air Force photo)

Although the pilots are the face of the U-2’s mission, hundreds of Airmen behind closed doors in windowless buildings exploit, disseminate and transmit the information the aircraft collects. These Airmen provide mission-essential assistance to commanders around the globe.

“To be able to support the warfighter from the U.S. is a great feeling,” said Master Sgt. Sean, the 9th Intelligence Squadron flight lead. “We contribute to the mission downrange whether we deploy and support the efforts with manpower and bullets or we support it through ‘intel’ from home station.”

The U-2 is at a high operational tempo and with the program schedule to endure through 2040, there are no signs of slowing down. U-2 pilots will continue to provide timely, relevant and persistent high altitude ISR to meet the needs of the nation’s leaders to support the current fight and any future challenges our nation may face.

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24 thoughts on “U-2 Above All

    • I was a Nephograpics (Camera) Technician on the original U-2A at Laughlin AFB, TX and Davis Monthan AFB, AZ from 1958-1966. Quite a ride for a bird meant to fly only one flight and then destroy. But never happended!! Last one of mine flew it’s last flight in 1989. And now the Pentagonian Politicians want to really trash the old girl. Fie!!Fie!! Congress, why not you guys retire and let my old “Girl Firend” keep right on truckin’! Irreplaceable. Ever heard of a satellite that can refuel? Dome of the old U-Birds could actually perform IFR. Great Old Lady, All of them, from the oritinals to her daughters and grand daughters not flying as U-S models with the 9th at Beale. Just don’t forget the originals began their USAF life in Del
      Rio.

  1. Awsome article and video. I am one civilian who sincerely appreciates those who put their lives on the line to safeguard the liberties most of us unfortunately take for granted. Thanks to all of you in the Armed Forces.

  2. Well done, Beale Team! Outstanding production and presentation; I will always have a part of my heart in the ISR world.

  3. You have to be a really good pilot to fly an aircraft that has only a few knots of airspeed between stall and max mach number (structural limit) at altitude.

  4. Thanks for the great video and history lesson. The U-2 ranks up there with the most successful aircraft ever. Thanks again

  5. A very well done video and story. The airmen involved in it’s production should be commended. Thank you!

  6. As a Comm guy whose been TDY in direct support of U2 Ops twice I will always have a soft spot for the outstanding Airmen of this community and their contributions to our country.

  7. I was lucky enough to have my first station at Beale AFB. I was assigned to the 100th Supply Sq/ Fuels Branch. Spent many hours refueling not only the U2 but the SR-71. Also spent many hours on the flight line watch these planes fly. The are amazing to watch. These memories will forever with me . Thank you for this story and God bless all the Airmen that keep the flying.

  8. This aircraft cannot be replaced by anything that exists today. What a tribute to it’s design and those who fly and operate this system.

  9. I was a Black Hawk pilot in the Army, had a few close calls, but recently (a few years ago) I had my closest call: While on an assigned heading and altitude in a little C-172 near Beal AFB, the controller practically shouts, ” Cessna… descend immediately for collision avoidance! ” As I quickly complied the windscreen filled with the nose and belly of a U-2 – maybe 20 feet away at the most. The embarrassed controller went silent for awhile while the shaken Cessna pilot wished he had a camera going thru the event!

  10. The first time I saw a U-2was at McCoy AFB, Orlando, Fla during the Cuban event……..Shortly after that I was reassigned to Yokota Air Base in Japan, where for 42 months on a at least a weekly basis, worked in the photo lab and processed the 9.5 inch wide by 10,000+ ft film frp, U-2’s flying missions in PACAF………..Nice to see that wet film is still more sharp focus than pixles…..

  11. Many may be unaware the U-2 was assigned at Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas under the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. On 27 October 1962, a U-2 was shot down over Cuba by two surface-to-air missiles, killing the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson (http://newspaperarchive.com/del-rio-news-herald/1962-10-28/). Today, Laughlin’s Anderson Hall is where the worlds best pilots start their Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training.

    • Here is a picture of the memorial to Major Anderson located in his home town of Greenville, SC. It was just recently given a a complete restoration in memry of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  12. I did not realize that the U2s were still flying . I remember them when they were at Davis-Monthan AFB AZ

  13. TR-1s out of Kadena were at Osan ROK when I was there in 82-83. You could almost set your watch when they took off and landed…quite an aircraft!

  14. Great article and video. I also remember the U-2’s out of Davis-Monthan AFB when I was in high school. Not to take anything from the pilots but just a couple of weeks ago an Austrian skydiver jumped from 120,000 feet. Now thats guts too!

  15. Beautiful, just beautiful. We “nicknamed” the U-2 as The Blue Goose at Incirlick AB, Det 10-10 at Adana, Turkey in 1959-1960. I was assigned as a crew member on one .of 2 C-54.s in support of the U-2 program. When Powers went down, the unit disbanded. My wife and two young boys used to stand and watch the “Blue Goose” take off and go straight up. My famely was in awe. I served twenty one years and nine months in the Air Force, retiring in 73. I
    B. L. Lawson, USAF Retired