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The subtitle of Chris Pocock’s book says it all. 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the“Dragon Lady”  (Schiffer Military History, Atglen, Pa., 2005, $69.95) is the most complete book on the mysterious Lockheed U-2 spy plane, dubbed Dragon Lady by the U.S. Air Force, that one could ever hope for.

British writer Pocock has been researching the U-2 for more than 30 years, and he brings a multitude of fascinating facts to light that are not just interesting but groundbreaking. Using formerly highly classified information, he has come up with exclusive discoveries that will no doubt surprise even those who were intimately involved with the U-2 during its half-century of operation.

Of course, there’s Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who is credited with its original design in his famous Skunk Works in 1954, but there are a host of others like Jack Carter, Richard Leghorn, Generals Bernard Schriever and Curtis LeMay, Richard Bissell and dozens of others who participated in the many decisions that had to be made to get the original article into production, off the ground and into service. Many complicated engineering problems had to be solved to keep pilots alive, making it possible for them to endure lengthy flights at unprecedented altitudes and complete their missions.

Major General Pat Halloran, one of the early U-2 pilots, who flew the aircraft for nine years, tells about his experience in the foreword:

Each airframe seemed to have unique flying characteristics and a personality of its own. It was always an interesting experience to ease this marvelous machine above 70,000 feet, and to enjoy the unparalleled view of our private world, while at the same time trying to ignore the drawbacks.

To start with, you had to be stuffed into a horribly claustrophobic partial pressure suit. Then, you had spent two hours pre-breathing 100% oxygen, before being squeezed into a very tiny cockpit. Once airborne, you spent a great deal of time attempting to fine tune the autopilot; manage airspeed control inside the 10-knot window of the “coffin corner”; keep over 1,000 gallons of fuel balanced between those floppy wings; shoot and plot celestial navigation fixes; do map pilotage through a drift sight; and wonder how long your bladder would continue to hold on this 9-10-hour flight. That was before they added in-flight refueling to extend the range! Oh and yes, you mustn’t forget to operate your primary reconnaissance equipment on cue. That’s why you’re up there. Of course, in the back of your mind you were always anticipating the exciting landing which lay in store for you in this strange, bicycle-gear machine.

The U-2 was originally designed for photoreconnaissance through foreign airspace, especially the Soviet Union. This placed it in the world spotlight when a Soviet SA-2 missile shot down Francis Gary Powers on May 1, 1960. What has never been revealed before in such detail is the interplay and rivalry between the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force for mission control and use of the information derived from the overflights through the past five decades.

In addition to photography, electronic intelligence information about foreign missile and tracking radar sites, plus radar jamming, each new mission required new state-of-the-art camera, electronic and cockpit equipment. Pocock describes various experiments such as aircraft carrier operations that required modifications, including tail hooks and folding wings. The Cuban Crisis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the war in Vietnam gave added responsibilities to the Dragon Lady to locate mobile missile sites, storage locations, electronic emissions and enemy troop movements.

Other information the author reveals is the involvement of other nations in clandestine U-2 operations, such as the training of Nationalist Chinese and British pilots and missions flown from foreign airports. New mission requirements were added, such as nuclear air sampling and dropping of pods to clandestinely record and transmit data from Chinese nuclear tests. The book also covers search and rescue, location of capsules dropped from space, earthquake damage assessment and the National Air and Space Administration’s various aerial mapping and scanning projects, all of which required new modifications to older aircraft.

Interesting tidbits not previously known involved Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle when he was a member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. When he learned that low air pressure at high altitudes would cause jet fuel to boil away, Doolittle persuaded Shell Oil Co. to produce low vapor pressure kerosene such as that used in cigarette lighters as a new jet fuel, designated LFL-1A. After Powers was captured, Doolittle insisted on development of a map destruction capability for spy plane pilots that led to a watertight container which could be flooded on command to prevent the plane’s intended route being revealed if it was shot down over unfriendly territory.

Pocock also reveals details about the training of women U-2 pilots. Air Force Lt. Col. Troy Devine, who was the first female to qualify, later commanded a reconnaissance unit during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In another of the many milestones the book chronicles, Jim Barnes, who served as a pilot for the CIA and NASA for 32 years, holds the record for the most flight time in a U-2, with 5,862 hours.

Pocock’s book provides information on some models of the U-2 that is not generally known. There is the TR-1, actually a U-2 with updated tactical reconnaissance sensor capability, and the U-2CT, a two-place trainer built to reduce the high accident rate, especially in landings on the bicycle landing gear because of the difficulty coping with crosswinds.

The ER-2, a U-2 with a detachable nose, was built for NASA in 1981 to make earth resource surveys. Experiments were conducted with in-flight refueling and towing of a U-2 by a tanker to save fuel. Mechanical, maintenance and pilot error accidents are covered frankly. An appendix lists the several hundred pilots who have flown the U-2 between 1955 and 2004, including 29 who made the supreme sacrifice “for the mission and the welfare of mankind.”

There are several hundred photos throughout that document the life of the Air Force’s only jet tail-dragger and the routines of the men and women who fly and maintain it. The author’s endnotes are extensive and impressive. The most informative volume to date on a now historic airplane that tried to keep a low profile by flying high, this is a revealing book that is difficult to put down.

Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.