Imagine driving a car whose engine cuts out if you drive it only a few miles below its maximum speed. A car so finally balanced that placing your coffee cup on anything other than the cup holder could cause it to swerve uncontrollably. You have to drive it – for anything up to 15 hours – in a diving suit. And when it comes to parking you can’t look out the windows, but have to rely instead on the directions of another driver guiding you to your destination from another car.
Congratulations – you might just make it as a Lockheed U-2 pilot.
The U-2 was one of the Cold War’s most infamous aircraft, a plane designed to fly over unfriendly territory too high for enemy fighters or missiles, and take pictures of unparalleled detail - and, as it has just been revealed, helped spur the development of the secret Area 51 airbase.
Designed less than 20 years after most air forces were still fielding biplane fighters, the U-2 flew at the edge of space, using cameras that could render detail down to two-and-a-half-feet from a position 13 miles (21km) above the Earth’s surface. When Top Gear and Headsqueeze presenter James May flew in a U-2 (video above), gazing at the view 70,000 feet [21.3km] up with the blackness of space above him, he and the plane’s pilot, Major John Cabigas, were the second-highest humans on the planet. Only the astronauts on the International Space Station, wheeling above the Earth some 250 miles (400km) above sea level, were higher.
The ability to fly at such altitudes is only one item on the U-2’s remarkable CV. Here BBC Future recounts some of the other amazing facts and history about one of aviation’s most intriguing designs.
No U-2, no Area 51
Built on the edge of a dry lakebed in the arid desert of Nevada, the mysteriously named Area 51 has long been a magnet for conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts. The conspiracy theory was that an alien spaceship had crashed at the site, and that alien technology was then used to create some of the US Air Force’s more outlandish designs, such as the F-117 stealth fighter. The US military kept a resolute silence over the subject until this week, when it announced that the airfield was specifically built to test Lockheed’s U-2. A secret 1992 internal CIA history of the U-2 programme was originally declassified in 1998 with heavy redactions. But many of the formerly secret elements were made public after a records request by the National Security Archive at the George Washington University in Washington DC. CIA and Air Force staff chose the site after an aerial survey, and President Eisenhower himself signed the order. The U-2 – flying too high for aircraft of the time, supposedly – may have been behind a spate of UFO sightings.
They helped avert a deadly arms race in the 1950s…
Before the U-2, taking reliable pictures of the Soviet Union was a daunting task. The sheer size of the country made it difficult to locate secretive sites, while aircraft snooping on the country’s border were in danger of being intercepted by the USSR’s aggressive air defences.
In the mid-1950s, Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev warned the US that the USSR was making missiles “like sausages” and shows of strength at events such as the 1955 Moscow Air Show made it seem that Soviet bomber factories were working round the clock. The details of the communist state’s armament production were a mystery until the first U-2 flight from Germany in 1956. As Lockheed’s own blog on the U-2 states, it soon became apparent that the vast Russian steppes were not crammed with bomber factories, but were mostly assembling tractors. This vital intelligence meant US president Dwight D Eisenhower stepped back from a massive arms race which could have led to nuclear confrontation.