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The Development of the U-2 Spy Plane


The U-2 also known as Dragon lady is a single-engine aircraft that was previously being flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was later adopted by the United States air force. The plane is used for surveillance, electronic sensor research, and also for satellite data verification. The development of the U-2 spy plane was the most important intelligence innovation of the Eisenhower administration because since its invention it has assisted the United States in carrying out surveillance missions on its enemies.

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U-2 Development

During the 1950s there were cold war tensions between the United States and the Russians. The United States required advanced reconnaissance to assist them in finding out Russians intentions. They thought that the best idea was to come up with an aircraft that could fly over 70000 feet, could not be reached with Russians Missiles, and also could not be detected by the Russians Radar. This Aircraft would enable them to take Aerial Photographs of the Russians without violating their airspace. The United States air force gave Bell Aircraft, Martin aircraft Fairchild engine, Airplane and Lockheed Aircraft corporations contracts of coming up with the new reconnaissance aircraft development proposals. Clarence Johnson, who was an engineer at Lockheed, came up with an initial design known as CL-282 which had long glider-like wings (

To minimize the weight of the Airplane Johnson opted to use skids for landing rather than using conventional landing gear. The Air force rejected Johnson’s design however the idea caught the attention of the review panel. Edwin Land who was one of the members of the Panel suggested to the Central intelligence agency (CIA) director Allen Dulles that his organization was going to fund the development of the Aircraft. Johnson through Lockheed Company received a contract worth $22.5 million for the first twenty aircraft. The plane name was later changed to U-2 (Miller 81).

The first U-2 flight took place at a test site in Groom Lake in August 1955. The plane’s wings were so efficient that the Airplane traveled in the air at a speed of 130km/h. James Baker who at that time was working for Perkin Pelmer developed a large format camera that was to be used by the plane. The new Camera had a high resolution of about 76 cm from an altitude of 18,000 m (Miller 100).

U-2 Design

Though U-2 is a difficult aircraft to fly it has an outstanding performance. It is light in weight as compared to other planes which make it have a minimal margin for error. Most of the U-2 models have single-seat versions a little two. They have high aspect ratio wings which give them glider characteristics. The models U-2A and U-2C must fly to their maximum speed to maintain an altitude of 21,000 m. Their large wingspan also makes them highly sensitive to winds and their ability to float over the runway makes it difficult for them to land. Because of this reason models such as the Ford Mustang SSP and Chevrolet Camaro B4C emerged which enabled an assistant to communicate with the pilot instructing him to decline the height of the plane as it decreases airspeed to overcome the cushion of the air provided by the high lift wings in ground effect. For the landing gear, the U-2 uses a bicycle configuration with the forward set of wheels positioned behind the cockpit and the hind wheels positioned behind the engine. For it to maintain balance while preparing for takeoff, two supplementary wheels are installed which perfectly fit into sockets under each wing. Each wing has a titanium skid that protects the wing during landing. When the plane comes to a halt on the ground the crew members reinstall the auxiliary wheels. Pilots of the plane must wear a spacesuit which supplies them with Oxygen and protects them in case cabin pressure is lost at a high altitude (Taubman 23).

The U-2 aircraft is equipped with a variety of sensors in the nose, Q-bay, and wing pods. It can simultaneously gather signals, imagery intelligence, and air samples. Some of the imagery sensors include wet film photos and radar imagery. U-2’s latest invention is the Shelf Sony Video camera that can get an exact view of any terrain direct or below the aircraft, particularly during landing (Taubman 25).

U-2 Operational history

Several operational accidents occurred during the design of the U-2. The first fatal accident occurred on 15th May 1956, when the pilot crashed the plane during a post-take-off. Three months later another accident occurred when the pilot crashed the plane immediately after takeoff. Two weeks later another plane crashed killing the pilot. The U-2 gained publicity in May 1960 when Central intelligence agency pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while flying above Soviet territory. On 14th October 1962 a U-2 plane flown by pilot Major Richard Heyser photographed the Russian military installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, the discovery led to the Cuban Missile crisis. And in October 1962 a U-2 was shot down while flying over Cuba territory killing the pilot. In the year 1963, the central intelligence agency started a new project to develop U-2G to overcome range limitations. The new models were used to observe the French atomic bomb development. In the year 1964, the Strategic Air Command sent a fleet of U-2s to South Vietnam for reconnaissance missions on North Vietnam. In Vietnam, they took photos of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor (Christopher 32).

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The only U-2 failed operation during combat occurred in Vietnam in the year1966 when Pilot Leo Stewart developed mechanical problems while flying but the plane managed to return to South Vietnam where Stewart landed safely.

After 50 years since its invention, the U-2 is still greatly used for surveillance despite the invention of surveillance satellites. This is mainly because the U-2 can direct flights to chosen destinations within short notice while Satellites cannot. Production of U-2 planes was restated in the year 1980 and it has been able to outlast its SR-71 model replacement. The Pentagon approved a budget document in the year 2005 which will see the U-2 program terminated in the year 2011 (Frawley 47).

U-2 features

The U-2 can only accommodate one pilot, has one engine, can fly over high altitude, and is a reconnaissance plane. It has long narrow and straight wings which give it the capability of lifting heavy sensor objects to high altitudes and maintain them at that height for a long time. U-2 is also able to gather multi-sensor photos, radar imagery, and infrared, in addition, it can gather signal intelligence data. It has the highest rate of mission completed in the United States although it has its disadvantages which include; difficulty in flying, hard to take off and land, and because it flies over high altitude the pilot must wear an Oxygen pressure suit (Taubman 25).

U-2 engine is fuel-efficient and light in weight making it to be refueled after a long period. There are major changes that are being implemented on the plane that will make it reduce its electric noise and allow a quiet platform for next-generation sensors.


The Invention of the U-2 has greatly enhanced the United States military operations. It is true to say that its invention has helped the United States in Carrying out a continued day and night, and high altitude reconnaissance and surveillance on its foes. The U-2 capabilities that make it a sufficient means of carrying out surveillance are mentioned in the research.

Works Cited

Christopher, Andrew: For the President only. Harper Collins publishers 1996. pp 23-36.

Fench, Thomas: The CIA and the U-2 program. New Century books 2001. pp 81-90.

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Frawley, Gerard: The international directory of military aircraft. Aerospace publications 2002. pp 43-52. Web.

Miller, Jay: Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works: The Official History. Leicester, UK: Midland Publishing Ltd. 1995. pp 76-101.

Taubman, Philip: Eisenhower, the CIA and the hidden story of America’s space. 2001. pp 11-25.

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"The Development of the U-2 Spy Plane." StudyCorgi, 18 Nov. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "The Development of the U-2 Spy Plane." November 18, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "The Development of the U-2 Spy Plane." November 18, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "The Development of the U-2 Spy Plane." November 18, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Development of the U-2 Spy Plane'. 18 November.

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