The U-2 has no official name, but is commonly known, unofficially, as the "Dragon Lady."
High aspect ratio wings give the U-2 glider-like characteristics and make the aircraft extremely challenging to fly, not only due to its unusual landing characteristics, but also because at the extreme altitudes it can reach, the maximum speed (critical mach) and the minimum speed (stall speed) are approaching the same number. Because of its high-altitude mission, the pilot must wear a full pressure suit. The aircraft carries a variety of sensors, is extremely reliable and has a high mission success rate.
The U-2 is capable of simultaneously collecting signals and imagery intelligence. Imagery intelligence sensors include either wet film photo, electro-optic or radar imagery. It can use both line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight data links.
The aircraft completed an upgrade to the General Electric F-118-101 engine in 1998, to provide better fuel economy, reduced weight and increased power. Other upgrades to the sensors and the addition of the Global Positioning System increased collection capability and provides superimposed geo-coordinates directly on collected images.
The U-2 project was initiated in the early 1950s by the CIA which desperately wanted accurate information on the Soviet Union. It was thought a high altitude aircraft such as the U-2 would be hard to detect and impossible to shoot down. Lockheed Martin was given the assignment with an unlimited budget and a short time frame. Its Skunkworks performed remarkably, the first flight occurred in August 1955. New cameras were also developed, and they too worked well. It made its first over-flight of the Soviet Union in June 1956. The aircraft came to public attention when pilot Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory on May 1 1960. On October 14, 1962, it was the U-2 that photographed the Soviet military installing offensive missiles in Cuba, precipitating the Cuban missile crisis. It provided critical intelligence data during all phases of Operations Desert Storm and Allied Force. It provides daily peacetime indications and warning intelligence collection from its current operating locations around the world. However, most imagery intelligence used by the US military now comes from spy satellites.
When requested from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U-2 also has provided photography supporting their disaster relief efforts.
The U-2R, first flown in 1967, is significantly larger and more capable than the original aircraft. A tactical reconnaissance version, the TR-1A, first flew in August 1981. Designed for standoff tactical reconnaissance in Europe, the TR-1A was structurally identical to the U-2R. The 17th Reconnaissance Wing, Royal Air Force Station Alconbury, England used operational TR-1As from 1983 until 1991. The last U-2 and TR-1 aircraft were delivered to the Air Force in October 1989. In 1992 all TR-1s and U-2s were designated U-2Rs. After re-engining with the F-118-101 engine, they were designated U-2S.
U-2s are based at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale Air Force Base, Calif., and support national and tactical collection requirements from three operational detachments located around the world. U-2 pilots are trained at Beale initially using the U-2ST, the two-seat trainer version of the aircraft. The two civilian ER-2's are based at the Dryden Flight Research Center.
See also: SR-71 Blackbird