Researching the U-2 spy plane the other day, I came across this stunning picture of the aircraft in silhouette. For the first time I noticed a yellow NASA stripe and an ID number – 55741 – on the tail, the same markings the agency put on the X-15’s tail when it assumed control of that program in 1958. Idly interested in NASA’s history with the U-2, I searched for records of the aircraft by its ID number. Turns out, these NASA markings were put on the aircraft entirely for show.
Building the U-2
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) first considered the merits of a high-altitude long-range reconnaissance aircraft in the wake of the Second World War. Thanks to President Eisenhower’s interest, the dream became a reality ten years later. In December of 1954, Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects division – known by its nickname ‘Skunk Works’ – was given $35 million to develop 30 new planes and a high altitude camera. One of the products was the first U-2. Under the guidance of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the aircraft was built in just 88 days. Test flights began in August of 1955.
The original 1954 specifications called for an aircraft with an initial cruise altitude of 70,600 feet, a level quickly raised to 73,000 feet (nearly 14 miles). To fly safely in the thin upper atmosphere, the U-2 had to be incredibly light. But it also had to be strong enough to deal with the stresses of flying through the dense lower atmosphere to get to its high cruise altitude. This demanded the aircraft strike a balance between strength and lightness.
The result was an aircraft reminiscent of a sailplane with a wingspan that dwarfed its fuselage. One hundred and three feet from tip to tip, the expansive wings generated enough lift to keep the U-2 flying in thin air. It also made the aircraft an excellent glider; it could sail up to 280 miles from its peak altitude of 70,000 feet. To keep these gigantic wings level during takeoff were set of pogos, small wheels underneath each wing tip that were were jettisoned, recovered, and reused on later flights. To save weight, the U-2’s designers forwent the spar that traditionally connects wings in the fuselage. Instead, each wing was fastened to the aircraft by a series of tension bolts. This design choice had an additional upside: it left a convenient space for a camera to sit behind the cockpit and in front of the rear single Pratt & Whitney J57-P-31A engine. The tail assembly, like the wings, was attached by just three tension bolts.
The weight saved by bolting the wings and tail to the fuselage came at a cost – it made the aircraft vulnerable. A strong gust of wind at lower altitudes could rip a wing right off. An automatic “gust control” system helped keep the U-2 stable in denser air by keeping the aircraft in a nose high attitude until it passed 35,000 feet.
The U-2’s landing gear, too, was designed to keep the overall weight down. Bicycle-inspired landing gear, one forward wheel and one under the tail, supported the aircraft’s weight while skids on the wings helped keep it balanced. Like everything else, the U-2’s instrumentation was held to a strict weight limit under 500 pounds. Other onboard incidentals like fuel were also capped. To stay light, U-2s often took off carrying only the fuel they would need on that given mission. Refueling over the Soviet Union wasn’t an option.
But for all its unconventional design aspects, the U-2 was a conventional if difficult aircraft to fly. It was designed with rudder pedals and a central control column, just like traditional airplanes, with power coming right from the pilot.
NASA and a Downed U-2
After a series of checkout flights, reconnaissance missions in the U-2 began in 1956. But because the CIA couldn’t admit to the aircraft’s true purpose it relied on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to provide a cover story. On May 7, 1956, the NACA’s director Hugh Dryden issued a press release stating that the U-2s were conducting weather research with Air Force support from a base in Watertown, Nevada. A second press release issued on May 22 gave a similar cover story to account for U-2s flights overseas.
One of the pilots flying these “weather research flights” was Air Force pilot Gary Powers. Under the protective umbrella of the CIA, Powers, along with five colleagues, “left the service” in 1956 and relocated to Adana, Turkey. In June, the U-2 made its first reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. Though the 3,788 mile flight from Adana to Bodo, Norway was flown at an altitude of 80,000 feet, the U-2 wasn’t invisible. Soviet air defenses could see it, but for the moment their weapons systems couldn’t shoot it down.
As Cold War tensions rose in the late 1950s, the risks of U-2 flights increased. The United States risked baiting the Soviets into starting an all-out war. In the spirit of detente, President Eisenhower suspended all U-2 flights over Soviet airspace between September 1959 and April 1960. Eisenhower hoped this would help the two warring nations make headway towards peace at the Paris Summit Conference scheduled for mid-May 1960.
But U-2 flights resumed before the Paris Summit on May 1, 1960. That Sunday morning had Powers in the cockpit, flying a routine 3,000 mile path over the Soviet Union from Peshawar, Pakistan to Bodo. But Powers’ flight plan was leaked. Airborne MiGs were waiting for him. Over Sverdlosk, not long after entering Soviet airspace, SAM-2 missiles shot him down. Powers separated from the aircraft and survived to become a prisoner of the KGB.
As soon as he learned Powers had been shot down, President Eisenhower sprang into action laying a cover story. He needed to conceal the flight’s true nature, and called on NASA for help.
The space agency issued a press release on Thursday May 5, 1960. “One of NASA’s U-2 Research Airplanes, in use since 1956 in a continuing program to study gust-meteorological conditions found at high altitude, has been missing since about 9 o’clock Sunday morning.” It went on to outline a fictitious flight plan and speculate at the fate of its fictitious pilot.
An hour into the flight, the pilot “reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment.” At the time he was near a tracking beacon at Lake Van in Turkey, likely getting his bearings before returning to Incirlik Air Base. Then he disappeared without further communications to suggest his fate. The release mentions that although the agency found no evidence of a crash around Lake Van, a downed pilot should not be treated as a war criminal. NASA stressed that all of its 10 U-2s are piloted by civilians, employed either by the agency or Lockheed, with no military affiliations. Only their presence overseas is facilitated by the U.S. Air Force. The release ends describing the aircraft (flights no longer than four hours at a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet) and its instruments (a sophisticated bank of meteorological instruments that would only look like espionage equipment to an untrained eye).
To support this press release, NASA offered proof. A U-2 at the Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base was adorned with a yellow NASA tail stripe and the fictitious registration number. The aircraft was paraded in front of assembled press representatives on May 6.
Eisenhower’s cover didn’t work. On May 7, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly announced that the “missing meteorological aircraft” was in fact an American spy plane shot down in Soviet airspace. The pilot, he said, along with espionage equipment, had been recovered from the crash site. Khrushchev put pieces of the wrecked plane on display as proof. At the Paris summit the following week, the irate Soviet leader threatened retaliation against U-2 bases before walking out on peace talks.
It wasn’t until 2 April 2, 1971, that NASA took possession of two U-2s for high altitude research.
It’s also worth pointing out that the U-2 is still in service. Some NASA-operated aircraft fly research mission while others, as a testament to the original design, continue to fly military reconnaissance missions.