This is what 8 U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes look like on an ‘elephant walk’

Eye in the sky, walk on the ground.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
(Photo by Senior Airman Juliana Londono/U.S. Air Force)

A U-2 spy plane is by definition not meant to be seen. It’s at its best operationally when it’s in the sky, tens of thousands of feet above the surface, watching its targets.

That said, they also look pretty cool when lined up on a runway as a show of “air power” as the Air Force put it.

On Thursday, Jan. 4 the U.S. Air Force’s units at Beale Air Force Base in California staged an “elephant walk,” essentially bringing out all of its planes for one long showcase of what it can do. It’s a display the military has been doing since World War II, with the Air Force staging one every so often, giving the public a glimpse at the fleet of aircraft. 

Thursday’s one looked like this:

Those are several U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes with the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, lined up alongside the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron’s T-38 Talons and the 940th Air Refueling Wing’s KC-135R Stratotankers. Thursday’s showcase was the first elephant walk Beale Air Force Base has done in decades, according to the Air Force. There was no combat mission attached to this, no urgent response, simply a chance for the airmen at Beale Air Force Base to show off what their units are capable of mustering. 

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The U-2 Dragon Lady has been in use by the Air Force since the 1950s. Last year it got fresh attention after documenting one of the spy balloons that floated over U.S. territory in early 2023. The pilot of one Dragon Lady even managed to get a selfie with the balloon in high altitude. 

The Air Force intends to retire the U-2 in 2026, aiming to replace the Cold War-era spy plane with newer technology. However the service has said that until then, it intends to keep the U-2 Dragon Lady in service to avoid a loss of operational capability. So until 2026, opportunities like the U-2 elephant walk this past week are still possible. 

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