Why is the U-2 still the best spy plane in the world?

U-2 dragon lady
U-2 dragon lady

Militarymedia.net | The United States' longest-serving military aircraft first flew in 1955 and remains the best spy plane despite being the most difficult to fly.

While we are talking about the presentation of the new American B-21 bomber, about the performance of fifth-generation Air Force fighters such as the F-35 or F-22, about futuristic projects. The best aircraft that has served the United States of America in the last 60 years, it is still active today and, for now, irreplaceable.

U-2 dragon lady, single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft used by the United States Air Force (USAF) and previously by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It performs all-weather surveillance missions at altitudes above 21,000 m. The aircraft also conducts research and development of electronic sensors, satellite calibration and validation of satellite data. Its long, narrow wings give it glider-like characteristics and allow it to quickly lift heavy sensor payloads to unrivaled heights, keeping them there for long periods of time.

Built in absolute secrecy by Kelly Johnson and Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955, although it was not until two years later, in 1957, that it joined the USAF. Its ability to operate anytime and anywhere makes it, regardless of the time that has passed, an important aircraft for the United States Air Force. Its special design makes it an agile and reliable high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft that flies 24/7/365 to ensure global security with unrivaled performance.

The first flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the United States with key intelligence about Soviet military capabilities. In October 1962, U-2 photographed an offensive Soviet nuclear missile buildup on Cuba, triggering the Missile Crisis. More recently, the U-2 has provided intelligence during operations in Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U-2 also provides peacetime reconnaissance in support of flood, earthquake and forest fire relief, as well as search and rescue operations.

Its unique modular design and easy adaptation to new technologies, allow it to be “transformed” in just a few weeks without the need for major development investments. In addition, new versions have been created according to changing needs. Thus the U-2R, which first flew in 1967, was 40% larger and more capable than the original aircraft. The tactical reconnaissance version, the TR-1A, first flew in August 1981 and is structurally identical to the U-2R.

The last U-2 and TR-1 aircraft were delivered in October 1989; in 1992, all TR-1 and U-2 were designated as U-2R. Since 1994, $1.7 billion has been spent on modernizing the airframe and sensors. The upgrade also included a transition to the GE F118-101 engine which resulted in the redesign of all Air Force U-2 aircraft into the U-2S.

U-2 is based in the USAF 9th Reconnaissance Wing in Beale, California, but rotates to operational detachments worldwide. U-2 pilots train at base in five two-seat aircraft designated TU-2S before being deployed for operational missions.

According to the United States Air Force itself, there are currently 33 aircraft in operation, 28 single-seat, two of which are in use by NASA, and five two-seat are mentioned for training.

One of its great strengths is its ability to collect a wide range of images, including synthetic, infrared, and multispectral electro-optical aperture radar products that can be stored or transmitted to ground-based mining centres. In addition, it also supports the wide, high-resolution synoptic coverage provided by traditional film-generating optical cameras that are developed and analyzed on landing. It also carries a payload of signal intelligence. All intelligence products except film can be transmitted in near real-time anywhere in the world via air-to-ground or air-satellite data links, quickly providing combatant commanders with vital information.

U-2 dragon lady
U-2 dragon lady

It routinely flies at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet, so U-2 pilots must wear full pressure suits similar to those worn by astronauts. The low-altitude handling characteristics of bicycle-type aircraft and landing gear require precise control inputs during landing; Forward visibility was also limited due to the extended nose of the aircraft and the "tail tow" configuration. The second U-2 pilot typically "chases" each landing in a high-performance vehicle, assisting the pilot by providing radio input for altitude and runway alignment. This combination of characteristics has earned the U-2 the widely accepted title of the world's most difficult aircraftto be flown.

The U-2 is powered by the lightweight and fuel-efficient General Electric F118-101 engine, which eliminates the need for aerial refueling on long-range missions. The U-2S Block 10 electrical system upgrade replaces legacy cables with advanced fiber-optic technology and reduced overall electronic noise signature to provide a quieter platform for the new generation of sensors.

Today and despite its longevity, it seems unlikely that the USAF would have succeeded without its services. In fact, more than 67 years after its first flight, it can go on to say that it is one of the most modern aircraft in the world, because it has adapted its technology to the latest advances: the U-2 can communicate securely and simultaneously at all tactical, operational, and strategic levels. in various domains. In addition, the Avionics Tech Refresh system accelerates future battlefield capabilities, making it the first fully Open Mission System (OMS) compliant fleet, providing the ability to deploy and deploy new capabilities quickly and affordably, to support future battlespace operations. front. The system promises true plug and play functionality for air communications, electronic warfare and sensor systems.

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