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17 Little Known Facts About The U-2 'Dragon Lady'

It turned 60 years old this month, and Lockheed Martin is working on a replacement, but the U-2 is still the US Air Force's high-altitude reconnaissance workhorse...

1) The U-2 was designed by Lockheed's top engineer, Kelly Johnson. He also designed the SR-71, F-104 Starfighter, and countless other revolutionary aircraft.

Lockheed Martin

2) The U-2's first flight was August 1st, 1955 - only 10 years after the end of World War 2. The flight happened at Groom Lake, better known as Area 51.


3) The U-2 was designed to fly at 70,000 feet. At that altitude, it could not be tracked by radar or shot down with missiles by the Soviet Union at the time.

4) The U-2 used non-traditional landing gear to save weight. The Air Force initially rejected the design because of it.

5) The CIA was more receptive to the design, and since they didn't have reconnaissance aircraft of their own at the time, they moved forward with the project.

6) The "U" designation for "Utility" was assigned instead of "R" for "Reconnaissance", keeping the project more covert.

7) Developers needed a special fuel that wouldn't evaporate at 70,000 feet for the U-2. The CIA created a cover story of experimental rocket aircraft, made in partnership with Shell Oil, to move forward on the project.

8) At altitude, the U-2 flies in a region called coffin-corner, often with only 10 knots of separation between stall and mach overspeed.

9) For the first 15 years of the program, a trainer version of the U-2 didn't exist, so pilots had to be coached through their first flights via radio.


10) Because the U-2 is difficult to land, and visibility is poor from the pilot's space suit, a chase car is used to call out altitudes to pilots as they approach the runway. Check out this video for a first-person view:

11) Overflights of the Soviet Union started in 1956. Contrary to expectations, the Soviet Union was able to track the U-2 with radar.

12) Overflights continued for years to come, however, because the Soviet Union didn't have means of shooting down the U-2...yet.

13) On May 1, 1960, a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. Powers survived, and much of the U-2 was recovered.

14) In October of 1960, overflights of Cuba began. Two years later, SA-2 SAM sites were spotted on the island, making it difficult for U-2 overflights to continue during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

15) Several U-2s were designed to operate from aircraft carriers.

16) In 1961, a U-2 was designed for in-flight refueling. The aircraft had an endurance of over 14 hours. However, due to pilot fatigue, it was rarely used.

17) The U-2 is one of the few aircraft to have served over 50 years in the US Air Force. The only others are the B-52, C-130, KC-135, and T-38. And that makes for a pretty impressive history.

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Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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