Still shrouded in secrecy over 35 years after its creation, the Lockheed U-2 was originally designed as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft, playing a crucial role during the tense years of the Cold War. Built by the famous ‘Skunk Works" by Lockheed under the direction of Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, the U-2 was truly one of the most successful intelligence- gathering aircraft ever produced. The U-2 on display at NASM flew the first operational mission over the USSR on 4 July 1956, piloted by Hervey Stockman.
Still shrouded in secrecy over 35 years after its creation, the Lockheed U-2 was originally designed as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft, playing a crucial role during the tense years of the Cold War. Built at the famous 'Skunk Works" by Lockheed under the direction of Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, the U-2 was truly one of the most successful intelligence- gathering aircraft ever produced.
In 1953, on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Air Force issued a request for a single-seat, long-range, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft to monitor the military activities of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe. By this time, breakthroughs in film and camera technologies made possible the creation of an aircraft that could take high resolution photographs of strategic sites from extreme altitudes where it would be invulnerable to interception.
In November 1954, Lockheed presented an unsolicited proposal that was accepted by the CIA with President Dwight Eisenhower's approval. Operating under a very strict schedule, the Skunk Works produced the new U-2 just eight months later. Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier flew the single-seat U-2 on its maiden flight on August 6, 1955. With its narrow chord and sailplane-like wing, the lightly loaded U-2 refused to land until LeVier's fifth attempt brought it back to Earth. The U-2 was subjected to an accelerated test program which revealed a number of problems that were quickly overcome, particularly that of engine flameouts at high altitude. This was solved by the development of new low-volatility fuel for the single Pratt and Whitney J57 turbojet.
CIA pilot training began in the spring of 1956 and by the summer the first models of the jet, the U-2A, became operational. On July 4, 1956, a U-2A completed the first overflight of the Soviet Union. Sophisticated electronic and camera equipment was housed in the nose and in a large fuselage bay. Large fuel tanks enabled the aircraft to fly for six hours over almost 4,600 kilometers (3,000 miles) at altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet. Operational U-2As flew routinely from bases in Pakistan and Turkey to Norway, overflying vast stretches of the Soviet Union. These flights gathered much important data and particularly revealed that the so-called 'missile gap" in the Soviet's favor was a myth, thus altering the delicate strategic balance. For four years the CIA operated these flights with U-2As and improved U-2Bs until May 1,1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 missile over Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), thus sparking an embarrassing diplomatic incident for the United States and halting these flights.
Flights over the People's Republic of China, however, continued unabated from bases in Taiwan, as did flights over Cuba from U.S. bases. On August 29, 1962, a U-2 confirmed the presence of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles on that island nation, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. U-2s were also in demand to gather information over Vietnam after July 1964, operating continually until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Since then, U-2s have observed the developing situations in the Middle East and other political hot spots.
The U-2's remarkable high-altitude abilities have also made it a valuable tool for scientific research. NASA has operated two of these aircraft in its High Altitude Missions Branch, where the U-2 has proved to be useful in stratospheric sampling, particularly in gathering volcanic dust after the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and has been involved in assessments of natural disasters and water and land use.
Numerous versions of the U-2 have been produced, each one providing important improvements in performance and mission capability, including two-seat models and models that can be operated from aircraft carriers. The most significant change came with the development of the U-2R, a redesign that lengthened both the fuselage and wingspan, allowing for much improved handling and electronics and sensor payload.
The U-2R retained the general configuration of earlier versions, with its unique bicycle-type landing gear and the powerful Pratt and Whitney J75-P-13B engine of the U-2C. In 1979, after a break in production of 12 years, the TR-1A version of the U-2R was ordered by the U.S. Air Force to provide reconnaissance capability for high-altitude stand-off surveillance of Eastern Europe. A new generation of cameras and sensors that can peer 300 miles away from the aircraft made this possible. NASA has also acquired the earth resources version of the TR-1A, known as the ER-2, for service with the U-2Cs of the High Altitude Missions Branch.
On August 30, 1982, the National Air and Space Museum acquired its Lockheed U-2C from the U.S. Air Force. This particular aircraft, Article 347, Serial Number 56-6680, was the seventh U-2 built. It was delivered on February 9,1956, and was first employed operationally on July 4. It originally flew as a U-2A model and was subsequently upgraded as a U-2C when refitted with the J75-P-13B engine, which required a significant enlargement of the airframe engine inlets. At one point it was temporarily fitted with an in-flight refueling probe and designated as a U-2F.
When flown by the CIA, the aircraft remained unpainted except for its three-digit production number and was operated from bases at Lakenheath, England: Wiesbaden and Giebelstade, Germany: Akrotiri, Cyprus: and Edwards Air Force Base, California. The aircraft was apparently lent to the Air Force in 1969 and flown over Vietnam. In 1974 the CIA transferred ownership of #347 to the Air Force, which operated it until 1978. The paint scheme now on the aircraft was used by the Air Force during operations from British bases in the Middle East. The airplane remained with the Air Force until its transfer to the Museum in 1982.