Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to correct an inaccuracy on how Powers’s U-2 was shot down.
The United States is a force to be reckoned with. Go to some of the most remote places in the world, unfurl the flag, and they know what country it represents.
America’s ingenuity is astounding. As a country of 300 million people, we are now relatively few compared to the billions in China and India. But we continue to produce and foster the world’s most brilliant minds as we have for hundreds of years, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. Because no matter how much countries like China steal intellectual property, they will always be one step behind while we are reinventing the future.
There are so many technologies that display this spirit, but there is one to rule them all.
It is not the iPhone, radio, or light bulbs. It’s the U-2 spy plane.
A spy plane from the cold war? Absolutely. And here’s why.
In 1953 the U.S. military needed a better way to conduct aerial surveillance on the Soviets. In response, a seemingly impossible idea started to circulate around the military community — a plane that could fly so high it would be untouchable.
Under the codename “Bald Eagle,” the task to make it a reality was contracted out to a few cutting-edge aerospace corporations. But, when Lockheed heard it wasn’t among the corporations chosen, it decided to nevertheless create it first.
I first heard this story in the living room of my grandfather. I can still see us, tucked into his corner of a retirement community the light streaming in through his house’s large windows. The living room is adorned with artifacts of his many adventures; a seal paperweight from Alaska, candle holders with tusk supports from Africa, and dozens of his wildlife photos of Antarctic penguins and savannah lions. Everything was centered around a revolving globe on the glass coffee table between us.
His tall stature mirrors his unwavering rationality and rigid morality. He doesn’t do small talk or long goodbyes, instead, he has been contributing to a savings fund for each of my siblings for over a decade. He walks with the speed and purpose of a native New Yorker but has the attentiveness to remember the grower, winery, and history behind every single one of the hundreds of bottles of wine in his cellar. He had a few points off a perfect SAT score, went to two Ivy League schools to study physics, and now enjoys retirement alongside his adoring wife and his best friend, a gorgeous, rambunctious blue poodle.
I’ve visited him many times over the years, and I cherish our long talks in that living room.
A month before my most recent visit with him, I had briefly mentioned my fascination with the U-2 spy plane. It was a plane whose history my grandfather had extensively studied. So, one afternoon during my stay, he explained the physics of the plane’s design and the story of how Lockheed was able to create it.
As my grandfather tells it, it all starts with their star engineer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Johnson was a giant in the aeronautics community. He was known for getting it done and getting it done ahead of schedule with his “Skunk Works” team. His team, named after a moonshine factory in the old Lil’ Abner comics, had a hangar given exclusively to them. Some say that he had so much respect in the military community that he could call the secretary of an admiral in the middle of the week for an appointment and the four-star officer would clear his schedule to hear what he had in mind. Now that’s badass.
Yet, this plane was going to be no easy task. To fly that high for hours a plane needed to be extremely flexible and light. But, the atmosphere at 70,000 feet is so thin that flying even a few mph too slow would result in the plane tumbling out of the sky due to lack of lift. On the other hand, flying a few mph too fast would approach the speed of sound and develop a “Mach buffet” because of the wings’ straight shape: in other words, the Mach buffet would create sonic booms across the wings that would tear the plane apart. This left a 12 mph margin of error in a plane flying hundreds of miles per hour. Aviators know this margin as the coffin corner.
This challenge was surmounted by Johnson’s brilliant design. Long slender wings like a glider, single-seat, and, to the shock of many, no side landing gear. With just two fragile wheels in a bicycle configuration; landing the U-2 is essentially a controlled crash.
My grandfather highlighted this remarkable aspect of the U-2. Ace pilots from the military would enroll in the exclusive U-2 pilot program. They could fly countless aircraft exceptionally well, and many would be able to master the tedious art of flying that beast. Yet, some, for reasons still unknown, some would never be able to learn to land it.
So how do you land a U-2? Well, first you have to stall the plane two feet above the ground. Otherwise, the landing gear won’t be able to support the plane’s weight. Then the plane will tilt and fall on one wing and grind across the ground on the special metal section under each wing. Then, when you come to a stop, the airway crew will lift up the plane’s wings and place wheel platforms (called pogos) under them to allow you to taxi.
Keep in mind that you can’t actually see the runway during any of this, since the plane’s long nose, which stores electronics obscures, a downwards view. So, a chase car containing another U-2 pilot drives under you, sometimes at over a hundred miles per hour, feeding you crucial information like your altitude. Furthermore, the smallest wrong movement would result in the plane climbing incredibly fast away from the runway.
Due to such complications associated with the plane, a period of a year elapsed during which other manufacturers had their products accepted and operated. However, they all had flaws too prominent to overlook, such as being susceptible to surface-to-air missiles or having too small of a flight time. Thus, the CIA finally decided that Lockheed’s U-2 was their best shot.
And it worked fantastically. It would take off on a set flight path, fly for hours surveying, and return with the vital information the U.S. needed to keep tabs on every Soviet move. During the wars in Korea and Vietnam, it continued excelling.
Surveillance equipment was also constantly improving: a breakthrough in surveillance was made when computers were used to analyze differences in photographs. So the plane would fly the same path, take photographs of the same location multiple times, overlay them, and examine the differences.
My grandfather had a laugh at some of the results. A photo of a line of five pine trees would be taken followed by another photo the next day. Suddenly there were six pine trees, so he quips that the analysts had to figure out how likely it was that a tree could just grow overnight. Eh… probably not likely, so there’s the Soviets’ newest radio tower. Point your receivers there, try out the most common radio frequencies, intercept the communication. As easy as that.
But, it is important to acknowledge the events of 1960 when Francis Gary Powers, flying his U-2 at the assigned altitude of 70,500 feet, was shot down by the near-miss of a Soviet SA-2 missile.
U-2 is so reliable that to this day it is used as an integral part of the American surveillance program. To improve capability and survivability in the late 1960s, the design was scaled up by about a third and dubbed the U-2R. Then it was returned to production again in the 1980s as the TR-1 “TR” standing for “Tactical Reconnaissance” as the planes were used frequently to monitor Soviet forces near the German border. The TR-1 was practically the same aircraft as the U-2R with different wiring for different sensors.
Neither satellite imagery nor unmanned drones have been reliable and cost-effective enough to negate the brilliant engineering of a plane initially designed over 50 years ago.
And that is the heart of the American spirit. Lockheed wasn’t initially contracted to build the U-2 spy plane, but it did it anyway. When countless people thought that taking off a landing gear was insane, Kelly Johnson didn’t. Then, the most talented pilots in the world learned to tame the monster. And the result of the relentless drive and innovation of the most brilliant minds in aviation is a plane that still stands the test of time.
My grandfather has traveled the world. One day I asked him if he would ever visit Russia. He answered that he likely wouldn’t because it would be strange to visit cities that he remembers primarily as targets for nuclear weapons. I can’t blame him. It’s a small consequence of the magnificent aviation innovation that the Cold War inspired.