Lockheed U-2: The Peeping Tom of the Cold War


The first U-2 was designed and built a mere eight months after the contract was signed (today a military aircraft takes around twenty years to enter service). The project was led by the great Kelly Johnson and developed in such great secrecy that even Congress was unaware of it.

For almost sixty years U-2s have penetrated the inhospitable darkness of the stratosphere to snoop on America’s least favourite nations. From their first mission over the USSR in 1956, the soviets were aware of the presence of these CIA-operated intruders, but were powerless to destroy them; fighters of the 1950s simply could not catch an enemy flying at 70,000 ft.


Gary Powers and a U-2. At the crash site of his aircraft, soviet investigators found a packet of Kent cigarettes, a .22 pistol and a suicide pill. When Powers returned from his imprisonment in a spy swap in 1962, the CIA sent a female agent to secretly test if he had been turned by the soviets; Powers and his investigator fell in love and got married.

Things changed on May Day 1960 when a U-2 was shot down by a soviet surface-to-air missile. The CIA pilot Gary Powers was captured and sentenced to three years in prison followed by seven years of hard labour (of which he served only two). The US cover story that it was a weather plane that had flown off course was never believed by the soviets- the U-2 had fallen to the ground almost intact, allowing its secret equipment to be studied at leisure. The shoot-down was a diplomatic disaster for the Americans (spying overflights were technically an act of war), one that Premier Khrushchev exploited for maximum effect when he stormed out of a planned summit meeting in protest. This was also the first time that the general public had heard of this highly classified project. The U-2 was not safe over the USSR, but was still a useful reconnaissance tool. It would not be long till the U-2 would spark another Cold War imbroglio, this time one that brought the world calamitously close to a nuclear war; in 1962 U-2s photographed preparation for the installation of a soviet missile base in Cuba, triggering the Cuban missile crisis.Since then the U-2 has spied in almost every continent, identified war graves and carried out research for NASA.

This ghostly aircraft may end its life rather lonely, as in 2015 work began on developing an unmanned version.


All of the U-2 family have extremely thin broad wings. These ‘high aspect’ wings are like those of sailplane, the huge wing area is needed to cruise in the very thin air of the lower stratosphere. Like many official stories about the U-2, the NASA markings are baloney and were only applied to conceal the aircraft’s real role.


The CIA secretly supplied U-2s to the Taiwanese air force (RoCAF) to spy on mainland China. The aircraft were flown by the 35th Squadron, known as the Black Cats. Of the nineteen aircraft flown by the RoCAF, eleven were lost, five of these being shot down over China.

U-2 at a glance

Nicknames: Gray Ghost, Shady Lady, Angel, and Dragon Lady

What so special about it? It can fly very high and has special cameras and

sensors for spying. Later versions have a data-link for transmitting this

intelligence back to base.

Who used it? The CIA, USAF. RAF, RoCAF, NASA

First flight? 1955

How many were built: 86

Any good? In high threat places it had a nasty habit of getting shot down, but

must be pretty good as it has had a very long service life.

Rivals? The English Electric Canberra PR.9 could fly pretty high too (a licence-

built Canberra was also used by USAF for reconnaissance). The Myasishchev M-

17 Stratosphera (NATO codename ‘Mystic’) was the closest thing to a soviet

equivalent (that we know of), one of the M-17’s missions was to shoot down US

reconnaissance balloons.

In popular culture: the Irish rock band U2’s name may have been influenced by

the U-2.

Have a peek at other material: There’s  a whole feast of fantastic BritishFrenchSwedishAustralian,  Japanese , Belgian,  German and Latin American aeroplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read as is the Top Ten cancelled fighters.

Read an interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit


  1. syntaxerror9

    American popular culture is wrong!

    The irish rock band U2’s name has no link with that plane.

    U2 is a code used on unemployment form by social services in Great Britain in the 80’s.

    This form was so famous cause unemployment was so big, that it was only named by its code by everybody: U2.

    By using that name, the group has pointed its belonging to this social class, hit directly by the economics crisis.

  2. yorksranter

    Best U-2 thing ever: the only time they were deployed from an aircraft carrier was to carry out air sampling of French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

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