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, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

You May Like

Pundits Split Over Long-Term US Role in Afghanistan

Security pact remains condition for American presence beyond 2014; deadline criticized More

US Eyes Islamic State Threat

Officials warn that IS could pose a threat to US homeland More

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Moscow says Russian troops crossed into Ukrainian territory by mistake 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.
Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocksi
X
George Putic
August 25, 2014 4:00 PM
How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Ukrainian officials say they have captured Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory -- the latest accusation of Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the Ukrainian side of the battle, where soldiers are convinced of Russia's role.
Video

Video Rubber May Soon Come From Dandelions

Synthetic rubber has been around for more than a century, but quality tires for cars, trucks and aircraft still need up to 40 percent or more natural rubber content. As the source of natural rubber, the rubber tree, is prone to disease and can be affected by bad weather. So scientists are looking for replacements. And as VOA’s George Putic reports, they may have found one in a ubiquitous weed.
Video

Video Jewish Life in Argentina Reflected in Yiddish Tango

Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that were eventually mixed with Argentine tango. The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today. Elizabeth Lee reports from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where one band is bringing Yiddish tango to an American audience.
Video

Video Peace Returns to Ferguson as Community Tries to Heal

Thousands of people nationwide are expected to attend funeral services Monday in the U.S. Midwestern city of St. Louis, Missouri, for Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer August 9 in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. The shooting touched off days of violent demonstrations there, resulting in more than 100 arrests. VOA's Chris Simkins reports from Ferguson where the community is trying to move on after weeks of racial tension.
Video

Video Meeting in Minsk May Hinge on Putin Story

The presidents of Russia and Ukraine are expected to meet face-to-face Tuesday in Minsk, along with European leaders, for talks on the situation in Ukraine. Political analysts say the much welcomed dialogue could help bring an end to months of deadly clashes between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces in the country's southeast. But much depends on the actions of one man, Russian President Vladimir Putin. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Artists Shun Russia's Profanity Law

Russia in July enacted a law threatening fines for publicly displayed profanity in media, films, literature, music and theater. The restriction, the toughest since the Soviet era, aims to protect the Russian language and culture and has been welcomed by those who say cursing is getting out of control. But many artists reject the move as a patronizing and ineffective act of censorship in line with a string of conservative morality laws. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video British Fighters on Frontline of ISIS Information War

Security services are racing to identify the Islamic State militant who beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley in Syria. The murderer spoke English on camera with a British accent. It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for the Islamic State, also called ISIL or ISIS, alongside thousands of other foreign jihadists. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from the center of the investigation in London.

AppleAndroid