Discover the U-2: the legendary spy plane designed to spy on Russia

The U-2 spy plane is a Cold War legend for countless reasons – and Russia hated it: Despite the fact that satellites and drones can provide a bird’s-eye view of remote parts of the world for the U.S. military and intelligence (IC) community, an older aircraft design its pilots still plays a crucial role in intelligence gathering. This is the sixty-year-old Lockheed U-2. Originally slated for an operational life of just two years, this aircraft has been flying high for more than six decades and has been in every US conflict since.


The U-2 was designed to provide high-altitude, all-weather, day and night surveillance and reconnaissance in direct support of U.S. and allied forces.

Developed at Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works division under the supervision of engineering guru Clarence “Kelly” Johnson in 1953, the U-2 took on the clean lines of a traditional glider with long, tapered wings that allowed it to flying missions ranging from 3,000 miles while carrying 700 pounds of then-state-of-the-art photoreconnaissance equipment.

It was not an easy plane to fly and, according to some, it was actually the hardest to master, and it was easy to see how it quickly earned the nickname “Dragon Lady”. But it could reach altitudes of 70,000 feet – higher than was believed to be an enemy missile threat. Pilots were required to wear a full pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts.

The plane was synonymous with the Cold War, in part because on May 1, 1960, a Soviet surface-to-air missile hit a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers while on a reconnaissance mission over Russia. Yet despite this incident, the U-2 remained a vital asset to the IC.

1980s U2

The program was actually restarted in the 1980s and as a result many U-2s flying today aren’t that old – and although the basic design is essentially the same as the originals produced around 20 years earlier, they are 40% taller. and feature a modular design that allows the aircraft to carry more equipment, but also heavier equipment. This approach also meant that the U-2 could be tailored to meet specific missions.

These U-2s currently in service can carry three times the reconnaissance equipment and fly almost twice as far for three times as long as the first U-2s built during the dark days of the Cold War. In recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Dragon Lady was used as aerial “eavesdropping devices” where it could monitor dirt patterns for signs of makeshift mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) .

The aircraft also demonstrated versatility as a non-military aircraft and, as Lockheed Martin noted, it “transformed into everything from a high-tech NASA platform to conduct Physics experiments at a high altitude tool to track the migration of destructive spruce bark. beetles through the forests of Alaska.

While the U-2 has had to put off potential replacements, including drone ones, it looks like this Dragon Lady will continue to spread her wings and fly for the foreseeable future.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to over four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He writes regularly on military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear, including A gallery of military hairstyleswhich is available on

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