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Old Design, Young Airplane

The U-2R, introduced in 1967, was significantly larger than the original U-2. Its wingspan was 103 feet compared to 80 feet in the original design, and the new aircraft took advantage of a more powerful engine. Its range and endurance also were greater. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U-2R, introduced in 1967, was significantly larger than the original U-2. Its wingspan was 103 feet compared to 80 feet in the original design, and the new aircraft took advantage of a more powerful engine. Its range and endurance also were greater. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U-2 was studied for use aboard aircraft carriers to extend its range, but this idea was not used operationally. Here, a U-2 lands on a carrier using an arresting hook. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U-2 was studied for use aboard aircraft carriers to extend its range, but this idea was not used operationally. Here, a U-2 lands on a carrier using an arresting hook. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The older U-2 cockpit used traditional dials and a large “driftsight” telescope to help the pilot see the landscape below. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The older U-2 cockpit used traditional dials and a large “driftsight” telescope to help the pilot see the landscape below. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U-2S’s “glass cockpit” uses modern displays and the latest electronics to keep the pilot informed. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The U-2S’s “glass cockpit” uses modern displays and the latest electronics to keep the pilot informed. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Technicians at Beale AFB, Calif., home of the USAF U-2 program, ready a U-2 and its pilot for flight in 1999. Recent updates to the aircraft’s engine and avionics keep the U-2 an important part of the USAF’s reconnaissance mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Technicians at Beale AFB, Calif., home of the USAF U-2 program, ready a U-2 and its pilot for flight in 1999. Recent updates to the aircraft’s engine and avionics keep the U-2 an important part of the USAF’s reconnaissance mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Over the years, the U-2 has been improved and modified many times. Several different models used a wide variety of sensors and cameras. The U-2 was even studied at one point for use on aircraft carriers to extend its range.

The most visible change to the U-2 was the introduction of the U-2R in 1967. Its 103-ft. wingspan was 23 feet wider than earlier U-2s, and it had a more powerful engine. The U-2R significantly expanded U-2 range and endurance and gave pilots more cockpit room, allowing them to wear full pressure suits that were more comfortable than earlier partial pressure suits. Other U-2R improvements included better electronic navigation equipment.

The versatile U-2's name has also changed to reflect its varying roles. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls it the ER-2 (for "Earth Resources" scientific research). During the later part of the Cold War, U-2s based in Europe were called TR-1s (Tactical Reconnaissance) to reflect their ground-force support role and to ease our allies' discomfort with "spy planes" based in their nations. Lockheed made 104 U-2s of all models from 1955 to 1989, including two ER-2 versions for NASA.

The U-2 continues to play a vital intelligence role. U-2s provided much of the targeting information used in Operation Desert Storm; in post-Cold War conflicts in the Balkans, U-2s provided evidence of mass graves linked to war crimes. In Afghanistan and Iraq, U-2s have used the latest electronic equipment and satellite links to deliver instant information to forces anywhere in the world. The U-2 continues to be a valuable asset to the USAF, and will likely remain so for years to come.

Click here to return to the U-2 Overview.

 

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