An Air Force U-2 flies a training mission. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds)

No spring chicken, the Lockheed U-2 spy plane, affectionately known to those who manage her deployments, as the “DRAGON LADY,” is already a genuine senior citizen, having been in continuous operation since the mid 1950’s, making her now over 62 years old.

Operated by our own fabled 1st Aero Squadron in the conduct of the identical Surveillance and Reconnaissance mission in which the 1st Aero was first engaged out of Columbus, NM during the Punitive Expedition 101 years ago, this impressive aircraft has a long history helping maintain the defenses of the United States.

The famous lady is a single-jet engine, ultra-high altitude aircraft operated by the USAF, but first flown regularly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It provides day and night, high-altitude 70,000 + feet (21,336 m), all-weather intelligence gathering. The U-2 has also been used for electronic sensor research, satellite calibration, and communications purposes.  At such altitudes, its pilots must wear regular space suits, in case of an emergency loss of cabin pressure

Early versions of the U-2 were involved in several events through the Cold War, being flown over the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. In 1960, Gary Powers was shot down in a CIA U-2A over the Soviet Union by a surface-to-air missile. Another U-2, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., was lost in a similar fashion during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

The U-2 is one of a handful of aircraft types to have served the USAF for over 50 years. The newest models (TR-1, U-2R, U-2S) entered service in the 1980s. The current model, the U-2S, received its most recent technical upgrade in 2012. The entire craft retains its distinctive early model appearance, but the newest versions are much larger, and also contain a much larger and more powerful jet engine.  Their old cockpits, which had the traditional round analog instrument gauges, now boast the latest hi-tech rectangular “glass” instrument displays.

These famous ships have taken part in post–Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have also supported several multinational NATO operations.  Their home base, where new pilots are trained to fly them, is Beale Air Force Base (BAFB), about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, California.

Two of our FASF Advisory Board members, General Patrick J. Halloran and Col. Stephen “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, once flew the Dragon Lady and also commanded the First Aero Squadron at BAFB.

As you can see, in the above short (3:50) video on a U-2 shooting “touch and go” practice landings at BAFB, it lands with the vital help of another U-2 pilot driving a muscle car down the runway.  The earth-bound pilot talks the U-2’s pilot safely down onto the runway, because the plane’s pilot cannot see the runway clearly enough to land unaided.

This reporter has watched the U-2’s performing their touch and go routines at BAFB and will attest to their almost unique airport operation.  In addition to their need of another ground-based guide pilot driving the speeding chase car down the runway, when they slow down and lose their wing’s lift, one of the wings will drop down onto the runways surface, requiring ground crew members riding in the “guide” car to jump out to place wing-leveling “Pogo Sticks” under each wing tip. The spindly “Pogos” have small wheels where they touch the ground, enabling the U-2 to again begin taxiing to its hangar with the wings more level.

Notwithstanding its old age, the Dragon Lady will apparently be with us for some time to come.

The USAF has just announced that it has dropped its plans to begin retiring the U-2 Dragon Lady around 2019.

That was the date listed in previous spending plans drafted by the Air Force. But the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2018, beginning Oct. 1, doesn’t include any retirement date for the Cold War-era workhorse.

“There is not a retirement date for the U-2 in this budget,” Maj. Gen. James Martin, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, said during a budget briefing at the Pentagon. “We plan to keep that platform well into the future.”

It’s a capability that we need and we also need the capacity as well,” Martin said.

Budget uncertainty in previous years played a role in recent recommendations to retire the U-2, the general said. But “the world changed in August 2014,” he said, in an apparent reference to the start of the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The spending plan must balance the keeping demands to deal with today’s threats while preparing for future missions, the Air Force General said.

As a result of additional spending in the recently enacted 2017 budget and the proposed 2018 plan, “We have more resources [where] we can keep both around,” he said of the U-2 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude drone intended to replace the Dragon Lady.  The Global Hawk drone is also flown by the First Aero Squadron at Beale.

The Air Force in 2016 estimated it could save $2.2 billion by retiring the U-2, Defense News reported.

Northrop Grumman Corp., the Falls Church, Virginia-based manufacturer of the Global Hawk, is retrofitting that large drone with sensor systems similar to the U-2’s. For example, the company in February successfully tested an MS-177 multi-spectral sensor made by UTC Aerospace Systems and designed to surpass the Dragon Lady’s Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System, or SYERS-2.

Nevertheless, the Air Force so far is adamant in keeping both platforms.

“We need both to meet the demand of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance),” General Martin said.

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