What Makes the Legendary U-2 Spy Plane the Hardest Plane to Fly in the World?

The U-2 spy plane is a USAF Cold War legend still in service more than 60 years after its first flight.
Aloha Dragon Lady

The U-2 spy plane aircraft had quite unique characteristics that made it reach heights that no other spy aircraft could reach. However, its extravagant and unique design also made it very difficult to control.

Featuring a distinctive design that results in the aircraft measuring almost twice as wide as it is long, it is among one of the US Air Force’s most recognizable aircraft – and the most difficult to fly for pilots no matter how much experience and flying hours they had.

The U-2 Dragon Lady

U-2 spy plane with Experiments
U-2 spy plane with Experiments by Peter Wegner. Public Domain

The U-2 spy plane, nicknamed the Dragon Lady, is a single-engine, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force (USAF).

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It has been extensively used for reconnaissance missions since its inception in the 1950s. The Dragon Lady has flown over the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, providing valuable intelligence to the United States. 

In recent years, it has been deployed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… And despite all the decades in operation, it remains a key part of the US Air Force.

One of the toughest planes to fly

U2 Dragon
U2 Dragon by Josie Anderson. Public Domain

The problem with this aircraft is that its engineering design was so different from other planes that it required different piloting techniques – and reaching such high altitudes made it even more difficult to fly.

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At high altitudes (stratosphere), the pilot is really an astronaut more than an aircraft pilot. The aircraft is flown by a pilot wearing a pressure suit, and it has a very narrow flight envelope. So, pilots must undergo extensive training before they are certified to fly the aircraft.

U-2 Spy Plane Dragon Lady
U-2 Spy Plane Dragon Lady by Eric Harris, Public Domain.

Moreover, they have to deal with the lack of oxygen when working at such high altitudes. That’s why they are dressed as astronauts.

External view of U-2 near maximum service ceiling
External view of U-2 near-maximum service ceiling by Andrew Buchanan. Public Domain

The trickiest thing about this aircraft is that when it reaches its ceiling, i.e., more than 24 km (80,000 feet) of altitude, it must be maneuvered at a certain speed with a minimum margin of error since the aircraft has a very lightweight design.

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Likewise, because of its lightweight design, the aircraft is susceptible to strong winds, making it quite unstable.

This is a problem, especially during takeoff and landing, which is one of the riskiest phases of flight with this aircraft.

The U-2 spy plane modernization process

Lockheed U-2 Spy Plane
Lockheed U-2 Spy Plane by D. Miller. Licensed under CC by 2.0

This aircraft has remained in use because spy satellites aren’t always the best solution for spying on enemies. Many satellites can be jammed from the ground and rendered useless, while this aircraft can do the job under any circumstances.

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Consequently, Lockheed has been working on a modernization program for the U-2 spy plane that includes new engines, avionics, and sensor suites. The program’s goal is to keep the Dragon Lady relevant until a new aircraft or drone takes its place. 

But, the plane also comes with some technical drawbacks that make it quite vulnerable. The plane is far from being stealthy and an operation in enemy territory means being discovered… and this could be the death blow to the U-2 spy plane project.

Specs

Christopher Michel suited up for a flight in the Lockheed U-2
Christopher Michel suited up for a flight in the Lockheed U-2 by Christopher Michel. Licensed under CC by 2.0
  • Crew: 1
  • Capacity: 5,000 pounds (2,300 kilograms)
  • Length: 63 feet (19.20 meters)
  • Height: 16 feet (4.88 meters)
  • Wingspan: 103 feet (31 meters)
  • Fuel capacity: 2,950 gallons (11,200 liters)
  • Empty weight: 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms)
  • Max takeoff weight: 40,000 pounds (18,144 kilograms)
  • Cruise speed: 475 mph or 765 km/h
  • Range: 7,010 miles, 11,280 kilometers 
  • Endurance: 12 hours
  • Service ceiling: 80,000 feet (24,000 meters) 
  • Time to altitude: 60,000 feet or 18,000 miles (in 12 mins 30 secs)

With drones, it seems that the U2 spy plane’s days are numbered

This aircraft is one of the remaining Cold War survivors still working in the USAF.

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However, with today’s technological advances, its technology will likely be surpassed entirely in the coming years and replaced by much more effective unmanned aircraft… and above all, stealthy ones.


Feature image credit: Aloha Dragon Lady by Heather Salazar. Public Domain.