The U-2 was developed for "high altitude reconnaissance"- in other words,
spying. It was one of the bigger icons that represented the Cold War
between the USA and USSR between the 1950's and 1990's.
Under direction of the C.I.A. (not the Air Force), the U-2 was developed by
Lockheed and was another brainchild of Kelly Johnson. It was also the first
plane tested at Groom Lake (the famous Area 51) which is a remote dry lake handpicked
by Johnson for testing. The U-2's only defense system was the fact that it
could simply fly at
altitudes so high that no enemy aircraft or surface to air missiles could reach
it. This defense, however, wasn't effective for long and the U-2 became obsolete after a newly developed Soviet missile shot
down the one piloted by Frances Gary Powers in 1960. The C.I.A. was quick to development a replacement and, six years later, the
SR-71 went into service.
Even though the U-2 was technically "obsolete", it is still in service
today and has
lasted longer than its replacement, the SR-71. It is still used for military reconnaissance
and for performing high-altitude experiments.
You can still occasionally see a U-2 flying around the Edwards AFB and Air
Force Plant 42 area. We have spotted one once taking off from Air Force
Plant 42 in Palmdale and were able to identify it by the unique way it climbs
after takeoff. As
soon as it lifts off, the plane immediately tilts up at an almost 45°
angle and begins the climb to its desired altitude.
Because the plane is designed to cruise at a very high altitude, where the air
is much thinner, its wing is designed in a way that produces lift in this
thinner air. When the U-2 is close to the ground and in thicker air, it
has to climb (or descend) at much sharper angles (like 45°) than an average
airplane or it will stall and literally fall out of the sky.
A note for you rock 'n roll fans: The
Irish rock group U-2 did not get its name from this airplane but, rather, from a
form used by the Irish government.