U-2 Spy Plane’s Retirement Signals the End of an Era

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After more than 50 years gathering intelligence 13 miles above the ground, the United States’ U-2 spy planes will be phased out and replaced by unmanned drones by 2015, The New York Times reported this week. Find out more about the long history of the high-altitude aircraft, which first took to the skies during the tense Cold War era and has played a crucial role in recent operations, particularly in Afghanistan.

Developing and Testing the U-2
High-altitude reconnaissance dates back to the American Civil War, when both the Union and Confederate armies used hot air balloons to gather intelligence about enemy troop positions. By World War II, planes and cameras had advanced enough for photoreconnaissance to play a key role in bombing campaigns. As tensions with the Soviet Union mounted in the early days of the Cold War, the United States began conducting peacetime aerial espionage missions over Russia. Existing aircraft proved vulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft missiles and radar, however, so military leaders began planning a new system based on cutting-edge planes capable of flying at 70,000 feet or higher.

In 1953, the Air Force asked several smaller aircraft manufacturers to submit proposals for the new plane. The following year, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation presented an unsolicited design, developed by the aeronautical engineer Clarence Johnson. With a single engine, glider-like wings and unconventional landing gear, the aircraft would be light enough to fly at extremely high speeds and altitudes. The Air Force rejected Johnson’s unique concept, but a group of prominent scientists and support from President Eisenhower helped convince the CIA to order 20 of the spy planes, which became known as U-2s.

Meanwhile, the astronomer…

Read more: http://www.history.com/news/2011/08/05/u-2-spy-planes-retirement-signals-the-end-of-an-era/