U-2 Spy Plane

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U-2 Spy Plane


The U-2 is a single-pilot, single engine, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. It is the first plane to be built primarily for recon missions. The U-2 has long, straight, wide wings which gives it a glider like looks. It can carry a variety of different sensors and cameras. The U-2 is also a very reliable aircraft, and because of this enjoys a high mission completion ratio. Because of it's unusual landing characteristics is a very difficult airplane to master. Because of the altitude the U-2 flies at it is necessary for a pilot to were a full pressure suit.


The U-2 was built to a CIA request issued in 1954, for a high altitude spy plane. Designed and built at Lockheed's famous Advanced Development Projects or Skunk Works. The U-2 first took to the air on the first of August 1955. The initial testing site was called Paradise Ranch (even though it is located out in the Nevada desert).


The U-2 began flying spy-missions in 1956. These missions were top secret until May 1, 1960 when Gary Powers was shot down over Russian soil. He crashed and was captured, he was then tried and sentenced to ten years in jail. After this incident over-flights of Russia were permanently canceled.


Other over-flights and missions went on though and now the U-2 provides continuous day or night, high altitude, all-weather, stand of surveillance of a battle area or hostile area. It provides critical intelligence to generals and others throughout a conflict. On request the U-2 has also taken pictures for the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a disaster for damage reports.


The U-2's are based at Beale Air Force Base in California. These U-2's support four bases through out the world with tactical requirements. The new U-2 crews are also trained here in U-2ST trainers



Camera Systems Used By the U-2


HR-329 (H-cam) - The H-cam uses a high resolution, gyro-stabilizing framing system, with a 66 inch focal length and folded optical path. Most of the time the H-cam operates at an angle which allows it to cover more ground. During Desert Storm commanders played with the camera facing straight down, and they were impressed with the clarity and detail. However the downside was with the camera faced down the area covered was less, so it was a question of Quantity over Quality or vise-versa. Although the camera is great for identifying targets and determining battle damage, the film cannot be viewed until after the airplane lands.


Intelligence Reconnaissance Imagery System III (IRIS III)  The IRIS 3 system is an optical imagery system that uses a high resolution, panoramic camera with a 24 inch focal length. Using a rotating optical bar  the camera can scan 140 degrees of the total 180 degrees of viewing area. Even though the IRIS can make 32 nautical mile swipes of the land, and has a wider synoptic coverage than the H-cam it does not have the resolution of the H-cam.




Primary Function high-altitude reconnaissance
Contractor Lockheed Aircraft Corp.
Wing span 80 feet 103 feet
Length 49.5 feet 63 feet
Empty Weight 11,700 lbs 14,900 lbs 16,000 lbs
Maximum Takeoff Weight 16,000 lb 41,000 lb
(18,598 kg)
Maximum Speed 528 mph 510 mph 495 mph ~500 mph
Engine P&W J57-P-37A P&W J75-P-13B GE F-118-101
Engine Thrust 11,200 lbst 17,000 lbst 19,000 lbst
Ceiling 85,000 feet 80,000 feet 90,000 feet
Range 2,200 miles 3,500 miles 4,000 miles 4,600 miles
Endurance on internal fuel 6.5 hours 7.5 hours 12 hours +10 hours
Date Deployed Aug 1955 1967 Sep 1981 Oct 1994
Crew One (two in trainer models)
Cost Classified $400 million
Production and Inventory Production:
  • 30 U-2A
    all converted to later models and retired by April 1989
  • 16 U-2B
  • 15 U-2R
    all converted to later models
  • 25 TR-1A
  • 2 TR-1B
  • 2 ER-1
  • 32 Active force +
  • 4 trainers
  • 0 Reserve
  • 0 ANG




Year Class A
Total Annual Flight Hours

U-2 Flight History

1963 1   During the early years of the U-2 program, the aircraft had mishaps. All of these mishaps were investigated, but the reports were limited in number. None were released to the general Air Force community nor were they put into the Safety Center's data base. Also, the flight hours accumulated per year were a closely guarded secret, so the ability to get an accurate mishap rate was very difficult.


However, since the U-2 program has been largely declassified, this information is now available. The information provided in this chart is accurate, but the early years should be viewed with a wary eye. This chart represents all of the mishaps the Air Force Safety Center is aware of and all of the flying time flown by the U-2 since 1963. For the years FY63 to FY69, there is no accurate information on flying hours for the U-2 aircraft.


The U-2 aircraft was designed and fielded during the height of the Cold War, and this aircraft was one of the most secret US weapon systems. Also, the U-2 was designed in the 1950s ago when there wasn't any computer-aided design, system safety was just a dream, and the technology was on the outer limits of the aircraft industry.

However, the U-2 has performed outstandingly against all these odds and has been called upon when the nation needed valuable information on various hot spots in the world. So the mishap rate may be higher compared to newer aircraft (F-15 and F-16) or against aircraft of the same era (B-52 or C-130). But these aircraft have gone through many, many changes during the years of their operation.


In the early 1990s the mishap rates were relatively high. However, there was no one main reason for the increase in the mishap rate. This fact made the management of the U-2 program difficult at best. The aircraft is being upgraded with a new engine and other components, but as the Air Force Chief of Staff has indicated, this weapon system is in the sunset of its career.

1966 1
1967 1
1968 1
1970   4,413
1971 1 4,241
1972 1 7,732
1973   10,718
1974   11,425
1975 2 10,791
1976   8,717
1977 1 9,395
1978   8,934
1979   10,126
1980 3 10,800
1981   10,211
1982   10,131
1983   12,555
1984 3 13,257
1985   11,788
1986   13,954
1987   16,785
1988   16,730
1989   17,620
1990 1 18,001
1991   19,820
1992 1 16,597
1993 1 18,085
1994 1 15,643
1995 1 17,726
1996 2 13,762

Calender year through 1987, Fiscal Year thereafter
No Flight hours data available prior to 1970
SOURCE: U-2 Mishap History and data table Flying Safety Magazine December 1996




U2- Web Sites:


http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/u2.htm (1960 incident)






http://www.fas.org/irp/program/collect/u-2_pix.htm (photos)

http://www.fas.org/irp/imint/u-2.htm  (photos, surveillance)



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