The U-2 Dragon Lady

The U-2 Dragon Lady
October 01, 2020

On May 1, 1954, despite the breezy spring weather, leaders across Washington D.C.’s intelligence community found themselves breaking out in a cold, panicked sweat. Over the skies of Red Square in Moscow, the Soviet Union had just introduced its newest bomber — the Myasishchev M-4, ominously nicknamed  “Hammer” — during a Russian May Day celebration.

Coming on the heels of the Soviet Union’s successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb the previous summer, the unveiling fueled a growing fear that Russia had not only eclipsed the West in terms of both nuclear weapons and bomber production, but was gearing up for a potential attack on the U.S. as well.

The U.S., which had been allied with the Soviet Union during World War II, only to see it transform — literally overnight — into its fiercest Cold War enemy.

Penetrating the Iron Curtain had proven far more challenging than U.S. intelligence agencies had anticipated. The vast size of Soviet Union made it difficult to survey. And when surveillance aircraft were sent to the edges of Russian airspace, they were often shot down by Soviet forces. 

President Dwight Eisenhower needed a new set of eyes in the sky. He would get them through the Lockheed U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

An Angel Takes Flight

The initial designs for what would become the U-2 were created by Lockheed engineering guru Clarence “Kelly” Johnson in 1953. Working under the cloak of secrecy in the famed Skunk Works® division, Johnson envisioned a light high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft capable of flying above the reach of Soviet anti-aircraft fire.

The U-2 borrowed its sleek looks from the profile of a traditional sailplane. Its long, tapered wing —one third the weight of what was normal at the time — allowed it to fly missions covering a range of 3,000 miles and carry up to 700 pounds of the latest photoreconnaissance equipment to a staggering and unprecedented altitude of 70,000 feet.

Unfortunately, by the time Johnson could provide a full proposal to U.S. officials in the summer of 1954, President Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles had already signed off on two competing designs for a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

Johnson was undeterred. He knew he had the better plane. So he offered up a deal that no general could refuse. Not only would he assume complete responsibility for any maintenance and service — an entirely new concept in aviation — but he would also have a U-2 in the air in just eight months.

Incredibly, Johnson almost met his own impossible deadline, delivering the first U-2 for a test flight on July 29, 1955, nine months after signing the contract.

President Eisenhower now had his secret weapon, and he was determined to use it to prevent the Cold War from turning red hot.

Knowledge is Power

By early 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had declared that his country was making “missiles like sausages” and that he would soon have a hydrogen bomb capable of striking “any point in the world.” Any uninvited guests flying over Russia, he also warned, would be shot down with impunity.

Beginning in the summer of 1956, Lockheed’s U-2 would prove him wrong. On July 4, Hervey Stockman flew a U-2 from Wiesbaden, West Germany, deep into the heart of the Soviet Union, capturing detailed photos of airfields, factories and shipyards previously unattainable by other aircraft.

The plane was tracked by Soviet radar, but Stockman’s U-2 flew beyond the reach of Soviet interceptors and anti-aircraft fire, returning home with history-altering intelligence.

U-2 flights revealed that the Soviets were more concerned with building tractors than tanks. Russia’s ability to produce high-end bombers was unimpressive at best. Its missiles, while numerous, were better suited for intermediate attacks against Europe than a long-range attack on the United States, with most being unready to fire at all.

Thanks to the U-2, Eisenhower had the information he needed to avert a massive arms build-up — and a potential war.

Spy vs. Spy

It was only a matter of time before advancing Russian anti-aircraft technology caught up with the spy plane.

On May 1, 1960, a Soviet surface-to-air missile struck near a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers, while on a reconnaissance mission over Russia. Powers was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet labor camp on August 17, 1960, but would be released two years later in exchange for spy Rudolph Abel.

The U-2, however, would continue to be a critical asset for U.S. intelligence agencies, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a U-2 manned by Major Richard Heyser that captured photos of Soviet missile installations in western Cuba on Oct. 14, 1962, revealing the Russians were capable of launching a nuclear strike against the U.S.

Over the course of the next 13 days, U-2 flights would keep President Kennedy abreast of Soviet activity in Cuba, buying the administration enough time to broker a deal with the Soviets: Russia would dismantle its weapons in Cuba in exchange for a pledge by the United States not to invade the island, pulling both sides from the brink of nuclear war.

The Many Lives of the U-2

Initially projected to have an operational life of just two years, the U-2 would go on to see service in every subsequent American war, while showing remarkable versatility as a non-military aircraft.

When equipped with a wide variety of sensors, the U-2 has morphed into everything from a high-tech NASA platform for conducting physics experiments to a high-altitude tool for tracking the migration of destructive spruce bark beetles through the forests of Alaska.

Today, U-2s are used as aerial eavesdropping devices; U-2s survey dirt patterns for signs of makeshift mines and IEDs over Iraq and Afghanistan, making these dynamic high-flyers as effective today as they were nearly 60 years ago.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Boyne, Walter. Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
  • Drew, Christopher. U-2 Spy Plane Evades the Day of Retirement. The New York Times, March 21, 2010.
  • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The World on the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Viewed July 5, 2012.
  • Pocock, Chris. 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the Dragon Lady. Schiffer Publishing, 2004.
  • Pocock, Chris. Dragon Lady Today: The Continuing Story of the U-2 Spyplane. Create Space, 2014
  • Pocock, Chris. The U-2 Spyplane: Toward the Unknown - A New History of the Early Years. Schiffer Publishing, 2000.Polmar, Norman. Spyplane: The U-2 History Declassified. Zenith Press: April 14, 2001.
  • Stein, Conrad R. Cuban Missile Crisis: In the Shadow of Nuclear War. Enslow Publishing: 2008.