In the early days of the Cold War, the U-2 spy plane helped the U.S. collect intelligence on Soviet military operations. It was a relatively unknown aircraft until May 1, 1960, when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers crashed one in the Soviet Union. (Powers spent nearly two years in Soviet prisons before he was released.)
Now, the Air Force says it wants to scale back funding for an expensive hi-tech surveillance drone in favor of the more affordable, manned U-2 aircraft.
At 57 years old, the U-2 still looks like an experimental plane, but it has been adapted to stay relevant. Doug Lantry, a historian with the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, says the plane was given longer wings and a much more powerful, more reliable engine.
"And, of course, there [are] all the new sensor pods," which help gather intelligence, he says. "But I think you could say, basically, it's still the same machine — it's just better."
The great irony is that at Northern California's Beale Air Force Base, the U-2 lives right next door to its high-tech competitor — the sleek, remotely piloted Global Hawk. The U-2 can do almost the same job the Global Hawk does for much less money.
Flying At The Edge Of Space
According to Lantry, the U-2 was designed because the U.S. wanted to take pictures of its chief adversary, the Soviet Union, without getting caught.
"The only way to do that without getting shot down was to have a very, very high-altitude, high-performance aircraft that could fly higher than any fighters or missiles that the Soviets had, and take pictures and bring them back," he says.
The U-2 flew at more than 70,000 feet, an altitude that was thought to be beyond the reach of fighter planes and missiles. (Powers' accident proved that it wasn't.) To fly that high, Lantry says, designers had to combine two technologies.
"Really what it amounts to is a sailplane with a jet engine in it," he says.
The U-2's glider-like wings help it soar in thin air while its efficient jet engine helps it take off like a rocket and stay aloft for long surveillance flights. The combination of power and wing design allows the U-2 to operate at the edge of space. Pilots get a pretty cool view, but it's a very uncomfortable perch.
'This Thing Loves To Fly'
Back at Beale Air Force Base, U-2 pilots prepare for flights by breathing pure oxygen for an hour before they take off. The idea is to keep pilots from getting the bends from the extreme pressure change that occurs during the U-2's rapid climb to more than 13 miles in the air.
Crews also help pilots into the full spacesuits they'll be flying in, sometimes for as long as nine hours. The U-2 has a pressurized cockpit, but without the suit, a leak could mean certain death — the pressure change would be so abrupt, the pilot's blood would boil. Once the suit is on, the pilot can fly the plane, but the suits are so restrictive that they can't do much else, like scratch any itches.
And the plane's idiosyncrasies don't stop there. If you want to get an idea of just how quirky it is, you need to watch it land. According to Col. Steve Rodriguez, the U-2's long wings want to stay airborne.
"This thing loves to fly," he says, grinning. And that means it doesn't want to land.
Rodriguez runs Beale's U-2 training program. He says bringing the plane down requires help from a chase car. So as a pilot comes in for a landing, Rodriguez pulls onto the tarmac in a little Pontiac G8. He hauls down the runway at 90 miles an hour right behind the jet as the radio in the chase car squawks away.
Because the U-2 doesn't let pilots see the ground very well, they need help touching down with the plane's skinny landing gear. Where most planes have a nice, wide tricycle to land on, the U-2 basically has a set of baby carriage wheels lined up under the razor-like fuselage. Another challenge is keeping those long, floppy wings from hitting the ground. If they do, the plane's original titanium protectors will keep the wings from getting too damaged — but scraping the runway is less than ideal.
The pilot rides the plane like a bronco, forcing it to land. It touches down then hops right back into the air. This pilot is auditioning for a spot on the U-2 team, and Rodriguez is watching his every mistake.
A Half-Century Old And Still Relevant
When asked which plane he prefers, the U-2 or the Global Hawk, Rodriguez is diplomatic. "We will take what it is that we are given and operate it to the best of our ability," he says.
But while reinvestment in the U-2 may sound like the story of David and Goliath, with old technology beating out new technology, it's not quite that simple. For one thing, NATO just announced that it would be purchasing a version of the Global Hawk, and a U.S. House committee has voted to restore the Global Hawk funding that the Air Force wants to cut.
The real story is that the U-2, a design more than a half-century old, can still give the Global Hawk a run for its money, whether it's hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian or flying a lofty mission.
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Moving on to some old technology that could get a new life, thanks to budget pressures at the Pentagon, the Air Force says it wants to scale back funding for a high-tech surveillance drone because it's too expensive. Instead, as NPR's Larry Abramson tells us, the Air Force is turning to a manned aircraft designed in the early days of the Cold War, the U-2 spy plane.
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LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Many Americans didn't know much about the U-2, until one of them crashed in the Soviet Union on Mayday, 1960.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: America officially admits extensive flights over and around Russia by unarmed planes during the last five years.
ABRAMSON: The pilot of that plane, Francis Gary Powers, spent nearly two years in Soviet prisons before he was released. His unique plane was a daring attempt to solve a critical intelligence problem: the U.S. desperately needed to know more about the Soviet military. Douglas Lantry of the National Museum of the Air Force says the U.S. wanted to take pictures of its chief adversary without getting caught.
DOUGLAS LANTRY: And the only way to do that without getting shot down was to have a very, very high-altitude, high-performance aircraft that could fly higher than any fighters or missiles that the Soviets had and take pictures and bring them back.
ABRAMSON: The U-2 flew at over 70,000 feet, beyond the reach of fighter planes and missiles. That was the idea, anyway. To fly that high, Lantry says, Lockheed had to combine two technologies in one.
LANTRY: Really, what it amounts to is a sailplane with a jet engine in it.
ABRAMSON: The U-2's long glider-like wings help it soar in thin air, and it has a powerful, efficient jet engine that allows it to go on long surveillance flights. This combination of power and elegant wing design allows the U-2 to operate at the edge of space. Pilots get a cool view from a very uncomfortable perch.
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ABRAMSON: Here at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, U-2 pilots have to breath pure oxygen for an hour before they can fly. That's to prevent the bends from the extreme pressure change, and they have to wear a full spacesuit. More than 50 years after this ritual started, Sergeant Carl Mulachy(ph) helps pilots into the suit that they will wear for as long as nine hours.
SERGEANT CARL MULACHY: And you'll see once she puts the helmet on there, that's the last time she can really scratch any part of her body.
ABRAMSON: If the plane's cockpit were to depressurize, that suit will keep the pilot's blood from boiling because of the extreme altitude.
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ABRAMSON: But to see just how quirky this plane is, watch it land. Veteran pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Rodriguez, says those long wings really want to stay airborne.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL STEVE RODRIGUEZ: This thing loves to fly. I mean, it does. It's a great airplane, though. I mean, like I said, it's a very elegant design.
ABRAMSON: Rodriguez runs the training mission for the U-2 here at Beale. He says bringing this plane down requires help from another vehicle, a chase car.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR)
ABRAMSON: As the pilot comes in for a landing, Colonel Rodriguez pulls onto the tarmac in a little Pontiac G8. He hauls down the runway at 90 miles an hour right behind the jet.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO)
ABRAMSON: Every time a U-2 lands, the driver follows along in high-speed pursuit, calling out the plane's altitude on the radio. The pilot can't see the ground too well, and this assist helps him land the plane on the U-2's skinny landing gear.
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ABRAMSON: The pilot rides the plane like a bronco, forcing it to land. The U-2 touches down and hops right back into the air. This pilot is auditioning for a spot on the U-2 team, and Colonel Rodriguez is watching for any mistakes.
RODRIGUEZ: Wing control, not too bad. A little low on the left. That's why you have those titanium skids out there.
ABRAMSON: Titanium protectors allow the U-2's long, floppy wings to scrape the runway without doing any damage. That's part of the original design. At age 57, the U-2 still looks like an experimental plane, but it has stayed current by adapting. Historian Douglas Lantry says the U-2's wings were made even longer, and it got a much more powerful, more reliable engine.
LANTRY: And, of course, there's all the new sensor pods and things hanging off the front, in the middle, in the back, in the wings and so on. So, an awful lot of changes. But still, I think basically, you could say it's the same machine. It's just better.
ABRAMSON: The great irony is that here at Beale Air Force Base, the U-2 lives right next door to its high-tech competitor, the Global Hawk, a sleek, remotely piloted vehicle which the Air Force has decided is too expensive. The U-2 can do almost the same job for less.
Colonel Steve Rodriguez, who trains pilots for both aircraft, gets all diplomatic when asked which plane he prefers.
RODRIGUEZ: I will agree with the Air Force position on that one. So we will take what it is that we're given and operate it to the best of our ability.
ABRAMSON: If this sounds like a David versus Goliath story, old tech beating new tech, it's not that simple. Drones like the Global Hawk are here to stay and will be flying other missions. The real story here is that the U-2, a historic plane that hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian, is still flying and still relevant. Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.