Lockheed U-2 C / TR-1 / U-2R/S

Lockheed U-2C

The success of the original model of the U-2 in gathering information on the Warsaw Pact countries came to an abrupt end of 1 May 60 when Gary ‘Frank’ Powers was shot down by a volley of SA-2 missiles near Sverdlovsk in central Russia. However, that did not spell an end to U-2 operations – quite the reverse.

The USAF, still smarting from Eisenhower’s decision to have the original U-2’s flown under CIA rather than USAF ownership, had decided to get a foothold in the area of high-altitude reconnaissance long before the loss of Frank Powers, after all, this was an area which they considered was their territory, not the preserve of the CIA.

Lockheed U-2A Crowflight with 'Q' bay pod

During the summer of 1957 Lockheed delivered six U-2A aircraft specially modified to conduct the High Altitude Sampling Programme (HASP) by the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) based at Laughlin AFB in Texas. Operating from a variety of deployed locations in Operation Crowflight, which was later renamed Toy Soldier, these aircraft with fitted with filter systems, located in the nose or in a pod attached to the side of the 'Q' bay, and were used to gather small particles from the upper stratosphere to determine whether nuclear debris from Soviet nuclear tests were present and allow it to be analysed. The HASP flights continued until an international moratorium on banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere was eventually agreed in Jul 1963.

Wreckage of U-2 in Bejing

As the Crowflight / Toy Soldier flights gradually reduced the USAF began to use the U-2s to conduct photo-reconnaissance and SIGINT missions, sometimes in conjunction, but often in competition with the CIA U-2s – a ridiculous situation that could not continue. Also in 1959 the first six pilots from the nationalist Chinese Air Force (CAF) in Taiwan had commenced training to fly the U-2 in a joint CIA / CAF operation. This resulted in a number of CAF pilots flying numerous reconnaissance sorties over China, losing a number of aircraft and pilots as a result. The Communist Chinese took great delight in displaying the wreckage of the aircraft in Peking. These operations by the CAF ‘Black Cat’ squadron between 1958 and 1974 will be the subject of a more detailed article at a later date.

U-2 photo of San Cristobal

On 28 Aug 62 it was a CIA U-2 that found the initial evidence that the Russians had sited a number of missiles in Cuba. This soon resulted in a dispute between the CIA and USAF over who should conduct further overflights of Cuba, a dispute that was won by the USAF. To almost to rub salt in the wound, the CIA had to allow the USAF to use their U-2Cs that were equipped with the more advanced System 9 intercept warner and System 12 receiver that gave the pilot a warning if SAM radars were locked onto his aircraft. The CIA agency pilots quickly checked out Majors Anderson and Heyser in the U-2C at Edwards AFB. Then operating out of McCoy AFB in Florida from 21 Oct 62, the U-2Cs flown by Anderson and Heyser soon confirmed the presence of SS-4 missiles on trailers, as well as missile erectors, support vehicles and accommodation facilities in the San Cristobal area of Cuba. Over 20 further U-2C sorties were flown by the USAF pilots over Cuba, but this was an increasingly risky enterprise as the Russians had now established over 24 SAM sites all over the island, as mission planners often insisted that the U-2s fly identical or very similar tracks and the same time each day.

U-2 pilot Rudolf Anderson

Finally on 27 Oct 62 the inevitable happened. Maj Rudolf Anderson was on another overflight of Cuba in a U-2C when, despite the presence of the warning systems, he was surprised by a volley of SA-2 missiles fired from the Banes naval base at the eastern end of the island. It is believed that one missile exploded above and behind his aircraft and a fragment from the missiles warhead penetrated the cockpit and entered Anderson’s pressure suit in the shoulder area. Anderson is believed to have died when the cockpit depressurised, his pressure suit failed to inflate correctly and the aircraft spun out of control and crashed. Anderson, who’s body was subsequently returned by the Cubans, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest peacetime decoration available in the USA. Tragically, 24 hours after Anderson was killed, the Russians agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for the removal of the Jupiter IRBMs from Turkey. The U-2s then continued to monitor the withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba and by December the 4080th had logged over 100 sorties over Cuba.

The sorties over Cuba were also the first time that the U-2C had been challenged by the MiG-21. The MiG-21s were flown by Cuban pilots and had been seen many times by the U-2C pilots as they attempted to climb and intercept the high-flying spyplanes. However, although the MiG-21 could zoo-climb up to around 60,000ft, in the thin upper atmosphere they were effectively out of control and on a ballistic trajectory, with very little opportunity to fire off a missile or U-2 with sugar-scoop operate their guns. Nevertheless, one U-2C pilot was given a rude shock when a MiG-21 actually shot over the top of his aircraft, the shaken pilot then watched as the MiG-21 then tumbled out of control into the thicker air lower down before the pilot could recover. To counter the potential threat from a heat-seeking missile fired from a MiG-21, the U-2s were fitted with a ‘Sugar Scoop’, an 18-inch extension to the tailpipe, which would hopefully shield the hottest part of the engine from the infra-red seeker.

U-2F refuelling in mid-air

In an effort to extend the range of the U-2 already considerable range, a number of aircraft were fitted with air-to-air refuelling (AAR) equipment – the AAR capable U-2A was re-designated the U-2E and the AAR capable U-2Cs were re-designated the U-2F. However, although the AAR U-2s were capable of flying for 14 hours and over 7,000 miles, this took little account of pilot fatigue and although an additional oxygen cylinder was installed on these aircraft, little use was made of this capability. It was also decided to see if the U-2 could operate from an aircraft carrier. A U-2 was equipped with a strengthened tail and an arrestor hook. A set of wing spoilers was also added to ensure the aircraft could actually land accurately on the flight deck, rather than floating over the arrestor cables and the carrier capable aircraft were re-designated U-2Gs. One aircraft, Article 349, was AAR and carrier capable and was the only U-2H.

U-2G about to land on

In early 1964 Bob Schumacher conducted a number of trial landings and take-offs from the USS Ranger and a number of other CIA pilots, including Jim Barnes, became ‘carrier qualified’. The target for the U-2G was the French nuclear test site, situated at Mururoa Atoll in the middle of the South Pacific, well out of the range of a land-based U-2. Consequently, in May 64 a U-2G operating from the USS Ranger photographed Mururoa Atoll and until 1968 three of the CIA’s fleet of U-2’s and a number of pilots were always carrier capable, although few actual sorties were ever flown.

U-2 in Vietnam

At the end of 1963 President Lyndon Johnson decided to deploy the U-2 to Vietnam in support of the increased tempo of the Vietnam War. On 16 Feb 64 fours U-2s from the 4080th SRW were deployed to Bien Hoa AFB near Siagon under an operation known as ‘Lucky Dragon’ and later as ‘Trojan Horse’. Flying one or two sorties a day, the U-2s operated over North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and produced so much film that they initially overwhelmed the fairly rudimentary photographic processing facilities at Bein Hoa. However, by the end of 1965, after a number of aircraft had been lost in accidents, the 4080th SRW was reduced to just 11 aircraft and a number of personnel were starting to be posted away to the new SR-71 Blackbird programme, it became increasingly difficult to justify continuing USAF operations with such a small number of aircraft. Finally, SAC HQ made plans to de-activate the U-2 operation completely in 1968. The attrition rate of the U-2 A/C model was high and only eleven of the 55 aircraft build actually survived active service to be retired.

This was not the end of the U-2, far from it. By the mid 1970’s, even though the Mach 3 SR-71 was now in service, Kelly Johnson believed that there was still a need for a high-altitude, long endurance manned aircraft for reconnaissance duties. In Aug 1966, after much lobbying by Johnson and other supporters of the U-2 with the USAF, Lockheed finally received the go-ahead to develop a new and much improved version of the aircraft. This decision recognised the growing need for additional SIGINT platforms capable of operating at high altitude nears the borders of the Warsaw Pact, together with the introduction of new Long-Range Oblique Reconnaissance (LOROP) cameras that could acquire high quality images many miles to the side of the aircraft. In a re-run of the original building contract for the U-2, the CIA funded the airframes and the USAF funded the engines.


The new U-2R was ready for flight test in 1967 and entered operational service in 1968. Although similar in appearance to the original U-2, the new aircraft was actually a completely different design and was about a third larger than the earlier aircraft with double the payload and fuel capacity. The larger cockpit allowed the pilot to wear a much more comfortable full pressure suit and was fitted with a zero-zero ejection seat. The high altitude version of the Pratt & Whitney J75-13B engine was retained, giving 17,00 lbs thrust. A new 104 span wing, with an area of 1,000ft, would provide the additional lift needed for the new design that soon had a gross take-off weight of 40,000lb. The U-2R could carry a 3,000lb payload over 3,000 miles at altitudes at or above 70,000ft, a considerable advance on the original model. However, only 12 U-2Rs were actually built, six for the CIA and six for the USAF.

U-2R on USS America

In 1968 the U-R was deployed to Vietnam, an operation now know as ‘Giant Dragon’ and were mainly used for SIGINT and COMINT missions, leaving the SR-71 to conduct photo reconnaissance missions. In 1971 Melpar developed a new COMINT sensor for the U-2R. Known as ‘Senior Spear’ the equipment was carried in a podded mid-wing installation and this sensor gathered much valuable information during the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. To retain a carrier capability, a U-R was also fitted with an arrestor hook removed from a U-2G and in 1969 Bill Park and a number other CIA pilots became carrier qualified on the USS America. However, there is no record of any subsequent operational sorties by the U-R from a carrier. Just before the U-2 wing celebrated its 20th anniversary on 1 Apr 76, it was announced that it would move from Davis- Monthan to Beal AFB as part of the 9th SRW.


As the Cold War continued, the USAF realised that there would still be a role for the U-2R. However, even though the USAF had acquired the remaining CIA U-2R in 1974 when the CIA’s 18-year involvement with the U-2 came to an end, more aircraft were needed. Other individuals in the USAF and US Defence Industries, particularly Boeing and Teledyne Ryan, believed that the USAF competition to develop a high-altitude, long-range, RPV designed specifically for the long endurance photo-reconnaissance or electronic surveillance mission would be the way ahead. Although the Boeing YQM-94A Compass Cope was developed for this role, the USAF eventually decided that the technology wasn’t mature enough and ran the risk of an RPV crashing in denied territory and delivering to their adversaries the latest camera and radar technology.

In 1978 it was announced that the USAF was planned to acquire at least 25 new U-2Rs; this time it was decided to avoid using the rather controversial U-2 designation and the new aircraft would be known as TR-1s for tactical reconnaissance. This decision reflected the realization that NATO forces in Central Europe lacked sufficient reconnaissance capabilities to ensure the early detection of a sudden Warsaw Pact ‘blitzkrig’, particularly during the winter months when cloud covered large areas of the continent and negated the use of photo-reconnaissance satellites.

TR-1 with PLSS

One of the roles originally planned for the TR-1 was for the aircraft to be equipped with the Precision Location & Strike System (PLSS). The PLSS was a secret ELINT system built to locate Warsaw Pact radars and missile sites and designed specifically for the TR-1. In service three TR-1 aircraft equipped with the PLSS would fly a racetrack pattern at high level set back from the border and fix the location of the enemies radars by triangulation, this information would then be quickly passed to attacking aircraft by data-link. However, the PLSS was delayed by various development problems, proved difficult to integrate with the other aircraft systems and was cancelled in 1987.

Tr-1 with superpods

The only real differences between the U-2R and the new TR-1 was a slight change to horizontal tail to stiffen it up and the addition of large wing-mounted super-pods that could each carry a variety of sensors weighing up to 800lbs. The super pods were two feet eight inches wide and twenty-four feet long, three times larges than the Senior Spear pods previously carried by the U-2R in Vietnam. In fact in 1977, even before the TR-1 entered service, the new super pods were used on the U-2R to carry the new Senior Ruby SIGINT collection system.

The nose of the TR-1 was also modular and could accept a variety of differently configured noses carrying a 600lb payload forward of the main fuselage. All together the TR-1 could carry a payload of nearly 4,000 lbs divided between the Q bay, the super pods and the nose. In Oct 89 the last of the 37 TR-1 aircraft ordered was delivered to the USAF and there are now 29 aircraft remaining in the fleet. The U-2R and TR-1 were both powered by a special high altitude version of the P&W J-75. When the J-75 engine was replaced by the GE F101-GE-F29 turbofan (later renamed the F118-GE-101) in the 1990s, the TR-1s and remaining U-2Rs were all re-designated the U-2S.

U-2R with SYERS camera nose

Although the U-2R/TR-1/U-2S has been used predominantly for acquiring SIGINT, it has always retained the ability to undertake photographic reconnaissance missions. For this role it can be equipped with the HR-329 (H-cam) high resolution camera with a gyro-stabilized framing system, a 66 inch focal length and folded optical path. The other photographic option is the Intelligence Reconnaissance Imagery System II (IRIS III), an optical imagery system that uses a high-resolution panoramic camera with a 24 inch focal length. Again the IRIS III uses a folded optical path system but this is mounted on a rotating optical bar assembly allowing the camera to scan through 140 degrees of viewing area. The IRIS III camera can provide a 32 nm swath on both sides of the aircraft and although the system does not have the resolution of the H-cam, the wider coverage provided is more useful for identifying potential targets of interest.

The modular design of the U-2R/TR-1/U-2S allows the aircraft to carry a variety of sensor systems in either the nose, in superpods under the wings or attached to the upper fuselage. These systems include:

TR-1 / U-2R Super Pods

The SENIOR GLASS system is a SIGINT sensor suite which includes the SENIOR SPEAR COMINT system and the SNIOR RUBY ELINT system and this system was upgraded in 1996. This system is carried in the superpods.

SENIOR YEAR Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System [SYERS]

The Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS), now contains an upgraded sensor with three visible bands and two short wave IR bands, The U-2 SYERS imagery satisfies a large percentage of theater commanders' imagery requirements. SYERS is the electro-optical daylight/fair weather imagery sensor on the U-2. The long focal length sensor provides deep look, high resolution, near-real-time (NRT) imagery to the warfighter. SYERS. The SYERS system is contained in a special nose section which is fitted as necessary.


The U-2s can also be fitted with a special nose containing a Raytheon Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-2A) which entered service in 2001. The ASARS-2A is an imaging radar system that can provide very high-resolution images day or night and in all weather conditions. The radar has two V shaped planar arrays, equipped with electronically scanned antennas, that scan the ground on either side of the aircraft and can acquire images out to around 160km. The radar can operate in either search or spot modes and data from the SYERS and ASARS -2A is relayed in near real time via a wideband data link, with a range close to 300nm, to a dedicated ground station without being seen by the pilot.

TR-1 / U-2R Nose Options

Senior Span and Senior Spur are two separate satellite relay systems that are contained in a special dorsal pod and carried on the upper fuselage. When out of range of the data link system SYERS and ASARS data is transmitted via these satellite links at global ranges.

SENIOR YEAR Defensive System

Senior Year is a defensive system carried in the nose of the aircraft and designed to protect the U-2S against all current and future threats.


A number of other upgrades have also been incorporated in the U-2S. Hughes has developed a low-cost, small, compact, lightweight electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) dual-band reconnaissance sensor for tactical as well as high-altitude standoff applications. This sensor is a derivative of SYERS and is known at the DB-110. The DB-110's direct viewing reflective optic sensor is inertially stabilized to provide high- resolution imagery when operating in severe vibration environments. Its visible silicon CCD focal plane with TDI (time delay integration) and high quantum efficiency indium antimonide (InSb) IR focal plane provide continuous ground coverage, spot coverage, and stereo coverage in both bands simultaneously or individually, over a wide range of operational conditions. The sensor's small size and its light weight permit pod installation or in-board installation in various high-performance aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. The DB-110 sensor system includes a reconnaissance management system (RMS) and is intended to interface with various airborne digital tape or solid state recorders and digital datalinks for real-time transmission to ground stations.

The Multi-Spectral Electro-Optical Reconnaissance Sensor [formerly the Advanced Electro-Optical Recon Capability] SYERS upgraded the SYERS capability in night or in fog or haze by adding Multi-Spectral capability. Additionally, resolution, geolocational accuracy, and broad area coverage were also increased by improving sensor stability.

U-2S updated cockpit

The original cockpit layout of the U-2S has also been upgraded in the Reconnaissance Avionics Maintainability Program which began in 1999. The round dials in the original cockpit were replaced by two 6 by 8 inch multifunction displays and the large driftsight was removed. To improve navigation, an Aztec GPS receiver is embedded in the Litton LN-33 P2/P3 INS In normal operations the F118 engine consumes 16% less fuel than the J-75. Instead of have to 'fly the throttle' dry carefully at altitude, it's possible to just select full power on takeoff and leave the throttle in that position until the pilot wishes to descend. Typically the aircraft can take-off after a 500ft roll, climb at 160kts and 8,000 feet per minute to the normal operating altitude of around 75,000ft in about 30 minutes. At over 70,000ft, fuel flow is around 910lb per hour, less than at full idle on the ground. In the cruise the aircraft typically operates on autopilot 3kts below the maximum mach and 5 kts above the stall speed, a fairly narrow margin, but much better than the 3-5 kt band the old U-2A-C operated within. Airspeed in the cruise is around 110 kts with the True Airspeed up around 410 kts giving a range of over 1220 miles.

The U-2S is still operated by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing based at Beale AFB in California. Aircraft are frequently detached to Osan in Korea, RAF Fairford in England, RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and Istres in France. In addition, aircraft have frequently operated out of Taif in Saudi Arabia and Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

U-2R badge

Although the U-2S has now been in service for a number of years, the high-time airframe has only reached a third of its predicted fatigue life, so there’s plenty of life left in the airframe and the latest avionics and sensor upgrades have ensured the aircraft remains viable for the foreseeable future. Many observers believed that the arrival in service of the RQ-4B Global Hawk would hasten the end of the U-2S, but at present the USAF intends to operate this advanced UAV alongside the U-2S as the two vehicles complement each other rather well. The U-2S can carry a much greater payload of sensors than the RQ-4B, but this is offset by the ability of the RQ-4B to loiter over an area for over 24 hrs, something that it would take 3 U-2S aircraft to accomplish. Neither the U-2S or RQ-4B are particularly stealthy and they would not be flown over an area with a very high surface-to-air missile threat. During Gulf War II that vital reconnaissance role was initially undertaken by an unmanned stealthy UAV, believed to be a larger version of Lockheed’s DarkStar, that was later seen by a number of U-2S pilots orbiting above their aircraft. Again this new high-altitude stealthy UAV does not really pose a threat to the U-2S, as it has been designed from the outset for a different role and will complement, rather than compete with, both the U-2S and the RQ-4B.

U-2S at sunset2

Now that the Dassault Mirage IVP has been retired, and with the English Electric Canberra also nearing the end of it’s long and distinguished service, the U-2S will soon become the only dedicated high-altitude manned reconnaissance platform. In time the U-2S will be retired, but only when the capability it currently possesses can be replicated by another air vehicle, manned or unmanned. The RQ-4B Global Hawk already has a formidable array of sensors and will also incorporate a SIGINT package in the production aircraft. In time there’s little doubt that smaller and more advanced sensors will be developed for the RQ-4B and their capability will eventually exceed that provided by the sensors on the U-2S, but this will take both time and money. Consequently, although the RQ-4B is the obvious eventual successor to the U-2S, I suspect it will be many years before we actually see the last of the ‘Dragon Lady’, cruising along serenely and unmolested in the upper atmosphere on yet another vital intelligence gathering mission.