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.
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.
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
In popular culture: the Irish rock band U2’s name may have been influenced by
Have a peek at other material: There’s a whole feast of fantastic British, French, Swedish, Australian, 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.
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