The U-2 is a tiring aircraft to fly, three quarters of it's takeoff weight is fuel and it's operational flying speed is only 24 mph above stall speed at maximum altitude. The U2 design was to be able to fly at altitudes of 70,000 ft and above where it was above interception by ground and air launched weapons, unfortunately design of interceptor aircraft such as the English Electric Lightening and surface to air missiles (SAM's) soon caught up, the Lockheed U-2 "Dragon Lady" is however currently destined to remain operational until 2023 (a January 2012 statement ).
The first over-flight of the Soviet Union by a Lockheed U-2 spy-plane was made in June 1956, the aircraft taking off from the Army Airfield in Wiesbaden, Germany. There were a total of twenty four U2 flights over the Soviet Union between the 4th Jul 1956 and 1st May 1960. The last five U2 Soviet Over-flight Missions were flown from Peshawar in northern Pakistan by RAF and USAF pilots, the last U2 Soviet Over-flight Mission came to public attention when, on the 1st of May 1960, USAF pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by S-75 Dvina high altitude Guided missiles over Soviet territory at a height previously thought to be unreachable by any form of Soviet missile (they also are believed to have shot down one of their own MiG's at the same time), a major and very embarrassing Crisis immediately followed and U2 Soviet Union over-flights ceased. The increased range of Russian SAM's indicated by this crisis led to CIA funded developments cumulating in the super-fast high-flying SR-71 Blackbird. It is of note that the use of RAF pilots was authorised by Eisenhower on the basis that it would give the US a degree of plausible deniability if things went wrong, unfortunately for Eisenhower when things did go wrong it was a USAF pilot in the cockpit...
A standoff tactical reconnaissance version of the U2 first flew in August 1981 for use over Europe and was designated the TR-1A. The aircraft has a large and distinctive instrumentation pod under each wing but is structurally the same as the U-2R. The TR-1A was operated by the 17th Reconnaissance Wing based at RAF Alconbury in England from 1983 until 1991.
Lockheed U-2R Specifications:
- Crew: Pilot only
- Length: 62 ft 9 in (19.1 m)
- Wingspan: 103 ft (30.9 m)
- Height: 16 ft 1 in (4.8 m)
- Max takeoff weight: 41,000 lb (18,600 kg)
- Engine: Single 17,000 lbf (76 kN) Pratt & Whitney J75-P-13B turbojet
- Maximum speed: 510 mph (821 km/h)
- Range: 3,500 mi (5,633 km)
- Service ceiling: 90,000 ft (27,430 m)