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The U-2 surveillance aircraft, like the model that crashed Sunday near Osan Air Base, South Korea, has a venerable record of high-altitude observation, according to a fact sheet issued by the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

The Central Intelligence Agency originally developed the U-2, dubbed the “Dragon Lady,” to spy on the former Soviet Union before the United States had surveillance satellites orbiting Earth, according to data on the U-2 posted on GlobalSecurity.org.

U-2s first flew in August 1955 and today remain a key asset in the Air Force’s surveillance aircraft fleet.

Despite their age, the U-2s are more effective than high-tech spy satellites, because satellites pass by a target area only several times a day — allowing easier evasion of their prying eyes — while U-2s can fly over select areas at almost any time.

With an 80-foot wingspan, a U-2 can fly higher than 70,000 feet with a cruising speed of 475 mph and a range of more than 7,000 miles.

Its maximum flying altitude is classified, but the U-2 could fly over the Soviet Union without harassment by USSR jets and anti-aircraft missiles unable to match its performance. In 1960, the plane gained notoriety when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was brought down during a reconnaissance mission in Soviet air space.

Since that time, U-2s have played a vital role in reconnaissance of the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba in 1962, verification of nuclear testing in China, reconnaissance in Vietnam and the Middle East, civil disaster assessment and environmental monitoring.

The aircraft recently was updated, with a General Electric F-118-101 turbofan engine described as fuel efficient and lightweight — negating the need for air refueling on long missions.

The U-2 fleet is undergoing an entire rewiring to make it harder to monitor electronically and to allow a quieter platform for the newest generation of sensors.

A tactical reconnaissance version, the TR-1A, first flew in August 1981 and was delivered to the Air Force the following month.

In 1992, all TR-1s and U-2s were designated U-2Rs, and models that have completed engine replacement are designated U-2S/TU-2S.

Air Force U-2s, based at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., support national and tactical requirements from operational detachments throughout the world, including South Korea.

NASA uses a civilian version, the ER-2, to support space and exploration missions. Only its paint scheme and mission equipment differ from the U-2.

Cost of the U-2 aircraft is listed as classified, according to the fact sheet.

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