Are U-2 spy planes still used?


Spy planes are still in use and Lockheed Martin’s U-2 remains the supreme, go-to jet for high-altitude reconnaissance.

U-2s have been around since the 1950s and the US Air Force fleet maintains more than 30 of the spy planes.

Are U-2 Spy Planes Still Used?
U-2s collect signals intelligence as well as photos


The CIA and Air Force initially used the single-seat, high-altitude jets to monitor electronic emissions and sample the upper atmosphere for evidence of nuclear weapons tests  in the 1950s and ‘60s. U-2 pilots also photographed Cold War enemy sites.

The trial of Gary Powers

On May 1, 1960, U-2 pilot Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell in Bridge of Spies) was shot down over the Soviet Union in the Ural Mountains. Powers was convicted of spying in a sensational trial. He was released in a 1962 spy swap on Germany’s Glienicke Bridge, however, traded for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. (More information can be found on www.garypowers.com

It wouldn’t be the last shocking international incident involving a U-2 spy plane, however. 

Are Spy Planes Still Used?
JFK signs a proclamation regarding delivery of offensive weapons to Cuba, 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The US and Soviet Union faced another Cold War confrontation after U-2 pilot Major Richard Heyser photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile being assembled for installation in Cuba on October 14, 1962.

Less than two weeks later, US Air Force pilot Rudolf Anderson Jr. was shot down while flying a U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance mission looking for further evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The world waited, seemingly on the brink of nuclear war, as the crisis unfolded. On October 28, however, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev issued a public statement saying that Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba.

Anderson was the only combat death among the 11 American U-2 pilots who flew over the island during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, President John F. Kennedy awarded Anderson the first Air Force Cross in addition to the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Cheney Award.

Cockpit of a U-2 Spy Plane


U-2 SPECIFICATIONS


• Cruise speed 475 mph / 764 km/hr

• Length 63 ft / 19.2 m

Maximum weight 40,000 lb / 18,144 kg

• Payload 5,000 lb / 2,268 kg

• Ceiling Above 70,000 ft / 21,336 m

Are U-2 Spy Planes Still Used?

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Spy planes are still in use and Lockheed Martin’s U-2 remains the supreme, go-to jet for high-altitude reconnaissance.

U-2s have been around since the 1950s and the US Air Force fleet maintains more than 30 of the spy planes.

Are U-2 Spy Planes Still Used?
U-2s collect signals intelligence as well as photos


The CIA and Air Force initially used the single-seat, high-altitude jets to monitor electronic emissions and sample the upper atmosphere for evidence of nuclear weapons tests  in the 1950s and ‘60s. U-2 pilots also photographed Cold War enemy sites.

The trial of Gary Powers

On May 1, 1960, U-2 pilot Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell in Bridge of Spies) was shot down over the Soviet Union in the Ural Mountains. Powers was convicted of spying in a sensational trial. He was released in a 1962 spy swap on Germany’s Glienicke Bridge, however, traded for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. (More information can be found on www.garypowers.com

It wouldn’t be the last shocking international incident involving a U-2 spy plane, however. 

Are Spy Planes Still Used?
JFK signs a proclamation regarding delivery of offensive weapons to Cuba, 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The US and Soviet Union faced another Cold War confrontation after U-2 pilot Major Richard Heyser photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile being assembled for installation in Cuba on October 14, 1962.

Less than two weeks later, US Air Force pilot Rudolf Anderson Jr. was shot down while flying a U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance mission looking for further evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The world waited, seemingly on the brink of nuclear war, as the crisis unfolded. On October 28, however, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev issued a public statement saying that Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba.

Anderson was the only combat death among the 11 American U-2 pilots who flew over the island during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, President John F. Kennedy awarded Anderson the first Air Force Cross in addition to the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Cheney Award.

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U-2: Too valuable to lose

The spy plane has proven itself too valuable to retire and has remained in service since the Cold War. The U-2 has a single engine that can rocket the jet to 70,000ft and - crucially - maintain that height. 

It’s also adaptable to modern technology and the future is all about data: collecting it, processing it, and machine-to-machine sharing. The modern U-2s are part of the fleet at California’s Beale Air Force Base. 

Are U-2 Spy Planes Still Used?
The latest U-2 model is technically a U-2S

Dragon Lady

The U-2 earned its nickname ‘Dragon Lady’ because it is difficult to operate. Pilots typically fly 90% of their mission within five knots (9 km/h) of the ‘stall speed”, the minimum steady speed where the U-2 is controllable.

The U-2 was secretly designed at Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’, a name inspired by a mysterious locale from the comic strip Li’L Abner.


Lockheed Martin's U-2 spy plane collects signals intelligence and photos
A U-2’s reconnaissance photos over Cuba in 1962 revealed Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles


Cockpit of a U-2 Spy Plane


U-2 SPECIFICATIONS


• Cruise speed 475 mph / 764 km/hr

• Length 63 ft / 19.2 m

Maximum weight 40,000 lb / 18,144 kg

• Payload 5,000 lb / 2,268 kg

• Ceiling Above 70,000 ft / 21,336 m
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