News / USA

U-2 Spy Plane Still Flying High

A U-2 flies at low altitude on an overcast Korean morning, Osan Air Base, South Korea, December 2011.
A U-2 flies at low altitude on an overcast Korean morning, Osan Air Base, South Korea, December 2011.

One of the oldest planes the United States Air Force still flies is used to carry out some of America's most sensitive and critical missions. Whether it's aiding NATO troops in Afghanistan, providing surveillance over North Korea or examining Japan's hurricane ravaged coast, the high altitude U-2 keeps flying despite initial plans to retire it by the end of this year.

It requires a lot of skill and technology to get a pilot above 21,000 meters where the U-2 snaps critical images and gathers intelligence.

One hour prior to takeoff, the pilot begins inhaling pure oxygen to cut the risk of decompression sickness.

Major Colby Kuhns of the U.S. Air Force 5th Reconnaissance "Blackcats" squadron said it is like being atop Mount Everest.

"I haven't had any decompression problems, so that's good. But we are susceptible to it. Guys who start getting those symptoms will feel pain in their joints and it could get worse than that," said Kuhns.

Landing the spy plane, nicknamed Dragon Lady, also requires unique abilities.

The pilot, sometimes finishing a grueling flight of up to 12 hours, has poor forward visibility in the cockpit. Because the wide-winged jet has an unusual bicycle-type landing gear, a second pilot in a very fast car on the runway chases each landing, radioing observations to his colleague in the cockpit to help him maintain a full stall at precisely 60 centimeters off the ground.

A closeup view of the U-2 cockpit instrumentation, Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 7, 2011
A closeup view of the U-2 cockpit instrumentation, Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 7, 2011

When the U-2s return from flights, the Blackcats' maintenance team, overseen by Lieutenant Danielle Rogowski, tracks about 150 items on the jet that need to be replaced at certain intervals.

"Flying at that high an altitude, you do a significant amount of wear and tear on the aircraft and, a lot of these components, with the temperature changes and temperature extremes, puts a lot of pressure on them," said Rogowski.

The first U-2 took to the skies in 1955. Originally, the Air Force provided the squadron commanders and logistical support while the Central Intelligence Agency supplied operations officers, pilots and mission planners. A newer version, 40 percent larger than the original U-2, was produced in the 1980s. In the 1990s, U-2s were outfitted with new engines.

Major Carl Maymi, sitting in the cockpit prior to a low altitude training session in a relatively new U-2 built in the 1980s, points out the U.S. Air Force also still has bombers from the 1950s.

"So by other Air Force weapons systems standards it is relatively new. You can take a look at the inside of the cockpit and the wiring throughout the jet, the motor and especially the sensors we have on board. hat stuff is all state of the art. It's advanced. So I feel real comfortable with an aircraft that is technically 50-plus years old," said Maymi.

One reason the U-2 was designed to fly very high was to avoid being shot down. But that is precisely what happened in 1960 when a Soviet missile struck one of the spy planes.

A high-altitude view from the U-2 cockpit (Undated)
A high-altitude view from the U-2 cockpit (Undated)

Pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose CIA U-2 was recovered nearly intact, was captured. He was put on trial in Moscow and convicted of espionage.

In addition to the traditional Cold War era intelligence missions, U-2s also now provide real-time assistance to troops in combat zones, such as Afghanistan.

"It's evolved as it's needed to evolve. It is cutting edge right now and very well could go out into the future, if necessary," said Kuhns.

Its future has been questionable for some time. The Defense Department, five years ago, intended to begin retiring the fleet. But Congress insisted the spy plane stay aloft until unmanned reconnaissance aircraft are capable of taking over its critical missions.

The Air Force now says that will happen in 2015 when the Global Hawk RQ-4 drones can assume the U-2s missions - some 60 years after the venerable spy plane first took to the skies.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs