Inside The Spy Plane That Was At The Center Of Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis

At the time of the Cold War, Russia had nothing that could shoot the U2 out of the sky. Even their MiG jets had a ceiling 10,000 feet below the U2’s gliding altitude.
One pilot said they’d buzz around below him, “like angry bees.”

When the U-2 “Dragon Lady” debuted in 1957 it was an astonishing piece of technological achievement.

Able to fly reconnaissance from more than 13-miles above the earth, gather data through all weather conditions any time of day or night, while staying beyond the reach of Soviet military — it was an unbelievable achievement.

(Special thanks to the guys at Airmen magazine for the great imagery.)

With the Cold War raging, the military desperately wanted a powerful reconnaissance aircraft

Lockheed Skunk Works, the top-secret wing of the aircraft manufacturer, tried to jump into the competition

The military didn't want Lockheed's design, a stripped down version of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter with glider-like long wings

The thing is, the CIA did, so Lockheed's Bald Eagle program became the CIA's Dragon Lady program

The project soon got the name of U-2, 'U' being the prefix for deliberately vague 'Utility' aircraft

The aircraft has one of the most unique designs in the sky, making it one of the most difficult planes to pilot

The U-2 has 'bicycle' style landing gear, two sets of wheels on the fuselage -- that's it

The pilot wears the equivalent of a space suit when flying it because of the high operating altitude

Various versions of the U-2 use different kinds of engines, but generally earlier versions used Pratt & Whitney Turbojet engines while later aircraft use GE Turbofan engines

One issue with flying the aircraft is that its maximum speed is very, very slow -- this is deliberate, as it makes the plane very difficult to track

The problem is that -- in a few versions -- there is a 10-knot window between the aircraft's top speed and the speed where the plane stalls in the air

The aeroplanes also need to be loaded in an extremely balanced manner -- they're very easy to tip

Despite all of these drawbacks, the U-2 has remained in service for generations simply because it's so good at what it does

The CIA was using the U-2 long before the Air Force or Navy started flying it

This was because of the diplomatic problems inherent in flying military aircraft over another country

In 1962 a U-2 flying over Cuba observed Soviet forces installing nuclear missiles, kicking off the Cuban Missile Crisis

The aircraft has a crew of one and a 103 foot wingspan

It's got a maximum speed of 500 mph and a cruise speed of 430 mph

The big advantage of the U-2 is that it has a maximum service ceiling of at least 70,000 feet

It's got an empty weight of 14,300 lbs, and can carry an absolute maximum of 25,000lbs worth of surveillance equipment.

The U-2's long history of service will come to an end in the next few years as the aircraft is replaced by aerial drones

The drones will allow the U.S. to carry out recon without the possibility of pilot loss, one of the major historical drawbacks of the U-2

When the U-2 flies its final flight, it will certainly spell the end of an era.

Now see more incredible military history

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