U-2 | Facts, Plane, History, & Incident (2024)

United States aircraft

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Also known as: Dragon Lady

Written and fact-checked by

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica Encyclopaedia Britannica's editors oversee subject areas in which they have extensive knowledge, whether from years of experience gained by working on that content or via study for an advanced degree. They write new content and verify and edit content received from contributors.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Last Updated: Article History

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Key People:
Ben R. Rich
Kelly Johnson
Francis Gary Powers
Related Topics:
reconnaissance aircraft

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Top Questions

Who designed the U-2 plane?

The U-2 aircraft was designed by aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson, head of the Lockheed Corporation's famous, semisecret "Skunk Works." It was based on the fuselage of the supersonic F-104 Starfighter interceptor.

When did the U-2 first fly?

A prototype of the U-2 aircraft first flew in 1955.

How high can the U-2 aircraft fly?

The U-2 aircraft, built of aluminum and limited to subsonic flight, can cruise for many hours above 70,000 feet (21,000 meters) with a payload weighing 3,000 pounds (1,350 kg). Its exact operational specifications are secret.

When was the last U-2 built?

The last aircraft in the U-2 series was built in 1989.

What is the U-2 Incident?

The U-2 Incident was a confrontation in 1960 between the United States and the Soviet Union that began with the shooting down of a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union and caused the collapse of a summit conference in Paris. The pilot was sentenced to 10 years’ confinement, but he was exchanged for a Soviet spy in 1962.

U-2, single-seat, high-altitude jet aircraft flown by the United States for intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Perhaps the most famous spy plane ever built, the U-2, also known as the Dragon Lady, has been in service since 1956. A prototype flew in 1955, and the last plane in the series was built in 1989.

At first the plane was used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to monitor electronic emissions, to sample the upper atmosphere for evidence of nuclear weapons tests, and to photograph sites deep within the territory of the Soviet Union, China, and other Cold War enemies. On May 1, 1960, a U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union, precipitating the U-2 Affair, and in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, a U-2 took photographs that confirmed the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. Strategic intelligence-gathering missions have continued, but the U-2 also has been used for battlefield reconnaissance and surveillance in numerous conflicts and tension spots where the United States has been engaged since the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Over its long service life the U-2 has periodically faced competition from other intelligence-gathering systems—for instance, Earth-orbiting satellites or the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird spy plane—but intelligence and military services consistently have found it useful because of its operational flexibility, excellent aerodynamic design, and adaptable airframe. In 2011 the USAF indicated that the U-2 was scheduled for retirement from service sometime after 2015, with many of its functions to be adopted by high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. With the expansion of the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in 2014, however, the retirement of the U-2 was pushed back indefinitely.

The U-2, built of aluminum and limited to subsonic flight, can cruise for many hours above 70,000 feet (21,000 metres) with a payload weighing as much as 3,000 pounds (1,350 kg). Its exact operational specifications are secret. It was designed by Kelly Johnson, head of the Lockheed Corporation’s famous, semisecret “Skunk Works,” based on the fuselage of the supersonic F-104 Starfighter interceptor. In the late 1960s the airframe was enlarged by more than one-third over the original structure, bringing the aircraft to a fuselage length of 63 feet (19 metres) and a wingspan of 104 feet (32 metres). An array of systems for mapping and imaging terrain, detecting communication signals, and performing a host of other intelligence-gathering and surveillance activities is installed in bays located in the aircraft’s nose, in the fuselage behind the pilot, and in large pods located at mid-wing. Most of these systems operate autonomously or under the control of operators located on the ground. The pilot, wearing a sealed pressure suit and breathing bottled oxygen, is almost exclusively concerned with flying the plane.

Since the 1980s the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has operated modified U-2s, designated ER-2 (for “Earth resources”), for the collection of data on the atmosphere, Earth, and celestial phenomena.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia BritannicaThis article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn.

U-2 | Facts, Plane, History, & Incident (2024)

FAQs

What happened in the U-2 incident summary? ›

The U-2 incident was a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that began with the shooting down of a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union in 1960 and that caused the collapse of a summit conference in Paris between the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France.

What are some interesting facts about the U-2 plane? ›

The design was powered by the General Electric J73 engine and took off from a special cart and landed on its belly. It could reach an altitude of 73,000 feet (22,300 m) and had a 1,600 mi (1,400 nmi; 2,600 km) radius. The reconnaissance aircraft was essentially a jet-powered glider.

How many U2 spy planes have been shot down? ›

The U-2 has a long and storied history when it comes to espionage battles between the US and China. In the 1960s and 1970s, at least five of them were shot down while on surveillance missions over China. Those losses haven't been as widely reported as might be expected – and for good reason.

Was a U2 spy plane shot down over Cuba? ›

But the problem in the situation in Cuba is that any escalation could lead eventually to nuclear conflict. And this, of course, became a direct problem on the 27th of October 1962, when Major Rudolf Anderson piloting a U-2 on a reconnaissance flight over Cuba was shot down by a Soviet surface to air missile.

What was JFK's response to the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane over Cuba? ›

While Kennedy and his crisis advisers debated this dangerous turn in negotiations, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed. To the dismay of the Pentagon, Kennedy forbade a military retaliation unless any more surveillance planes were fired upon over Cuba.

What was the U-2 incident quizlet? ›

1960, when an American U2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and the summit collapsed.

How fast does a U-2 plane fly? ›

With a cruise speed of 475 miles per hour and a wingspan of 103 feet, the Dragon Lady loves to fly. And when it comes to capturing data, flying at a high altitude is essential. The U-2 has demonstrated that the sweet spot for an ISR platform is 70,000 feet, and today's U-2 engine, an F118 GE 101, gets the U-2 there.

Is the U-2 spy plane still in service? ›

The U-2 is heading for retirement by 2026 due to budget concerns, according to a new report. While no replacement for the iconic U-2 Dragon Lady has officially been named, one likely candidate is the classified Northrop Grumman RQ-180 stealth drone, about which little is known.

Why is the U-2 so hard to fly? ›

With its long wings, light construction, and unusual landing gear, the Dragon Lady has always been a challenge even for the best pilots.

How long can a U-2 spy plane stay in the air? ›

As a newly qualified U-2 pilot at Beale (i.e. between deployments), expect to fly the U-2 about once per week, and the T-38 about twice per week. On the road, you will fly an operational sortie every 4-6 days. These last 6-12 hours, depending on the mission.

Can you see a U-2 spy plane from the ground? ›

No the U2 fly at very high altitude and can't be seen by naked eyes.

How did China shoot down U-2? ›

During the squadron's 14 years of existence, five U-2s were shot down by PRC air defenses (using S-75 Dvina missiles), with three pilots killed and two captured.

Was the U-2 incident good for America? ›

The U-2 incident shattered the amiable "Spirit of Camp David" that had prevailed for eight months, prompting the cancellation of the summit in Paris and embarrassing the U.S. on the international stage.

What did the U-2 spy plane see? ›

Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other U.S. decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability. In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What was the U-2 incident 4 marks? ›

The U-2 incident was an event where the Soviet Air Defence systems shot down the U.S. reconnaissance plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. Who was involved in the U-2 affair? The parties involved in the U-2 incident were the Soviet Union and the United States. The incident took place in May 1960.

What was the cause of the U-2 crisis? ›

Nuclear weapons and the need for a Test Ban Treaty: both sides knew the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and wanted to avoid turning more of the planet into radioactive no-go areas. Berlin: The Soviets were exasperated that East Berliners were escaping to the West in significant numbers.

How did the U-2 incident serve as a turning point between the US and the USSR in Eisenhower's term? ›

The U-2 incident had convinced Khrushchev that he could no longer cooperate with Eisenhower, and the Soviet leader walked out of the Paris meeting just hours after it began. Soviet negotiators also abandoned talks on nuclear disarmament the following month.

Why does the US care about what happened to a U-2 plane in 1960 during the Cold War? ›

At the height of the cold war, as critics of the Eisenhower administration complained about the growing "missile gap," the United States secretly gathered data on Soviet missile capabilities through photographs obtained from U-2 reconnaissance plane overflights of the Soviet Union.

What happened in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? ›

In 1962 the Soviet Union began to secretly install missiles in Cuba to launch attacks on U.S. cities. The confrontation that followed, known as the Cuban missile crisis, brought the two superpowers to the brink of war before an agreement was reached to withdraw the missiles.

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