From the Shadows – Early History of the U-2

U-2 reconnaissance aircraft spy plane

By Chris Pocock

This article appeared in the January 2002 issue of Code One Magazine.

The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, though designed and developed in great secrecy five decades ago, has somehow never fully emerged from the shadows even though it has outlasted one successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, and its production line has been re-opened twice. Now, the U-2 carries imaging and signals intelligence sensors that are as sophisticated as any in the US inventory. Over Iraq during Desert Storm, then over Bosnia, Kosovo, and most recently over Afghanistan, these high-flying eyes and ears have proved indispensable. In the obscure world of aerial reconnaissance, most of the attention, and most of the praise, has gone to other platforms.

The last thing the architects of the U-2 program were seeking in late 1954 was attention. As a panel of six notable scientists from New England led by Dr. Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Company, their task was to advise President Dwight D. Eisenhower on how the United States might overcome the threat of a surprise nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. With the Iron Curtain fully drawn by this time, most Soviet military developments were masked from Western eyes.

The Land Panel championed a radical solution for aerial reconnaissance rejected by the US Air Force some months earlier, the CL-282 proposed by the Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank, California. Chief engineer Kelly Johnson took the fuselage from his recent XF-104 design, shortened it by five feet, and added a high-aspect, low thickness ratio wing. Weight could be saved in constructing these long wings thanks to an innovation known as gust control, the ailerons deflected upwards simultaneously to carry the increased loads encountered below 35,000 feet. Thanks also to other extraordinary weight-saving techniques, the CL-282 would reach 73,000 feet and fly for seven hours on the power of one GE J73 turbojet.

Johnson’s design met the stated performance requirements for an aircraft that could fly over hostile airspace without fear of detection or interception. But Air Force procurement specialists were nervous about choosing a single-engine aircraft for such long critical missions. Moreover, they favored modifying Pratt & Whitney J57 engines for high-altitude operation. A further concern was that the CL-282 possessed no undercarriage. Instead, it took off from a wheeled dolly and landed on its belly with no flaps.

The Air Force chose much heavier airplanes instead: a twin-engine proposed by Bell, and a modified version of the B-57 from Martin. But Johnson and his design had won a few influential friends in the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. These proponents brought the CL-282 to the attention of both the CIA and the Land panel. They also brought along another radical notion. Why assume the military should control a mission of such vital national importance, flying covertly over the Soviet Union?

Land’s panel took the ball and ran with it. They endorsed Johnson’s basic design approach and identified new camera and SIGINT technology to install in the aircraft. They persuaded the CIA to take on the project, though they noted that “strong staff assistance” would be required from the Air Force. The scientists, on the other hand, took note of a few Air Force objections to the CL-282. Johnson was persuaded to adopt the J57 engine even though it wouldn’t fit in the F-104-derived fuselage. He also promised to include an undercarriage, of sorts.

President Eisenhower gave the go-ahead on 24 November 1954. The CIA then assigned Yale and MIT whiz-kid Richard Bissell to run what became known as Project Aquatone. Within days, the Skunk Works had assigned twenty-five engineers to detailed design in the strictest secrecy. The contract, $22 million for twenty airplanes, came a month later. By that time, not much of the CL-282 was left except for that wonderful wing scaled up to support the heavier fuselage that now included a landing gear of tandem retractable wheels on the centerline balanced by wing-mounted outriggers that dropped clear on takeoff. The bigger wing allowed more fuel, stretching the endurance to ten hours and over 4,000 nautical miles.

The first flight took place within nine months of go-ahead, an incredible achievement from today’s perspective. Within another nine months, the first four aircraft were ready to deploy. This schedule was indeed concurrent development and production. The project could have gone so wrong. But the impossible was achieved thanks to the Land Panel’s basic vision; Johnson’s design expertise; the streamlined project management encouraged by the CIA; and the can-do spirit that prevailed throughout. Despite the misgivings of senior officers, such as Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force played a sterling role. The CIA’s liaison officer at the Pentagon was a very capable Air Force colonel, Ozzie Ritland. Within a few months, he was formally reassigned to project headquarters as Bissell’s deputy responsible for the aircraft’s deployment and operations support.

By early February 1955, wind tunnel tests and the major drawings were complete. An interim high-altitude version of the J57 had been chamber-tested. New cameras, new films, new fuels, and new navigation and communication systems were all being designed. “The effort has brought together the highest scientific and industrial skill of the country in a manner never before achieved in peace time,” the CIA noted in a briefing memorandum.

Security had also never been as tight, at least not since the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb ten years earlier. Subcontractors delivered to “front” companies, thus keeping Lockheed’s prime role as secret as possible. A remote dry lake in the Nevada desert was found for test flights, and a rapid construction program started in early May. The site was nicknamed “the Ranch.”

In early July, the static test airframe was ready. Fifteen days later, the flying prototype was essentially complete. “Terrifically long hours. Everybody almost dead,” Johnson noted in his journals. Ten days later, Article 001 was airlifted from Burbank to the Ranch. The aircraft, still unnamed, was referred to as “the Article.”

Tony LeVier made the first flight on 4 August 1955. Landing was a problem: an anti-porpoise valve was added to the main gear. The engines leaked oil through the high-pressure compressor into the cockpit air-conditioning system depositing a greasy film on the canopy. As a temporary solution, sanitary napkins were stuffed around the oil filter. As the Article soared higher, the gravity-fed fuel system proved inadequate. Pressure-feed had to be introduced, which added more weight when every extra pound cost ten feet in altitude.

Most seriously, the J57 engine kept flaming out in the thin air above 45,000 feet. Johnson was certain that the inlet design was producing near-perfect ram air distribution. Tension erupted between Lockheed and the Pratt & Whitney engineers. The engine fuel control was inadequate, and the bleed valves didn’t work properly. Producing a powerplant that could be safely operated throughout an eight- or nine-hour cruise was tough. Pratt & Whitney engineers struggled to produce a higher-thrust, lower-weight J57 with forged blades to replace the interim engines.

Using the first four articles, four Lockheed test pilots explored the virtually unknown high-altitude regime. They were supported by fewer than thirty engineers on the ground. They tested the pressure suits and oxygen system. They established cruise-climb schedules even though the autopilots were not yet installed. They proved that the structure, which was designed for 2.5 g’s, could actually withstand 4 g’s despite all the weight-shaving. They broke the official world altitude record (66,000 feet) on a daily basis