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

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Video Kenyans Lament Al-Shabab's Recruitment of Youths

VOA travels to Isiolo, where residents share their fears, struggles to get loved ones back from Somalia-based militant group More

This US Epidemic Keeps Getting Worse

One in 4 Americans suffers from this condition 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.
A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensionsi
X
May 26, 2015 11:11 PM
When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs