U-2 Spy Plane: The CIA’s Most Elusive Eye in the Sky

July 7, 2023Matt Fratus
u-2 spy plane

The U-2 spy plane has been flying combat operations since the 1950s and has a 97% success mission success rate in the last 10-plus years. Wikimedia Commons photo.

On the morning of May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a former United States Air Force captain turned civilian defense contractor, entered Soviet Union airspace in his single-seat U-2 spy plane. The lone pilot soared at 70,000 feet on a top-secret CIA surveillance and reconnaissance mission to capture imagery of various Soviet military sites strewn across the vast Soviet landscape. 

Powers was approximately 1,300 miles into Soviet territory when his autopilot system suddenly disengaged. Knowing that he was too far deep behind enemy lines to abort one of the Cold War’s most crucial operations, he carried on, flying the U-2 manually. Then, out of nowhere, Powers heard a faint thump, and a bright orange flash flared across his windshield, signaling that the aircraft had just sustained an indirect hit by a Soviet missile. The aircraft pitched backward and started to spiral toward the Earth, tail-first.

U-2 spy plane

Francis Gary Powers, right, with U-2 designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson in 1966. US Air Force photo.

Falling fast, Powers managed to unbuckle his seatbelt, remove the canopy, and disconnect his oxygen hoses from the dashboard. Then he hurled himself into the dark abyss and pulled the ripcord of his emergency parachute. The Russians were already there waiting for him when he landed on the ground.

Powers was apprehended and taken to Moscow, where he underwent interrogation by the KGB before being whisked away to a Soviet prison. He would remain captive for nearly two years until the US negotiated his release via a prisoner swap that took place in February 1962, at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, also known as the Bridge of Spies. The failed mission and subsequent attempts to cover it up, remembered today as the “1960 U-2 incident,” revealed the existence of a covert CIA footprint within Soviet territory — and, of course, only worsened US-Soviet relations. 

Related: SR-71 Blackbird: The Spy Plane That Could Outrun Missiles

A Skunk Works Creation

U-2 spy plane

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Aircraft instructor pilots from the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron pose for a photo in front of a two seat U-2S Dragon Lady August 17, 2012 at Beale Air Force Base, California. US Air Force photo by John Schwab.

In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev warned the world that his nation was making “missiles like sausages.” Fears of a rising — and extremely hostile — communist superpower were thus reignited in Washington, and only three years after the Russians had conducted their first successful test of a hydrogen bomb. Khrushchev accompanied his warning with a threat to shoot down any NATO aircraft that entered Soviet airspace.

Nevertheless, that summer, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes’ very first mission over the Soviet Union. The classified airframe had been in development for the previous nine months under the supervision of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, of Lockheed’s infamous Skunk Works Division. By that point, Johnson was already a legend in the aerospace industry, having achieved that status in the 1940s when he developed both the P-80, America’s first jet fighter, and the Constellation, which served as the presidential airliner during the Eisenhower administration.

U-2 spy plane

A Lockheed U-2 spy plane taxiing to depart from a runway at RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom on May 29, 2020. US Air Force photo.

On July 4, 1956, with Eisenhower’s authorization, pilot Hervey Stockman flew a U-2 from West Germany into Soviet airspace. The successful mission proved that the aircraft could safely fly at altitudes above the reach of Soviet interceptors and anti-aircraft rockets. Stockman also used the aircraft’s advanced signal intelligence technology and photography equipment to capture images of Leningrad’s shipyards.

The intelligence collected by Stockman revealed that the Soviets weren’t as ready for war as Khrushchev had let on. For one, Stockman’s images showed that Moscow had yet to advance beyond intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which were capable of reaching targets in Europe from Soviet soil, but not the United States. 

Related: The Flower-Wearing Frogman Who Welcomed Apollo 11 Astronauts Back to Earth

The Pilots Have a Special Diet — Tube Food — and Other Fun Facts

U-2 spy plane

A U-2 spy plane pilot drinking water while in the cockpit. Screenshot courtesy of YouTube.

Only about 1,100 pilots from the US, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan have flown the U-2 spy plane since it entered service in 1956. Among this exclusive group are 10 female aviators, including Ret. US Air Force Col. Merryl Tengesdal, the first (and, to date, only) Black woman to ever achieve this remarkable feat. 

Tengesdal, in her own words, is a “rare unicorn.” In 2022, she sat down for an interview for the Late Night History podcast (hosted by yours truly) to discuss her 23-year military aviation career, including her experiences flying combat missions in the U-2 over Iraq and Afghanistan. 

As Tengesdal describes it, the U-2’s single-seat cockpit is a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. Which makes remaining focused for the duration of an 8- to 12-hour mission an even more challenging task. Because pilots are breathing 100% oxygen — which increases the likelihood of dehydration — they are encouraged to drink a bottle of Gatorade or water every hour while in flight.

Since the pressure suits worn by U-2 pilots don’t allow them to flip open the visor at high altitudes, everything they consume must be in liquid form. For that reason, they eat what is known as “tube food,” which is packaged in toothpaste-like canisters with a straw that connects to a circular access point on their helmet. 

The liquidized menu options are surprisingly varied. Some are even caffeinated. “I got a chance to try hashbrowns and bacon, which was pretty good,” Tengesdal said. “My favorite was vegetarian pasta; the worst was New England Clam Chowder, which was disgusting.”

Related: 4 Barriers Astronauts Overcame To Enjoy Coffee in Space

More U-2 Spy Plane Trivia

U-2 spy plane

Retired Col. Merryl Tengesdal stands in front of a U-2 spy plane on Feb. 9, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, California. Tengesdal is the only Black female U-2 pilot in history. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Bobby Cummings.

  • U-2 pilot Maj. Richard Heyser photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile during its assembly in Cuba on October 14, 1962, uncovering Russia’s military activities on the island and initiating the nuclear standoff that would escalate into the Cuban Missile Crisis. 
  • In 1963, the CIA and US Navy collaborated on Project Whale Tale, which culminated in the first successful launch of a U-2 spy plane from an aircraft carrier. 
  • During the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwanese pilots from the “Black Cat Squadron” were covertly trained by the CIA to fly the U-2, and used the aircraft to conduct secret reconnaissance missions over China. 
  • The U-2 is considered one of the most challenging airframes to fly, and often requires a high-performance “chase” car to ensure a safe landing. The drivers of the chase car provide the U-2 pilot with crucial guidance, such as altitude adjustments and railway alignments.
  • All U-2s belong to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California, but are dispersed among various operational detachments around the world. They have flown missions in support of the Global War on Terror, and in the past 10-plus years have maintained a 97% mission success rate.

Read Next: Project Whale Tale: Why U-2 Spy Planes Train To Fly From Aircraft Carriers

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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