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64 years ago, the vaunted U-2 spy plane's first flight happened totally by accident
On August 1, 1955, a prototype of the U-2 spy plane sprinted down a runway at Groom Lake in Nevada, and its massive wings quickly lifted it into the sky.
That wasn't exactly how it was supposed to go. It was meant to be a high-speed taxi test, but the prototype's highly efficient wings pulled it into the air unexpectedly. The plane's first official flight happened three days later.
Lockheed Martin footage captured the moment the venerable Dragon Lady started its 64-year career.
VIDEO: The U-2 Spy Plane's First Flight www.youtube.com
The U-2 was developed in secrecy by Lockheed in the early 1950s to meet the U.S. government's need to surveil the Soviet Union and other areas from a height enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft systems couldn't reach.
Renowned engineer Kelly Johnson led the project at Lockheed's advanced development lab, Skunk Works.
"Johnson's take was all right, I need to get as high as I can to overfly enemy defenses, and how do I do that? Well I put big wings on there; big wings means higher. I cut weight; cutting weight means higher, and then let me just strap a big engine on there, and that's it," U-2 pilot Maj. Matt "Top" Nauman said at an Air Force event in New York City in May.
One thing Johnson ditched was wing-mounted landing gear. On takeoff, temporary wheels called "pogos" fall away from the wings.
Master Sgt. Justin Pierce, 9th Maintenance Squadron superintendent, preforms preflight checks on a U-2 at Beale Air Force Base in California, April 16, 2018(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Tristan D. Viglianco)
"So [Johnson] basically took a glider with parts and pieces from other Lockheed aircraft and strapped an engine to it and delivered it before the anticipated delivery date and under budget," Nauman said.
The plane Johnson and Lockheed produced was well suited for flight — as the Groom Lake test showed, it didn't take much to get it off the ground.
"The pilot was out there taxing around, and [during] a high-speed taxi — we're talking about 30ish miles an hour — the plane actually lifted off on its own, completely unexpected," Nauman said.
"And they thought, 'OK, hang on, let's go back and make sure we're approaching this test phase the right way.' And they found the thing just wants to get off the ground."
Same name, new-ish plane
An Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady flies a training mission(U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds)
Throughout its career, the U-2 has been reengineered and redesigned.
The plane that took off at Groom Lake was a U-2A. The next version was the U-2C, which had a new engine; a U-2C on display at the National Air and Space Museum flew the first operational mission over the Soviet Union on July 4, 1956.
The U-2G and U-2H, outfitted for carrier operations, came in the early 1960s. The U-2R, which was 40% larger than the original and had wing pods to carry more sensors and fuel, arrived in 1967.
The last U-2R arrived in 1989, and most of the planes in use now were built in the mid-1980s.
Since 1994 the US has spent $1.7 billion to modernize the U-2's airframe and sensors. After the GE F118-101 engine was added in the late 1990s, all U-2s were re-designated as U-2S, the current variant.
US Air Force Maj. Sean Gallagher greets his ground support crew before a U-2 mission, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, November 24, 2010(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Eric Harris)
The Air Force now has about 30 single-seat U-2 for missions and four of the two-seat TU-2 trainers. Those planes have a variety of pilot-friendly features, but one aspect remains a challenge.
"It's extremely difficult to land," Nauman said.
"You could YouTube videos of bad U-2 landings all day and see interview sorties that look a little bit sketchy," he said, referring to a part of the pilot-interview process where candidates have to fly the U-2, adding that the landings were done safely.
Despite its grace in flight, getting to earth is an ungainly process that takes a team effort.
Another qualified U-2 pilot in a high-performance chase car — Mustangs, Camaros, Pontiacs, and even a Tesla — meets the aircraft as it lands.
A U-2 pilot drives a chase car behind U-2 during a low-flight touch and go at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, March 15, 2019.)(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Gracie I. Lee
"As the airplane's coming in over the runway, this vehicle's chasing behind it with a radio, and [the driver is] actually talking the pilot down a little bit, just to help him out ... 'Hey, raise your left wing, raise your right wing, you're about 10 feet, you're about 8 feet, you're about 2 feet, hold it there at 2 feet,'" U-2 pilot Maj. Travis "Lefty" Patterson, said at the same event.
As the plane "approaches a stall and it's able to land, you have that experienced set of eyes in the car watching the airplane, because all [the pilot] can see is right off the front," Patterson said.
The absence of wing landing gear means that once it's slows enough, the plane leans to one side and a wingtip comes to rest on the ground.
"The lifespan of the U-2, the airframe, [is beyond] 2040 to 2050 ... because we spend so little time in a high-stress regime," Patterson added. "Once it gets to altitude it's smooth and quiet and it's very, very nice on the airplane. The only tough part is the landing."
Read more from Business Insider:
- Here's what it takes to fly the U-2 spy plane, which soars 13 miles above the earth
- Here's how engineers tear apart U-2 spy planes — and why they do it
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- Iran is reportedly jamming ship GPS navigation systems to get them to wander into Iranian waters
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KABUL/WASHINGTON/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The United States and the Taliban will sign an agreement on Feb. 29 at the end of a week long period of violence reduction in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban said on Friday.
In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran's most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.
Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body - in full armor - an inch or two off the floor.
Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, "All is well!"
The next day was different.
"My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck," Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq's western Anbar desert. "My stomach was grinding."
A video has emerged showing a U.S. military vehicle running a Russian armored truck off the road in Syria after it tried to pass an American convoy.
Questions still remain about the incident, to include when it occurred, though it appears to have taken place on a stretch of road near the Turkish border town of Qamishli, according to The War Zone.
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
We are women veterans who have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Our service – as aviators, ship drivers, intelligence analysts, engineers, professors, and diplomats — spans decades. We have served in times of peace and war, separated from our families and loved ones. We are proud of our accomplishments, particularly as many were earned while immersed in a military culture that often ignores and demeans women's contributions. We are veterans.
Yet we recognize that as we grew as leaders over time, we often failed to challenge or even question this culture. It took decades for us to recognize that our individual successes came despite this culture and the damage it caused us and the women who follow in our footsteps. The easier course has always been to tolerate insulting, discriminatory, and harmful behavior toward women veterans and service members and to cling to the idea that 'a few bad apples' do not reflect the attitudes of the whole.
Recent allegations that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie allegedly sought to intentionally discredit a female veteran who reported a sexual assault at a VA medical center allow no such pretense.
Survival expert and former Special Air Service commando Edward "Bear" Grylls made meme history for drinking his own urine to survive his TV show, Man vs. Wild. But the United States Air Force did Bear one better recently, when an Alaska-based airman peed in an office coffee maker.
While the circumstances of the bladder-based brew remain a mystery, the incident was written up in a newsletter written by the legal office of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on February 13, a base spokesman confirmed to Task & Purpose.