Lockheed U-2

Lockheed’s U-2, also known as “Dragon Lady”, is a single-jet engine reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It provides day and night, ultra high-altitude (70,000-feet), all-weather intelligence gathering. It has also been used for electronic sensor research, satellite calibration, and communications purposes. Continue reading for more cool facts about the U-2. Click here for a few bonus images.

5. Difficult to Fly

U-2 Spy Plane

The design that gives the U-2 its remarkable performance also makes it a difficult aircraft to fly. It was designed and manufactured for minimum airframe weight, which results in an aircraft with little margin for error. Most aircraft were single-seat versions, with only five two-seat trainer versions known to exist. The U-2’s flight controls are designed for high-altitude flight; the controls require light control inputs at operational altitude. However, at lower altitudes, the higher air density and lack of a power assisted control system makes the aircraft very difficult to fly.

4. Has Bicycle Configuration Landing Gear

U-2 Spy Plane

Instead of the typical tricycle landing gear, the U-2 uses a bicycle configuration with a forward set of main wheels located just behind the cockpit, and a rear set of main wheels located behind the engine. The rear wheels are coupled to the rudder to provide steering during taxiing. To maintain balance while taxiing, two auxiliary wheels, called “pogos” are added for takeoff. These fit into sockets underneath each wing at about mid-span, and fall off during takeoff. To protect the wings during landing, each wingtip has a titanium skid. After the U-2 comes to a halt, the ground crew re-installs the pogos one wing at a time, then the aircraft taxis to parking.

3. Nose Has Several Sensors

U-2 Spy Plane

The aircraft carries a variety of sensors in the nose, Q-bay (behind the cockpit, also known as the camera bay), and wing pods. The U-2 is capable of simultaneously collecting signals, imagery intelligence and air samples. Imagery intelligence sensors include either wet film photography, electro-optic, or radar imagery – the latter from the Raytheon ASARS-2 system. It can use both line-of-sight and over-horizon data links.

2. Eisenhower Preferred Pilots to be Non-US Citizens

U-2 Spy Plane

Beyond not using American military personnel to fly the U-2, Eisenhower preferred to use non-US citizens. As of July 2013 the nationalities of the foreign pilots recruited remains classified.

1. Still in Service

U-2 Spy Plane

The U-2 is one of a handful of aircraft types to have served the USAF for over 50 years. The newest models (TR-1, U-2R, U-2S) entered service in the 1980s. The current model, the U-2S, received its most recent technical upgrade in 2012. They have taken part in post-Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and supported several multinational NATO operations.