The original U-2 first appeared in the 1960′s when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in May 1960 over Russia. Further appearances where made throughout the Vietnam War and the TR-1 version known as the “Dragon Lady” was used for battlefield surveillance during the 1980′s. The TR-1 was designed to monitor international arms agreements and potential enemy forces around the world for the United States government. The wing pods, detachable nose cone, and fuselage carry the radar, photographic, and electronic sensors used by the U-2R. The original U2 aircraft was designed by the famous skunk work designer Clarence L. Johnson and first flew in 1955. The first U-2R which was an enlarged version of the original U-2 first flew in 1967 and although the aircraft design is over 50 years old, only a few other aircraft have flown higher.
The distinctive black paint and gentle manoeuvres of the U-2 gave it the famous nickname “Dragon Lady”. The huge wings allow the U-2 to fly to extreme altitudes and extensive distances, but this also makes its wings very fragile and the pilot has to be very careful not to overstress them. The aircraft paint contains iron which significantly reduces the spy planes radar signature. The U-2 has been described as a giant jet powered glider and like a glider it is very efficient in the sky, but it is also a very difficult aircraft to land. The landing procedure involves a second aircraft flying behind the U-2 and providing constant updates on the approach to assist the pilot. The cramp cockpit and bicycle type landing gear add to the challenge of landing the aircraft safely. Once landed the wing tips topple over and slide on specially designed skids. When the aircraft comes to a stop ground crews attach the pogo wheels to allow the U-2 to taxi.
The modern day U-2R has been updated with state of the art reconnaissance equipment and microchip flight technology. The pilot wears an astronaut style pressure suit and the aircraft can loiter for hours at altitudes higher than most aircraft can fly. To remain as unseen as possible the pilot has a mirror in the cockpit that allows them to see if the aircraft is creating contrails and adjust the speed or altitude to eliminate it. Originally powered by two Pratt and Whitney J75 engines the U-2R was given new General Electric F101 engines similar to the B-2 Stealth’s engines and renamed the U-2S. The Q-Bay which houses all the high powered cameras is located directly behind the cockpit and the bottom bay door contains glass windows to facilitate the camera lenses. The Cockpit is fully pressurized, but at the altitudes that the U-2 pilots fly a depressurisation would kill the pilot almost immediately so a suit similar to a NASA astronaut is wore for emergencies. NASA operates two ER-2 airframes for high altitude research into the ozone layer and for studying the earth’s crust. The U-2 is truly a remarkable aircraft and continues to play a key role in environmental research and for reconnaissance missions for the US Armed Forces.