There’s always been something mystical and awesome about the U-2s airborne reconnaissance aircraft. A product of Lockheed-Martin’s Skunk Works, it is essentially a jet-powered glider loaded with all sorts of cameras and other techno-goodies. It’s sinister. It’s black. It has a wingspan almost twice the length of its fuselage. The pilot wears a pressure suit like an astronaut’s. It’s…the Dragon Lady.

In order to better understand what you’re about so see, let’s talk physics for a moment. In order to reach an operating altitude some thirteen miles above the ground, you can either use ridiculous amounts of thrust and awesome aerodynamics as with the SR-71 Blackbird, or you can make an aircraft very light in its body with a good thrust-to-weight ratio and really long wings.

The U-2 is definitely the latter. It’s powered by the General Electric F-118-GE-101 engine, a modified version of the same powerplant in the Northrop-Grumman B-2A Spirit. In essence, it’s a Viper’s engine–without the afterburner. It’s also lighter weight-wise than the original Pratt & Whitney J57 motor, but features increased performance in both thrust and efficiency. The jet can stay airborne more than ten hours.

A Lockheed-Martin U-2S "Dragon Lady" reconnaissance aircraft prepares to touch down at Beale AFB, California. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
A Lockheed-Martin U-2S “Dragon Lady” reconnaissance aircraft prepares to touch down at Beale AFB, California. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The U-2s wings are very long, thin in profile and, consequently, not very sturdy. In order to mitigate the chance of the wings slapping the ground when the aircraft is taxiing and full of fuel, or when the aircraft recovers, a special system was designed to provide wheels out near the wingtips. When the Dragon Lady takes off, the wingtip landing gear simply detaches as the jet leaves the ground and is left behind. When the airplane lands, chase vehicles pull in behind it in order to plug the wingtip gear back into place.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not.

Simply put, the U-2 is one of the most difficult aircraft in the world to land. With massive flaps that drop into the slipstream, combined with the lightweight fuselage, the slightest bit of over correction on the part of the pilot–or a nasty crosswind component–can wreak havoc on the landing sequence.

So take a look at the video and do your best not to cringe!

U-2S Reconnaissance Aircraft
  • Length: 63 ft
  • Height: 16.7 ft
  • Wingspan: 103 ft
  • Maximum weight: 40,000 lb
  • Cruise speed: 475 mph
  • Payload: 5,000 lb / 2,268 kg
  • Ceiling: Above 70,000 ft
  • Range: Greater than 6,000 miles

(Featured photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force/9th Reconnaissance Wing)