U-2 pilots prepare to land a TU-2S trainer aircraft at sunset on 22 January 2014 at at Beale Air Force Base, California. (Image © Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings / USAF)

No more spying for U-2

U-2 pilots prepare to land a TU-2S trainer aircraft at sunset on 22 January 2014 at at Beale Air Force Base, California.  (Image © Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings / USAF)
U-2 pilots prepare to land a TU-2S trainer aircraft at sunset on 22 January 2014 at at Beale Air Force Base, California. (Image © Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings / USAF)

There will be no more spying for the legendary U-2 if US Congress okays the plans announced by the US DoD on 24 February 2014. The high-flyer that made history ever since its first flight in 1955 must give way to unmanned remotely piloted aircraft to save money, the defence top officials feel. That while the aircraft themselves and still could have many years of service life ahead.

According to information released by U-2’s manufacturer Lockheed Martin as late at 19 February 2014, the average U-2S has only used up 20 percent of its projected airframe life. That means throwing away a perfectly fine airplane that can still do about 60,000 flight hours, or about than 5,000 typical 12-hour missions or 25 to 30 years of service life.

Of the 86 U-2s built, the US Air Force currently still operates 32. 26 U-2S’s and five TU-2S dual-seat trainers are operational with the 9th Reconnaissance Wing headquartered at Beale AFB in California, with the 9th RW’s detachment 3 flying the U-2S from Akrotori at Cyprus and the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron doing the same from Osan AB in South Korea. A single-seat flight test aircraft operates from Lockheed Martin’s Palmdale / Air Force Plant 42, also in California.

The U-2 making an easy right turn over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco (Image © USAF)
The U-2 making an easy right turn over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco (Image © USAF)

Glass cockpit
The U-2S is the most modern version of the original Dragon Lady, the nickname it received from the original CIA project that was tasking the USAF flown aircraft. Developed from the U-2R the Block 20 aircraft have a new, modern so-called glass cockpit withe the feed of new electro-optical/infrared sensors displayed to the pilot.

The modern glass cockpit of the U-2S (Image © Lockheed Martin)
The modern glass cockpit of the U-2S
(Image © Lockheed Martin)

The Sierras were outfitted with General Electric F118-GE-101 turbofans in the 1990s that made the plane 12 percent lighter. Lockheed Martin increased the cockpit pressure to reduce the strain on the pilots when flying at high altitudes. Still, in their special pressure suits and helmets U-2 jocks look more like astronauts than regular aviators. Some pilots are said to have sustained brain damage because of depressurisation sickness after flying the aircraft.

Dragon Ladies can fly in any weather up to a service ceiling of 70,000 feet, roughly 30,000 feet higher than commercial airliners. Its altitude means it has a great overview of the earth, which is very handy for prying deep into enemy territory. According to Lockheed Martin it only takes 20 minutes for the U-2 to get up to 50,000 feet, despite its 5,000 lbs (2,273 kg) payload of sensors and mission equipment. The remaining feet take a bit longer, with reportedly an hour from take-off to reach 65,000 feet.

Sailplane
The aircraft has a subsonic max speed of 475 mph (764 km/h) and can cover 6,000 miles (9,600 km) on a single flight. The aircraft’s long-wing design makes it a good sailplane, which was duly noticed by the first flight test at Groom Lake AFB (Area 51) in Nevada on 1 august 1955. Reportedly the aircraft went airborne on its proposed high-speed taxirun at 70 knots (130 km/h).

It’s low-speed characteristics can make it operate even from the relatively small aircraft carriers of the US Navy as demonstrated on CV-66 USS America in 1969. The extreme lift of the wings also have a disadvantage, making the U-2 difficult to land – especially in crosswind situations. Partly the reason why another U-2 pilot always chases landing planes at high speeds to give final directions and help to the guy or girl in the cockpit.

Nuclear missiles
Throughout its service life the U-2 has made history, especially during the Cold War when the aircraft provided the US and its allies of valuable information. The Dragon Ladies gave America good insights of the number of Soviet bombers and Soviet miles, it was key in photographing Soviet nuclear missiles at Cuba during what became to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s that almost lead to nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

The U-2 can do what satellites cannot: fly quick and relatively fast to any area at short notice, have flexibility and do that against an hourly price a fraction of the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird that was retired in 1998. Many aviation enthousiasts hope that US Congress will acknowledge this and stop the US DoD plans to rely solely on RPVs and artificial high-tech moons.

© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Marcel Burger with source information of Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force

A chase car drives along side as a U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft prepares to land 30 July 2009 at an air base in Southwest Asia. Because of unusual low-altitude handling characteristics and limited forward visibility, a second U-2 pilot normally "chases" each landing, assisting the pilot by providing radio inputs for altitude and runway alignment. (Image © Senior Airman Stephen Linch / USAF)
A chase car drives along side as a U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft prepares to land 30 July 2009 at an air base in Southwest Asia. Because of unusual low-altitude handling characteristics and limited forward visibility, a second U-2 pilot normally “chases” each landing at about 120 miles per hour (190 km/h), assisting the pilot by providing radio inputs for altitude and runway alignment. (Image © Senior Airman Stephen Linch / USAF)
The US DoD wants remotely controlled aircraft like this RQ-4 Global Hawk taking over the role of the Dragon Lady. Seen here at Beale AFB on 17 September 2013 a TU-2S makes its final approach (Image © Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings / USAF)
The US DoD wants remotely controlled aircraft like this RQ-4 Global Hawk taking over the role of the Dragon Lady. Seen here at Beale AFB on 17 September 2013 a TU-2S makes its final approach
(Image © Airman 1st Class Bobby Cummings / USAF)
Looking cool, but for a reason: U-2 pilots are more astronauts than regular aviators (Image © USAF)
Looking cool, but for a reason: U-2 pilots are more astronauts than regular aviators (Image © USAF)
The improved U-2S Dragon Lady, Block 20, aircraft taxis to the runway at Osan Air Base, South Korea, in 2006 followed by the standard high-performance chase car. Osan AB was the last forward operating location to receive the new Block 20 aircraft. (Image © Staff Sgt. Andrea Knudson / USAF)
The improved U-2S Dragon Lady, Block 20, aircraft taxis to the runway at Osan Air Base, South Korea, in 2006 followed by the standard high-performance chase car. Osan AB was the last forward operating location to receive the new Block 20 aircraft. (Image © Staff Sgt. Andrea Knudson / USAF)
Maj. William Gottenberg, a pilot with the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, taxies a U-2 Dragon Lady in after completing his 100th U-2 combat mission from a base in Southwest Asia on 9 March 2010 (Image © Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol / USAF)
Maj. William Gottenberg, a pilot with the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, taxies a U-2 Dragon Lady in after completing his 100th U-2 combat mission from a base in Southwest Asia on 9 March 2010.
(Image © Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol / USAF)