A High-Flying Spy Plane

Posted on Fri, April 26, 2019
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Until recently, a Lockheed U-2, one of the most successful intelligence-gathering aircraft every produced, was on display in the Museum's Looking at Earth gallery. It has been moved out of the Museum as part of our renovation, but will go back on display in a few years. Learn more about the renovation project.


The U-2 was designed by a team led by Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson at the famous Lockheed "Skunk Works" in Palmdale, California. The jet played a crucial role during the tense years of the Cold War.

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 airborne camera technologies made it possible to take high-resolution photographs of strategic sites from extreme altitudes. Reconnaissance specialists needed an aircraft to carry the cameras directly over Soviet territory without risking interception.

In November 1954, Lockheed presented an unsolicited proposal to loft the cameras using a single-seat, single-engine jet aircraft fitted with a high-aspect ratio wing (a wing with a long wingspan and narrow chord). With President Dwight Eisenhower's approval, the CIA accepted the proposal. Operating with great urgency, Skunk Works produced the first U-2 just eight months later. Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier flew the U-2 on its maiden flight on August 6, 1955, and the long thin wing produced so much lift that the lightly loaded U-2 refused to land until LeVier's fifth attempt brought it back to Earth. Engineers and test personnel subjected the U-2 to an accelerated test program, which revealed a number of problems, including engine flameouts at high altitude. Engineers solved the problem by developing new low-volatility fuel for the Pratt and Whitney J57 turbojet engine that powered the aircraft.

Lockheed U-2A in flight. Image: National Air and Space Museum Archives (80-8646).

CIA officials began training pilots to fly the U-2 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 and as far as 3,000 miles (4,600 kilometers) 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. In particular, the images and information revealed that the so-called “missile gap" did not exist: the Soviets were not far ahead of the United States in the number of strategic nuclear missiles, as Soviet propaganda claimed. For four years, the CIA operated these flights with U-2As and improved U-2Bs until May 1,1960, when pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile over Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), thus sparking an embarrassing diplomatic incident for the United States and halting flights.

Lockheed test pilot Francis Gary Powers standing with Lockheed U-2B (r/n N800X). Image credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives (93-16025)

U-2 reconnaissance missions over the People's Republic of China, however, continued unabated from bases in Taiwan, as did flights over Cuba from American 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, where reconnaissance pilots flew them continuously from 1964 until the fall of Saigon in 1975. In recent years, the United States has used U-2s to observe the developing situations in the Middle East and other political hot spots.

A U. S. Air Force pilot flying a U-2 on November 10, 1962, made this overhead color image of a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile site at La Coloma, Cuba, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Image credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives (9A09002)

The U-2's remarkable capability to fly at extremely high altitudes has made it a valuable tool for scientific research. NASA operated two of these aircraft in its High Altitude Missions Branch, where pilots used the U-2 to collect air samples in the stratosphere, for example after the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. NASA also employed U-2s in assessments of natural disasters and water and land use studies.

The Lockheed U-2C in our collection, serial number 56-6680, was the seventh U-2 built. Lockheed delivered it to the U.S. Air Force on February 9, 1956, and a pilot flew the first operational mission in on July 4. Lockheed had built the airplane as a U-2A model and subsequently, the company upgraded the airplane to U-2C configuration by installing a more powerful J75-P-13B engine, which required a significant enlargement of the engine air intakes. At one time, technicians added an in-flight refueling probe and the designation changed to 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 CIA apparently lent the aircraft to the Air Force in 1969 and Air Force pilots flew ‘680 over Vietnam. In 1974, the CIA permanently transferred ownership of ‘680 to the Air Force, which continued to fly it until 1978. The Air Force applied the paint scheme now on the aircraft when it flew from British bases in the Middle East. The Air Force transferred the U-2 to the National Air and Space Museum in 1982.

A Lockheed U-2 in its former display in the Looking at Earth gallery.

Museum staff installed the U-2 in the Looking at Earth gallery in summer 1985. The gallery team used the jet to highlight the role of aerial photography in military reconnaissance and in civilian applications for disaster assessment and environmental monitoring. When Looking at Earth closed in December 2018 for our renovation, work began to demount and remove artifacts and other exhibition items. This work is part of a larger project to update the systems and transform the exhibit galleries. In February 2019, construction crews and museum staff lowered the U-2 and disassembled it. Staff will store the components until time to reassemble them for display in 2023.

  • Transformation (Looking at Earth Gallery)

    National Air and Space Museum staff and contractors work to lower the Lockheed U-2C aircraft hanging in the closed Looking at Earth gallery.

  • Contractors hand-tow the Lockheed U-2 fuselage.

    The forward fuselage of the Lockheed U-2 aircraft is moved by staff and contractors out of the closed Looking at Earth gallery.

  • The forward fuselage of the Lockheed U-2 aircraft is moved by staff and contractors.

    National Air and Space Museum staff and contractors hand-tow the Lockheed U-2 fuselage, minus the wings, down the hallway at the Museum's DC location.

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