With a wingspan almost twice its length, the Lockheed U-2 spy plane is one of the United States Air Force’s most distinctive aircraft – and also the most difficult to fly.
The 19-meter-long thin fuselage, glider wings and powerful engine are designed to launch the plane at a height of more than 70,000 feet (21 km) – and essentially keep it there.
Dubbed the “Dragon Lady”, the U-2 operates at such an altitude and with such a small margin between its maximum speed and its stall speed, that pilots call their cruising altitude a “coffin corner”. And under these conditions, they carry out missions that last for hours at a time.
The aircraft’s slender design is sometimes difficult to observe. It is often covered with capsules, pointed antennae, mysterious protuberances, and frontal (or nose) cones that hide the sensors, radars, cameras, and communication equipment you need to complete your missions.
These different sensors can be connected to the plane almost as if they were assembling a model. There is an urban legend that says that one of these lumps or caps contains a camouflage device – an electronic signal that makes the U-2 invisible to radar.
At 70,000 feet or more, the “Dragon Lady” still has the stratosphere largely to itself, just like on its first flight 65 years ago.
At this altitude, the pilot is more of an astronaut than an aviator. In the pressurized, cocoon-like cabin of the U-2, the pilot breathes 100% oxygen – wearing a bulky pressurized suit and a huge spherical helmet. Some elements of this uniform can be found in space suits in use today.
In the rarefied air, the margins between living and dying are narrow. In fact, the pilot faces the constant danger of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and altitude-induced decompression syndrome.
Like any plane, the U-2 has to fly fast enough that it doesn’t crash (lose lift), and not so fast that it dismantles – the challenge for the U-2 pilot is that at 70,000 feet, there may only be a few miles per hour difference between the two speeds. An accidental bump on the aircraft’s controls can spell disaster.
Close to the ground, the plane’s mechanical controls, easy to manipulate at high altitudes, require muscular strength.
The light design of the U-2 makes the plane susceptible to float over the runways, fling if the landing is too difficult and very sensitive to crosswinds.
The bicycle-style landing gear, which reduces weight, makes it difficult – and laborious – to keep the plane straight and with wings level as it slows down.
The cabin’s visibility is so limited that when landing, the pilot must rely on the instructions of another U-2 pilot who drives a car down the runway following the plane that is landing. These support cars reach speeds close to 224 km / h.
“The U-2 really attracts the kind of pilot that means, ‘I pilot the most difficult plane in the inventory,'” says Greg Birdsall, assistant manager for the U-2 program at Lockheed Martin.
“They take a pilot candidate and place him on a training aircraft with an experienced instructor pilot in the back seat to see how he reacts to the plane’s peculiar handling characteristics.”
Only about 10% to 15% of pilots who sign up to participate in the program are accepted.
In the era of automation and algorithms, one would imagine that these spy planes and their pilots with “the right qualities” are a relic of the Cold War – but it is not true.
In the 31 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U-2 intercepted voices and texts, obtained electronic signals, took pictures, and used a special form of radar to capture digital images.
The U-2 also gained new functions, such as transmitting data. His ability to fly high in the sky meant that he was in the perfect position to pass information from the battlefield to headquarters.
In the process, he overcame competing planes and defeated the surveillance satellites that were supposed to make it obsolete.
Now, the 31 operational U-2 planes in the US Air Force fleet are about to undergo a $ 50 million upgrade and win a new mission that could take them flying for another 30 years.
“We are not going to disappear as a program and we are investing heavily to take the U-2 into the new environment of its mission,” said Irene Helley, director of the U-2 program at Lockheed Martin.
“In this new era, there is no planned expiration date.”
Although not a relic, the U-2 is certainly synonymous with the Cold War.
In the 1950s, President Dwight D Eisenhower’s government was surprised several times by the nuclear advance of the then Soviet Union. This was due to his intelligence gap.
The Soviet Union was a closed society, difficult for the CIA, the American intelligence agency, to penetrate. The lack of spies in the right places meant that the president needed a high altitude spy plane to tell him what exactly the Soviet Union was up to. And he needed it quickly.
Like engineering genius Kelly Johnson and his team working in the secret “Skunk Works” department, as Lockheed Martin’s advanced development program was known, the American company had just the team of professionals capable of creating the aircraft.
The “Skunk Works” myth was born when Johnson and his engineers designed and built the fuselage for the first US Air Force jet in just 143 days, in 1943. In late 1954, they began work on this mysterious spy plane.
The plane would have to maintain the flight above 70,000 feet, have a range of 4,800 km and be able to carry 212 kg of equipment.
The U-2 first flew just eight months later, on August 1, 1955, at a remote location in Nevada, now known as Area 51. It was clear that Johnson and his team had created something special.
“The U-2 marks the beginning of a shift towards technical intelligence, which is solving these intelligence problems not through John le Carré-style spies on the ground, but through advanced technology,” says Peter J Westwick, director from the Huntington-USC Institute of Aerospace History Project on California and the American West.
“The U-2 is really the first major technological leap for technical intelligence,” adds Westwick, who is also the author of Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft.
The history of the U-2 could have been very different. In 1966, its future looked bleak – only 15 of the original 55 U-2s built were still in operation. But, crucially, it was decided to restart production in the 1980s, a complicated business when many of the original engineers had retired.
The planes that came out of these refurbished production lines certainly looked similar to the original, but they were almost 40% larger and had a new modular design to carry more equipment – and more weight – and change them more easily for different types of missions.
The U-2s in operation today can carry almost three times more weight, fly twice the distance, and remain in the air three times longer than the original aircraft.
In the 1990s, they were substantially updated again; and this modernization process continues today.
Over time, at least five possible substitutions for the U-2 have emerged. The first, in the 1970s, was the first generation of unmanned aerial vehicles.
One of the most recent is Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, shaped like a whale, a high-altitude surveillance aircraft flown remotely. When it first appeared in 1998, U-2 was over 40 years old. To pay for the U-2 upgrade, 24 Global Hawks will have to be discarded.
With the Global Hawk left out, the evolution of the U-2 could take the next step.
Changes to the plane will include better avionics, a touchscreen cabin (which you can use with a pressurized suit) and a new mission computer that will allow the plane to run the new Open Mission System (WHO).
The WHO will allow aircraft such as the U-2 to easily communicate with computer systems for tanks, ships, aircraft, satellites, and even cyberweapons.
So far, the U-2 experience has been fruitful.
“It has a proven performance at high altitude,” says Helley.
“There is also a recognition that their fuselages are still basically teenagers. They have about 80% of their design life left.”
In addition, manned platforms are also much better for handling surprises than computers.
“If you look at the capabilities of space surveillance and some of the other types, they depend to a large extent on prior planning to provide the necessary information. In contrast, the U-2 is always available and can be ready at any time.”
“What I am always asked is: Why can’t satellites do what U-2 does?” Says Chris Pocock, a former aviation journalist and author of U-2 books.
“Well, they have fantastic features now, but a predictable orbital trajectory. This means that spy satellites from low Earth orbit don’t stay in any area for long, while U-2 can stay for a long time in a specific location. . “
Satellites are also increasingly vulnerable to defense measures, such as lasers that can blind spy satellites, interference or even missiles that can damage or destroy a vital satellite.
The U-2 contributed as a precursor in the use of data link (data link) to transmit intelligence to terrestrial stations that can be thousands of kilometers away, sending the signal first to a satellite above it.
Now that role will become even more important in the face of the US Air Force’s ambition that all of its computers, regardless of the company that makes them, are able to communicate with each other. New sensors or cameras must be added and removed from the aircraft faster and cheaper than ever, ahead of its competitors.
The U-2 has a problem: it is not particularly invisible. And that means that you cannot fly over the airspace of other countries without your knowledge. A U-2 plane was recently spotted by Chinese military personnel flying over their military exercises in the South China Sea.
Now it looks like the American defense company Northrop Grumman has built a small fleet of top-secret drones that look like its B-2 bomber to do just that. Some believe that they can replace the U-2.
These high-altitude, long-range reconnaissance drones, which are still kept secret, popularly called the RQ-180, must have camouflage devices since only one “possible” strange photo has appeared so far, an amazing feat in the digital age.
Although the cloaking device is a fictional piece of technology that allows planes or spaceships to become invisible, the top-secret drone is known for its unusual light color that would make it difficult to locate. This earned him the nickname “Great White Bat”, or more elaborately, “Shikaka”, the sacred white bat from the movie Ace Ventura 2.
“Everything I say should be considered provisional,” says Pocock.
“It must be very discreet if you are going to enter the unauthorized territory and do what the U-2 does in friendly territory, but I don’t think it will replace the U-2 because it is apparently incredibly expensive. and there may not be many occasions when they are able to get permission to fly. “
Microsatellites pose a greater threat to the future of the U-2. Weighing between 10kg to 100kg, they are small enough to be launched from space planes like the Boeing X-37.
“These microsatellites can be launched in such large quantities, from a single rocket launch, that they begin to overcome the vulnerabilities of spy satellites in low Earth orbit,” says Pocock.
“If you have 10 or more satellites spinning around the Earth in a chain, then you are revisiting the same place on Earth in hours, not days,” he explains.
However, Helley is confident that the U-2 will escape threats from future competitors as well as it did with previous ones.
“What else works in the environment in which the U-2 operates?”, She asks.
“We see U-2 as a North Star in a very large constellation of compiling and disseminating information in real-time.”
“It is a very, very difficult environment to operate,” adds Birdsall.
“Trying to develop something to take your place, or even complement it at that altitude, would not be fast, it would not be easy and it would be very expensive. When you already have the capacity we have, why do that?”
Source: BBC Future