Once upon a time there was a Dragonlady who could fly very, very high, but she found it incredibly difficult to land safely……
Luckily her trusty Pontiac G8 was there to help her come back down to earth safe and sound every time.
The Lockheed U-2 “Dragonlady” is a long-range high altitude (above 70,000 feet), all-weather, single engined reconnaissance spy aircraft operated by the USAF. A key characteristic of the U-2 is it’s massive glider like wingspan that helps to provide lift and maintain cruising speeds for up to 12 hours at such high altitude.
The U-2 was first introduced in 1956 and with the ongoing development of later variants continues in front line service today (airframes were produced between 1954-1968 and then again between 1979-1989 with numerous equipment upgrades since then). According to Lockheed Martin the current U-2S is 40% larger and carries four times the number of intelligence gathering equipment than those used in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The current fleet of around twenty six U-2 aircraft are expected to operate until 2023 when they are planned to be replaced by long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s).
The USAF use the V8 version of the Pontiac G8 as a high-speed chase car that is used to drive alongside the U-2 at about 160kmh /100 mph so another U-2 pilot driving the car can guide the flying pilot safely during take off and landing. Upon take off detachable “pogo” wingtip outrigger gears are released that keep the wings stable, but the aircraft is difficult to control at low altitude, can tend to float over the ground and is highly susceptible to cross winds making it very difficult to land. It’s bicycle undercarriage, a big wingspan that is tricky to keep level (once the aircraft begins to stop the pilot lowers a wing to the ground) and the need to stall the aircraft two feet above the ground to stop the massive wings generating lift, so it can land also adds to this difficulty (an exhausting experience I am sure!). Flying up at 70,000 feet on the other hand is what it was designed for and this is where it flys best.
The Pontiac G8 is actually an export version of a car that has a long lineage in Australia, the Holden Commodore. This classic Aussie car has been produced by General Motors Holden since 1978. The G8 was released by Pontiac as an export version of the Commodore between 2008 and 2009 with both V6 and V8 engines. Prior to this they used another export version of a classic Aussie muscle car the Holden Monaro (2005-2006 version) that was rebadged as the Pontiac GTO. The Monaro was originally produced in Australia between 1968-1977 and then again between 2001-2005.
The Lockheed U-2 “Dragonlady“ came to fame during the Cold War on May 1st, 1960 when one flown by Francis Gary Powers (a former USAF Captain flying for the Central Intelligence Agency) was shot down over the USSR on a secret joint CIA/USAF spy mission (during the Cold War they were using the aircraft not only over Soviet territory but also other communist countries such as The Peoples Republic of China, North Vietnam and Cuba). An earlier mission in May 1960 over the USSR had been detected by the Soviets but their fighter aircraft failed to intercept the U-2 which had taken off from Pakistan and landed in Iran. As such by May 1960 Soviet air defences were on high alert and unfortunately for Francis Gary Powers they were on the lookout for more U-2 flights.
Following the disappearance of the U-2 flown by Powers the US government denied the purpose of the aircrafts mission. A press release on May 6th, 1960 stated it was a NASA aircraft used for scientific weather research purposes that had gone off course and was now missing (they even had a U-2 painted up to back up the story!), but they were embarrassed by the Soviets when they not only produced the wreckage of the aircraft but also the pilot and photos taken of Soviet bases (Powers was unable to activate the aircraft self-destruct mechanism before bailing out)!
Powers was not shot down by Soviet fighter aircraft though, he was flying at high altitiude where they were unable to intercept him, instead he was brought down by a SA-2 Surface to Air Missile. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in the USSR for espionage but was released in 1962 in a spy swap and returned to the USA (despite extreme interrogation over those 2 years in the USSR he did not reveal any US secrets). He was awarded the CIA Intelligence Star in 1963.
Powers later became a test pilot for Lockheed between 1963-1970, then a airborne traffic reporter. He died at just 47 in a helicopter crash in 1977. Posthumously Powers was awarded a number of medals that were presented to his family including the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 2000, the CIA Directors Medal in 2000 for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty; and the Silver Star in 2012 for demonstrating exceptional loyalty whilst enduring 2 years of harsh interrogation.
The Powers incident was not the only famous U-2 Cold War incident. On October 7th, 1962 another U-2 flown by Major Rudolph Anderson of the USAF was shot down over Cuba by two SA-2 missiles fired by a Soviet crew during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This U-2 incident was during possibly the most tense period of the Cold War when Soviet medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles were being deployed in Cuba to potentially strike the USA. Following a successful US naval blockade of Cuba that stopped further missiles being delivered (despite Soviet ships attempting to cross the blockade line) and negotiations between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy the missiles already deployed along with Illyushin Il-28 bombers were removed and a nuclear conflict was thankfully averted (the US also secretly agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy as part of the deal).
Major Rudolph Anderson (1927-1962) was the only person killed by enemy fire during the 13 day Cuban confrontation. By the order of President John F. Kennedy he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross for heroism (the second highest award for heroism of the USAF following the Medal of Honour).
From Cold War beginnings the “Dragonlady“ continues to serve successfully on the frontline today, providing reconnaissance where satellites and UAV’s are not always practical. It is amazing to think that for over 50 years the U-2 has remained an incredibly vital component of the US Military. The “Dragonlady“ truly flys higher and better than them all!