First flown in August 1955, the Lockheed U-2 has an endurance record few aircraft can match: It’s still in service today with the U.S. Air Force on high-altitude reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan. The storied Dragon Lady is expected to continue flying until about 2023.
Initial testing of the classified aircraft was done at Groom Lake (pictured above), a remote dry lake in Nevada nicknamed “The Ranch” and now known as Area 51. The aircraft were airlifted in pieces from Lockheed’s Burbank, California plant to Groom Lake and assembled there. These CIA aircraft carry fictional National Advisory Council for Aeronautics insignia and numbers.
Because the U-2 flew at altitudes of 70,000 feet or more, its pilots had to wear pressurized suits for safety. Even so, U-2 pilots run the risk of getting high-altitude induced compression sickness on missions lasting up to 10 hours.
The U-2 has undergone many modifications over the years. In 1975, an Air Force U-2C was painted from its usual black finish to a gray camouflage pattern to ease British concerns about “spy planes” operating from that country. This particular airplane tested equipment designed to locate enemy surface-to-air missile sites in eastern Europe.
Air Force Staff Sergeant Joshua Montgomery inspects an air intake on a Dragon Lady assigned to the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia in November 2010.
Airman First Class Julianne McCall prepares to refill the liquid oxygen system of a U-2 at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia in December 2010. Pilots flying the high-altitude missions breathe the oxygen inside their pressurized suits.
An airman with the 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron races to put a wing wheel called a pogo on a Dragon Lady at an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia in March 2010. The pogos help support the wings during taxiing and takeoffs.