… but also almost caused the Cold War to turn hot
On 1 May 1960, a CIA U-2 piloted by Gary Powers took off from Peshawar in Pakistan on a mission to photograph the closed city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), before flying north across to the USSR to land in Norway. A Soviet missile battery near Sverdlovsk had other ideas – Powers’ aircraft was hit and the pilot was forced to eject, and was held prisoner by the USSR for two years.
Worse was to come two years later; during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the US blockaded Cuba after discovering preparations to house Soviet ballistic missiles, a U-2 undertaking aerial reconnaissance over Cuba was downed, again by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. US forces went on high alert, though cooler heads prevailed, preventing armed conflict that could have ended in nuclear war.
U-2 pilots dress like spacemen… and suffer the bends
Much like their spyplane compatriots in Lockheed’s faster-than-a-bullet SR-71 Blackbird, the U-2 pilots were flying so high that normal flight suits were not enough; any cockpit decompression would have resulted in almost instant loss of consciousness. U-2 pilots are housed in spacesuits, ones which include feeding tubes to sustain them on hour-long missions; early version of the suits were essentially prototypes for those worn by Space Shuttle crews.
U-2 pilots, carrying out missions in pressurised suits for anything up to 12 hours at a time, have started developing a debilitating sickness not dissimilar to the bends – the potentially life-threatening condition deep-sea divers get when they ascend too quickly. Pilots now have to breathe pure oxygen before they start their missions to remove some of the nitrogen in their system.
Massive wingspan, tiny wheels
The U-2’s enormous wingspan is what helps give it the lift needed to stay afloat miles above the ground – it measures 103ft (31.4m) from tip-to-tip. But when it comes to landing it proves very tricky indeed. The pilot’s job is made trickier in that the aircraft’s design is so honed to keeping it in the air that the plane will only land when the wing is fully stalled, and the lack of electrically-powered controls makes the plane very physically demanding at lower altitudes. The pilot’s cockpit position, also makes it very hard to judge the plane’s distance from the ground, and there’s another problem – the undercarriage. Unlike most planes, the U-2 does not boast three-wheel undercarriage, but instead has two main landing gears located at the front and back of the aircraft, like bicycle wheels. The landing procedure is so precarious that U-2s are accompanied by a fellow pilot following the plane in a chase car, and giving him directions via a radio. The fun doesn’t end there; when the plane comes to rest it’s with one wingtip scraping along the ground. The wingtips are reinforced with special landing skids to take this into account.
U-2s hunt for roadside bombs in Afghanistan
The plane’s days of snooping for Soviet missile bases have long gone – U-2s are now used for less partisan work, performing atmospheric tests for Nasa. The U-2 still serves the US military, but in a manner not envisaged when it was designed by Lockheed in the 1950s. Some of the US Air Force’s remaining 32 U2’s patrol the skies above Afghanistan from a base in the Persian Gulf, in direct radio contact with troops on the ground. Its updated sensors can detect tiny traces in disturbed earth, allowing them to warn approaching troops of possible roadside bombs – all from 70,000 feet. On top of that, the plane’s lofty height has also proved useful in picking up mobile phone chatter by insurgents, which is difficult to intercept on the ground.