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Beating Gravity - Lockheed U-2 and TR-1

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)The story of the U-2 began late in 1952 when USAF Major J. Seaberg realised that the high-altitude performance of the latest turbojets could be exploited in a strategic reconnaissance aircraft able to fly above any intercepting fighters. Three companies began studying the proposal - Fiarchild (the M-165); Bell (the X-16) and Martin (the RB-57D, a low-risk modification of the B-57, with extended wings).

Lockheed's Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson heard unofficially of the program and began working on a design of his own, which he presented to Seaberg in May 1954.

The design, designated CL-282, was essentially a Mach-2 fighter fuselage (similar to the F-104) with long, high aspect ratio wings. Undercarriage at that time consisted of a skid. When its original engine was replaced by a Pratt & Whitney J57, it looked promising. When the CL-282 was showing progress in late 1955, Bell shelved their X-16 project. After a certain amount of political manouvering, Lockheed was contracted to build 20 aircraft, to be designated U-2, the 'Utility' designation clouding its actual role.

The project was allocated the codename Aquatone by its sponsors, the CIA, and development was carried out under the utmost secrecy.

Lockheed tried to save weight on the aircraft at every point. There was no ejector seat; the wings were fragile, and the tail was held on by only three bolts. The company prepared for a secret test program, and their chief test pilot, assigned to find a suitable location, recommended Groom Dry Lake in southern Nevada. Work began on a runway and facilities, and when the first aircraft was ready it was packed into two C-124 transports, and taken to Groom, where it was assembled.

The prototype was named Angel; it first flew on 1st August, 1955. The CIA discovered (according to 1978 Freedom of Information & Privacy Act releases) that "commercial pilots and air traffic controllers began reporting a large increase in UFO sightings".

By the end of the year four of the new aircraft resided at Groom Dry Lake. Most of these early U-2s were not built at the Burbank "Skunk Works", but at a small, secret factory at Oildale, disguised as a tyre depot. These first aircraft achieved incredible altitudes in ensuing tests.

Early in 1956 the first CIA pilots arrived, disguised as Lockheed employees, ready to put the "Angel" to use. In April 1955 two of the U-2s were ferried to RAF Lakenheath, England. Their cover unit was WRSP-1 (1st Weather Reconnaissance Squadron), but their flights would take them over the Soviet Union.

The two U-2s moved from Lakenheath to Wiesbaden, West Germany, and after a short run over East Germany and Poland on 19th June, the CIA launched its first overfight of the USSR on Independence Day, July 4th, 1956. It was a complete success, the aircraft taking high-quality photographs as it cruised over Moscow, Leningrad and the Baltic coast.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)With its position established, other U-2 units developed, the next being stationed at Incirlik, Turkey. The USAF managed to acquire some early generation U-2s, which, designated U-2AW, monitored fallout from Soviet nuclear tests by means of a sampler, the scoop protruding from the under-fuselage, aft of the cockpit. The USAF's U-2s saw active duty during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. There, the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (which became 100 SRW) lost one to an SA-2 missile. From 1964 the type was in use over Vietnam.

As surface-to-air missile performance improved, the service ceiling of the U-2 unfortunately decreased, with the addition of greater loads of sensors and an ejector seat. In 1959 the U-2B was introduced, with a more powerful J35 engine. The exra engine and fuel weight increased the stall speed at altitude to a mere 4.6 mph (7.4 km/h) below the U-2's maximum allowable speed.

Whilst a Mach-3 capable aircraft, the A-12, was ordered in 1959, U-2 overflights of the USSR continued. The U-2's good fortune ended when, on 1st May 1960, a U-2B piloted by Francis Gary Powers was downed over Sverdlovsk by a missile. In the face of opposition, overflights by American pilots were banned, and the CIA and USAF were obliged to limit subsequent overflights to reconnaissance of non-Soviet territory, and to an increasing ELINT and COMINT (electronic and communications intelligence) role.

Most U-2s served with the USAF by 1964, although some operated in Chinese Nationalist air force (RoCAF) colours. These ran joint operations with the CIA, the American-trained Taiwanese pilots overflying the mainland, and particularly the Chinese nuclear facilities. Four U-2s being lost over the mainland, flights were later limited to coastal missions, using U-2Rs. These officially ended in August 1974 with improved Chinese-American relations.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)As the original U-2 numbers were depleted by losses into the mid-1960s, so the intelligence demand rose, and Lockheed produced an enlarged and upgraded version. The first six new aircraft went to the CIA, and the next six to the USAF. After its first flight in August 1967, the new U-2R version proved its all-round superiority over the early aircraft, especially in payload, ceiling, range and landing characteristics.

CIA aircraft were once more active from world-wide bases from 1968 to 1974, when all CIA U-2s passed to the Air Force (with some, designated ER-2, also operated by NASA). The USAF U-2Rs continued to operated during the Vietnam War, mainly from Thailand. They took part in the Linebacker raids and the Senior Book covert flights over mainland China. After intensive use in Vietnam, the U-2s moved to 95 SRW at Beale AFB, California following the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)In the late 1960s, Lockheed made a number of attempts to find other uses for the U-2 design. A maritime surveillance version for the US Navy was never taken up, and a remotely piloted version, a little ahead of its time, was not to proceed.

In November 1969, a U-2 was tested for carrier operations. Though the tests, using three early U-2s modified and designated U-2G, were a success, the U-2 operated only once from a carrier. In May 1964 a single U-2 from USS Ranger was used to gather intelligence on French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll. The U-2R was also subsequently tested for carrier use, but no operations were flown, it being considered as too disruptive to other carrier air wing operations. All the same, CIA pilots remained carrier qualified for some years.

Due to operational losses, the U-2R fleet was down to ten aircraft in 1975. By the mid-1970s a high-altitude, long endurance platform was required for the USAF's stand-off target location systems. The pilotless designs available proved problematic, amd in 1977 the U-2R was put forward as a substitute. In 1978-79 production of the U-2R resumed, the 'new' aircraft being named TR-1 (TR - Tactical Reconnaissance), supposedly to escape from its dubious past. It was a move intended largely to appease the British government, as most of the aircraft would be British-based.

The TR-1 first flew on 1st August 1981, and the TR-1B trainer on 28 February 1983. The TR-1s continued to operate from Britain, as had the U-2s, with a unit at Mildenhall, Suffolk operating the TR-1 and SR-71 between 1979 and 1983. Then the 17th Reconnaissance Wing was established at Alconbury, its TR-1 complement building from February 1983 to a total of 14 aircraft by March 1985. The last TR-1A, serial 80-1099, was accepted by the USAF on 3rd October 1989.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)They played a major role in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In October 1991 the TR-1 designation was dropped, and the fleet reverted to U-2R or U-2RT (later, TU-2R). The fleet has undergone upgrades, including the fitting of F118-GE-101 turbofans, to produce the U-2S or TU-2S (two-seater). The U-2S is the last of the series to see service, most recently over Kosovo from bases at Istres, France and Sigonella, Italy.

The U-2R/S continued in service with the 9th RW (Reconnaissance Wing) whose headquarters are at Beal AFB, Ca., in the late 1990s. Stations have included, apart from Beale itself, Osan AB (Korea), RAF Akrotiri (Cyprus), Taif AB (Saudi Arabia) and Istres AB (France).

Lockheed U-2R data:
One Pratt & Whitney J7S-P-138 turbojet,
17,000 lb st(75.82 kN).

41,300 lb (18733 kg)

3,000 lb (1361 kg)

103 ft 0 in (31.39 m)

62 ft 9 in (19.13 m)

16 ft 0 in (4.88 m)
Over 430 mph (692 km/h)
at 70,000 ft (21335 m)

Mach 0.8

About 5,000 ft (1525 m) per minute

Estimated at 90,000 ft (27430 m)

About 6,250 miles (10060 km)

12 hours


Related links:

More about the U2 from the Smithsonian Air & Space magazine website.


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