Kit No. 516
Cost: $12.00 – $18.00 (aftermarket)
Decals: Three versions – CIA/U.S. Air Force (all black); U.S. Air Force (camouflage scheme of light ghost gray and dark ghost gray); and a NASA version with a scheme of insignia white over light gray
Comments: Re-issue of 1960’s Hawk kit; raised panel lines; optional position canopy; towing dolly included; some modelers will want additional aftermarket details
The Lockheed U-2 is a single-engine, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation specifically for the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950’s — with the express goal of providing the CIA with aerial surveillance capability over the former Soviet Union, enabling more accurate assessments of its military strength. Initially operated only by the CIA, but now flown by the Air Force and NASA, the U-2 provides day and night, very high-altitude (70,000 feet / 21,000 m), all-weather intelligence gathering capability. Today, the U-2 is also used for electronic sensor research and development, satellite calibration, and validation of data from both weather and reconnaissance satellites.
In the early 1950s, with Cold War tensions on the rise, the U.S. military as well as the CIA desired better strategic reconnaissance to help determine Soviet capabilities and intentions. The existing reconnaissance aircraft, primarily bombers converted for reconnaissance duty such as the Martin B-57, were vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery, missiles, and fighters. It was thought an aircraft that could fly at 70,000 feet would be beyond the reach of Soviet fighters, missiles, and even radar. This would allow high altitude reconnaissance flights to be conducted safely.
Under the code name “Bald Eagle”, the Air Force issued contracts to Bell Aircraft, Martin Aircraft, and Fairchild Engine and Airplane to develop proposals for the new reconnaissance aircraft. Officials at Lockheed heard about the project and asked aeronautical engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson to come up with a design. Johnson was a brilliant designer, responsible for the P-38 Lightning, the P-80 Shooting Star (America’s first operational jet fighter), and the F-104 Starfighter. He was known for completing projects ahead of schedule, working in a separate division of Lockheed jokingly called the Skunk Works.
Johnson’s design, called the CL-282, married long glider-like wings to the fuselage of the F-104. To save weight, his initial design lacked conventional landing gear, taking off from a dolly and landing on skids. The Air Force rejected the design, but the CIA snapped it up, as it caught the attention of several civilians on the review panel, notably Edwin Land, the father of instant photography (Kodak). Land proposed to CIA Director Allen Dulles that the CIA should fund and operate this aircraft. After a meeting with President Eisenhower, Lockheed received a $22.5 million contract for the first 20 aircraft. It was renamed the U-2, with the “U” referring to the deliberately vague designation “utility”. The CIA assigned the cryptonym “Aquatone” to the project, with the Air Force using the name “Oilstone” for the support facilities accorded the CIA to operate the aircraft. The U-2 made its first flight at the Groom Lake test site on August 1, 1955, during what was only intended to be a high-speed taxi run. The sailplane-like wings had so much lift that the aircraft jumped into the air at 70 knots (81 mph; 130 km/h).
The unique design that gives the U-2 its remarkable performance also makes it a difficult aircraft to fly. It was designed and manufactured for minimum airframe weight, which results in an aircraft with little margin for error. To maintain their operational ceiling of 70,000 feet, early U-2’s (the U-2A and U-2C, no longer in service) had to fly very near their maximum speed. The U-2’s stall speed at that altitude is only 10 knots (12 mph) below its maximum speed. This narrow window was referred to by the pilots as the “coffin corner.” For 90% of the time on a typical mission, the U-2 was flying within only five knots above its stalling speed, which could cause a decrease in altitude likely to lead to detection, and additionally ran the risk of overstressing the lightly built airframe.
“Dragon Lady” No Term of Endearment
While the U-2’s flight controls are very responsive at high altitude – the flight envelope and altitude at which it was designed to fly — at lower altitudes, the higher air density and lack of a power-assisted control system makes the aircraft very difficult to fly. Control inputs must be extreme to achieve the desired response in flight attitude, and a great deal of physical strength is needed to operate the controls this way. The U-2 is very sensitive to crosswinds and notoriously difficult to land; the enormous lift provided by its wings gives it a tendency to float over the runway. Typically, as the U-2 approaches a runway, the cushion of air provided by the high-lift wings is so pronounced that the U-2 will not land unless the wing is fully stalled.
To assist the pilot in landing, a chase car (yes, a car, not a plane) — usually a “souped up” Ford Mustang SSP, Chevrolet Camaro, or Pontiac GTO – paces the U-2 on final approach with an assistant (another U-2 pilot) talking the pilot down by calling off the declining height of the aircraft as it loses airspeed. Because of the high operating altitude, U-2 pilots must wear the equivalent of a space suit with its own oxygen supply in case cabin pressure is lost at altitude. To decrease the chance of decompression sickness, pilots don the full pressure suit and begin breathing 100% oxygen one hour prior to launch to remove nitrogen from the body.
The new cameras developed for the U-2 had a resolution of 2.5 feet from an altitude of 60,000 feet. Balancing is so critical on the U-2 that the camera had to use a split film, with reels on one side feeding forward while those on the other side feed backward, thus maintaining a balanced weight distribution throughout the entire flight.
The aircraft carries a variety of sensors in the nose, camera bay behind the cockpit, and wing pods. The U-2 is capable of simultaneously collecting signals, imagery intelligence and air samples. Imagery intelligence sensors include either wet film photo, electro-optic or radar imagery – the latter from the Raytheon ASARS-2. The U-2 can use both line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight data links. One of the most unusual instruments in the newest version of the U-2 is the off-the-shelf Sony video camera that functions as a digital replacement for the purely optical viewsight (an upside down periscope-like viewing device) that was used in older variants to get a precise view of the terrain directly below the aircraft, especially during landing.
Though the U.S. Air Force and Navy would eventually fly the U-2, originally it was exclusively a CIA operation, Project Dragon Lady, run through the Office of Scientific Intelligence. Due to the political implications of a military aircraft invading a country’s airspace, only CIA U-2s conducted overflights. The pilots had to resign their military commissions before joining the CIA as civilians, a process they referred to as “sheep dipping.” By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Air Force had assumed responsibility for overflights of Cuba.
Once U-2 units became operational, two units were deployed to Europe and one to the Far East. The first U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union occurred on July 4, 1956. The U-2 helped disprove the existence of a “bomber gap” between the Soviet and American air forces, and, in a coup for the CIA, provided the first photographs of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet launch complex which sent the first Sputnik satellite into orbit.
The U-2 did not come to the attention of the American public until 1960, when a U-2 flown by CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, causing an international incident which wrecked the Paris Summit between President Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Khruschev, scheduled for June of that year. Eisenhower, who had been assured by the CIA that the Soviets did not have the capability to shoot a U-2 down, initially denied the existence of Powers’ spy flight. Within days, the Soviets produced Powers, alive, and subjected him to a show trial which sentenced him to ten years imprisonment for espionage. This incident embarassed Eisenhower, damaged U.S. prestige internationally, and let to a spike in Cold War tensions that did not ease until after the Cuban Missile Crisis two years later. Powers was ultimately released in 1962 in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy who had been apprehended in the U.S.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The U-2 again made history on October 14, 1962, when a machine from the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, based at Laughlin Air Force Base near Del Rio, Texas, and piloted by Major Richard S. Heyser, photographed the Soviet military installing nuclear missiles near San Cristobal in Cuba, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. Additional U-2 flights were ordered, but were sometimes postponed or cancelled due to weather conditions or concern that one would be shot down, as it was by then known to be vulnerable to Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles, the presence of which had been verified in Cuba.
In perhaps the most dangerous moment of the crisis, on October 27,1962, a U-2 from McCoy AFB was shot down over Cuba by two SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missiles, killing the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. President Kennedy resisted calls for immediate retaliation, even a limited strike on the Soviet surface-to-air missile sites in Cuba. As of October 27th, the U.S. invasion of Cuba was scheduled for Monday, October 29, 1962. On October 28th, Soviet Premier Khrushchev announced on Radio Moscow that the missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba. Major Anderson was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross. U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba continued at least until the 1970s under the code name OLYMPIC FIRE.
Other Surveillance Uses of the U-2
In 1963, the CIA developed carrier-based U-2Gs to overcome range limitations. U-2Gs was used only twice operationally, flown from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in May 1964 to observe France’s development of an atomic bomb test range at Moruroa in French Polynesia.
While there is not much evidence of U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union after 1960, the U.S. continued to use it for reconnaissance over North Vietnam from 1966-1970, and over China at least until 1972. It has also been used to monitor military action in the Middle East, specifically conflicts between Israel and Egypt. NASA has made use of the U-2 to photograph space shuttle launches, in one case identifying the cause of tile loss during launches discovered in the initial post-Challenger missions. More recently, it has been deployed to Afghanistan and Libya to assist intelligence-gathering in those regions.
The U-2 continues to live up to its “utility” designation as it remains in frontline service more than 50 years after its first flight, despite the advent of spy satellites. This is primarily due to the ability to direct flights to objectives at short notice, which satellites cannot do. The U-2 has outlasted its Mach 3 SR-71 replacement, which was supposedly retired in 1998. Like many highly useful aircraft before it, the U-2’s retirement has been scheduled and postponed at least twice. In December 2005, the Pentagon called for the termination of the U-2 program by 2012, with some aircraft being retired by 2007. In January 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced the pending retirement of the U-2 fleet as a cost-cutting measure, and as part of a larger reorganization of the Air Force that includes the elimination of all but 56 B-52s and a reduction in the F-117 Nighthawk fleet. Rumsfeld asserted that this would not impair the Air Force’s ability to gather intelligence, given the availability of satellites and a growing supply of unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft. Since that time, retirement of the U-2 has been delayed at least until 2015 due to the gaps in reconnaissance capability that would result. In January 2012, it was reported that Air Force plans to end the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 program and extend the U-2 fleet in service until 2023.
Testor’s U-2 is a 1992 re-boxing of the old Hawk U-2 kit from the 1960’s. It is molded in black and consists of 72 injection molded parts, with a choice of a seated pilot or a pilot standing outside the aircraft. The instruction sheet is well laid out and it appears that a modeler building this kit can look forward to worry-free construction. Although this kit provides both slipper tanks and standard pylon tanks which are to be cemented onto the wings, it should be noted that the U-2’s deployed over Cuba during October 1962 did not carry these auxiliary fuel tanks. In addition, although the U-2 is famous as “the black spy plane,” most if not all of the U-2’s flown over Cuba at the time of the 1962 Missile Crisis were in natural metal.
The cockpit is very basic with a pilot’s seat and a part for the instrument panel for which a decal is provided — that’s it. For some reason, the instruction sheet neglects to mention or illustrate the need to cement the pilot’s seat into the fuselage before cementing the two fuselage halves together, so be aware of that if you intend to build the kit, as the cockpit has no internal structural parts of any kind — no floor, no crossbars, no sidewalls. There is nothing for the seat to be anchored to, other than the two small attachment points on the sides of the fuselage interior. Although it’s possible to snap the seat into place once the fuselage is together, it is probably better to cement it to one of the two fuselage halves in advance. While this is an older kit with raised panel lines, it can be dressed up with aftermarket additions such as the Cutting Edge U-2 resin cockpit (CEC 48409).
The cockpit canopy can be positioned open or closed, but unless you invest in an aftermarket cockpit or build one from scratch, the kit itself provides little reason to want to leave the canopy open, given the Spartan interior. The decals, particularly the NASA decals and those for the national insignia, have a nice, glossy sheen and very good, realistic color. There is no indication of their manufacturer, but they look as though they can be applied without difficulty. Support stands for the outer wings, a cart or towing dolly, and wheeled “pogo struts” are included. The only glaring defect with this kit, other than the bare cockpit, is that there is nothing in the molding of the kit exterior to provide any clue as to where the U-2’s cameras are located.
This kit models an important aircraft that played a pivotal role at the height of the Cold War. It is the only one of the U-2 available in 1/48 scale, and given its historic significance, it is surprising that no other manufacturer has issued an updated kit, for the old Hawk kit is sorely lacking in detail when you consider what the modeling industry is capable of producing today. However, Testors’ re-issue provides a good, basic kit which can be significantly detailed with a little work and patient research.
- Mayday: Eisenhower, Khruschev and the U-2 Affair by Michael R. Beschloss; Copyright 1986 Harper & Row Publishers, New York
- Blue Moon Over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis
by Captain William B. Ecker USN (ret.) and Kenneth V. Jack Copyright 2012 by Osprey Publishing; Oxford (United Kingdom)
- U-2 Shootdown from Motion Picture Thirteen Days: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oj_19REPJ7Q