U-2 Spy Plane

views updated May 18 2018

U-2 Spy Plane


The U-2 is a jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft specially designed to fly at high altitudes (i.e., above 70,000 ft [21 km]). It was used during the late 1950s to overfly the Soviet Union, China, the Middle East, and Cuba; flights over the Soviet Union, the primary mission for which the plane was designed, ended in 1960 when a U-2 flown by CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. This event was a major political embarrassment for the U.S. A redesigned version of the U-2, the U-2R, was used from the late 1960s through the 1990s. The U-2R was used extensively during the Gulf War of 1991, for example, to monitor Iraqi military activities. A more recent version of the U-2, the U-2S, is deployed today. The U-2S has been used recently by both the United States and United Nations weapons inspectors to make observations of North Korea and Iraq.

Background. Shortly after the end of World War II, the tenuous alliance between the Soviet Union, the United States, and the nations of Western Europe ruptured. The Soviets took control of Eastern Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by the U.S. and its European allies, and the Cold War began in earnest. Tensions were high, and war between NATO and the Soviet Union often seemed imminent. Military planners desired what they termed "pre-D-day intelligence" about the Soviet order of battle, that is, information about the Soviet military obtained before a war began. Spy satellites would not become available until the early 1960s, leaving aircraft as the primary means of obtaining up-to-date information about Soviet military and industrial activities.

A number of photographic spy overflights of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Far East, China, and the periphery of the Soviet Union were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s using various U.S. and British aircraft including the RB-29 bomber, the B-47B bomber, the RF-80A fighter (the first operational U.S. jet fighter), the RF-86F fighter, and the RB-45C reconnaissance aircraft. None of these planes had enough range to penetrate very far into Russia itself, where nuclear testing grounds and missile bases were located; nor could they fly at altitudes high enough to avoid interception by Soviet MiG jet fighters.

By the mid-1950s, Soviet air defenses had improved to the point where overflights by available aircraft had become impractical. Development of a lightweight, high-altitude, single-pilot plane (originally dubbed the CL-282 but later the U-2, a deliberately misleading designation suggesting a "utility" aircraft) began in 1954. However, the plane could not ready until 1956; in the meantime, high-altitude, unmanned balloons were used to carry camera packages over the Soviet Union. These balloons, codenamed Genetrix balloons, were launched in Norway, Scotland, Turkey, and West Germany, from whence they were carried by global tradewinds across the Soviet Union to recovery zones over the Pacific Ocean. Some 379 Genetrix balloons entered Soviet airspace in 1955 and 1956; 235 were shot down by MiGs or antiaircraft guns, and only 44 were recovered. The success rate would have been higher except that President Dwight Eisenhower had ordered that the balloons not fly at their true maximum altitude (70,000 ft [21 km]); he reasoned that if the balloons were restricted to an altitude ceiling of 55,000 ft (17 km), where the Soviets could shoot them down most of the time, the Soviets would not be motivated to develop high-altitude interceptors that could be later used against the U-2.

Design. The U-2 is built much like a glider, with ultralight construction and long, narrow wings that measure 80 ft (24 m) from tip to tip, longer than the plane itself. (The U-2C, first flown in 1978, has a wingspan of 103 ft [31 m].) Wings of this type, mounted at right angles to the body of an aircraft, provide high lift (i.e., upward aerodynamic force resulting from airflow around the wing); this is necessary at 70,000 ft because the atmosphere is so thin. The U-2's cruising altitude takes it so close to outer space that the sky above appears black and the curvature of the Earth is visible.

The U-2 had other features intended to reduce its weight and thus increase its cruising altitude and range. The wings were bolted to the body of the aircraft rather than supported, as in standard jet aircraft of that period, by a spar running right through the fuselage. The tail assembly was held on by only three bolts; the skin of the fuselage was thin aluminum; flight controls were manually powered, so the pilot flew the plane by muscle power; and there was no radar. In-line "bicycle"-type landing gear was employed, consisting of a main unit under the plane's nose and small wheel at the tail; upon landing, the U-2 would taxi to a halt and then tip over onto one wing. For takeoff, small detachable supports or "pogos" held the wings off the ground and were dropped when the plane was airborne.

A camera package termed the A-2 was installed in the aircraft's belly; it contained three still cameras, one pointing straight down and the other two pointing to the left and right of the aircraft's direction of travel, as well as a tracking camera that filmed a continuous record of the plane's mission.

Development of the U-2 and of reconnaissance balloons required numerous test flights over the United States. The balloons were often visible from the ground as metallic-looking ellipses, and prototype U-2 planes were sometimes spotted from civilian airliners; these sightings giving rise to many reports of unidentified flying objects (though to be alien spacecraft). Because the devices actually causing the sightings were secret, the government offered often uncreditable explanations for the sightings, inadvertently helping to encourage bizarre UFO beliefs.

Because of the need to fly light, the U-2 does not carry weapons. Nor can it undertake evasive maneuvers if fired upon, for it is delicate, and breaks up if subjected to strong forces. It is designed to fly high and far.

Deployment. On June 20, 1956, the first U-2 flight over a "denied area"Warsaw Pact airspacewas made. The flight passed over Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany. On July 1956, flights over the Soviet Union itself commenced, with a flight over Leningrad to photograph the shipyards. MiG fighters attempted to intercept the U-2, which was detected by Soviet radars, but were unable to attain its altitude. The next day a U-2 overflew Moscow itself, photographing the Kliningrad missile factory and Khimki rocket-engine factory north of the city.

Although the U.S. did not officially admit the existence of the U-2 flights, due to Soviet diplomatic protests President Eisenhower ordered all U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union temporarily suspended late in 1956. U-2s were used during this interval to spy on French and British actions in the Middle East during the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower ordered U-2 flights resumed after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian rebellion of October 1956. This Soviet aggression heightened tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and increased the U.S. desire for intelligence data. Over the next few years, the U-2 was flown over China and Vietnam as well the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union.

On May 1, 1960, a U-2 was shot down over Russia by a surface-to-air missile. The pilot was captured, tried for espionage, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. (He was traded for a captured Soviet spy two years later.) No more overflights of the Soviet Union were attempted. Coincidentally, however, the U.S. spy satellite program accomplished its first recovery of a film packet from space on the day that Powers was sentenced (August 19, 1960). The U-2 was, therefore, no longer a unique source of intelligence about affairs inside Soviet territory. However, it still had an important role to play in military history. On October 14, 1962, a U-2 flying over Cuba took pictures that proved that the Soviet Union had established sites for launching medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. The presence of these nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, combined with U.S. insistence that they be removed, gave rise to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost resulted in war between the U.S. and Soviet Union in October 1962.

Despite radical improvements in spy satellite capabilities since the 1960s, U-2 planes continue to provide some intelligence data. Some experts believe that U-2S photographs of North Korean facilities were the basis of the U.S. discovery in October 2002 that North Korea was producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. In 2003, proposed U-2S overflights of Iraq to support United Nations weapons inspections were a subject of controversy between the U.S. and Iraq. Furthermore, a civilian version of the U-2, the ER-2, is used by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration for Earth-resources research. The ER-2 has even made flights over Russiawith official permission.



Peebles, Curtis. Shadow Flights: America's Secret Air War against the Soviet Union. Novato, CA: Presidio, 2000.


U-2 Incident

U-2 Incident

views updated May 21 2018

U-2 Incident


The U-2 spy plane, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft built by the U.S. starting in the 1950s, was the subject of many "incidents" or diplomatic confrontations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War; however, the debacle referred to as the U-2 incident began on May 1, 1960, when a U-2 plane flown by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pilot Gary Powers took off from a U.S. air base at Peshawar, Turkey. The mission scheduled for Powers, codenamed Grand Slam, was to be the most ambitious U-2 flight undertaken up to that time. Its route would take it from Turkey to Soviet nuclear-weapons facilities in the Ural Mountains, various railroads, intercontinental ballistic missile sites in Siberia, then back across northern Russia, there to photograph shipyards before leaving Soviet airspace above the Arctic Circle and landing in Bodo, Norway.

The mission was unsuccessful. Powers took off at 6:26 a.m. on what was to have been the twenty-fourth U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union. He flew first to the east, over Iran to Afghanistan, in order to cross the Soviet border from an unexpected direction. He was, however, detected by Soviet radar while still 15 miles from the Afghan-Soviet border. Although undesirable, detection was not unusual; in fact, all previous U-2 flights over the Soviet Union had been detected at some point. The U-2 relied for success not primarily on stealth but on the fact that the Soviets had no fighter planes or, for the first few years, surface-to-air missiles that could fly high enough (70,000 ft [21 km]) to shoot it down. A recently deployed Soviet surface-to-air missile, the SA-2, could reach the U-2, but only if it happened to be stationed in the plane's flight-path and if its operators were on alert status, ready to fire.

Powers flew over an SA-2 battalion soon after entering Soviet airspace, but its crew was not on alert and so could not fire while he was within range. About a dozen Soviet MiG fighter planes also attempted to shoot down Powers's U-2, but could not climb high enough to get within weapons range.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (18941971) was notified of Powers's ongoing flight at 8:00 a.m. Moscow time. It being May 1 (May Day or International Labor Day), he was preparing for the massive official festivities that always scheduled for that occasion. Outraged at what he perceived as a deliberate political provocation, he ordered that Powers's U-2 be shot down at any cost.

By this time Powers was approaching the Russian city of Sverdlosk. The pilot of an Su-9 fighter jet was ordered to carry out a suicide attack on Powers, ramming the U-2 with his own plane; however, he was unable to locate Powers. An SA-2 battalion stationed outside the city was on alert, and when Powers entered its zone of engagement it fired a missile. It exploded near Powers's plane. The fragile U-2 was damaged by the concussion and began to break to pieces. Powers managed to bail out, and was captured as soon as he parachuted to the ground.

Because the U-2 overflights violated treaty law, the U.S. always denied publicly that they were occurring. Early on, in fact, the CIA, which ran the U-2 program, had considered using non-U.S.-citizens as pilots. Therefore, after the loss of Powers's plane (but before the Soviet Union had revealed that it had captured Powers alive) the U.S. issued several false cover stories. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for example, claimed that it had lost a U-2 being used as a weather plane over Turkey; the idea was that if the Soviets recovered the plane itself, the U.S. would claim that it had strayed accidentally into Soviet airspace when its oxygen supply failed and the pilot lost consciousness. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of State assured reporters at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on May 6 that "There was noN-Ono deliberate attempt to violate Soviet air space, and there has never been," and added that it was "monstrous" of the Soviets to assert that the U.S. would lie to the world.

But the next day, May 7, Khrushchev revealed that he had proof that the U-2 had been a spy plane: Powers himself. The statements by NASA and the State Department were exposed, causing an international political embarrassment for the U.S. On May 11, President Eisenhower made a speech in which he admitted that the U.S. had been overflying the Soviet Union. That same day, the remnants of Powers's U-2 were put on public display in Gorky Park in Moscow and were toured by Soviet leaders. Political protest in Japan caused the U.S. to withdraw its U-2 detachments from that country; soon the U.S. had withdrawn all its other overseas U-2 detachments as well. For the U.S., both the political and operational costs of the U-2 incident were high.

Powers was questioned, but revealed nothing of value to his captors. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a spy but was traded back to the U.S. for a captured Soviet spy two years later. Coincidentally, the day Powers was sentencedAugust 19, 1960the U.S. made its first use of a technology that would eliminate altogether the need for U-2 overflights of the Soviet Union, recovering a film package from its first spy satellite, the Corona. The Corona's pictures showed more of the Soviet Union (albeit at lower resolution) than all reconnaissance missions made up to that time by the U-2 and high-altitude balloons. From that day forward satellites, not airplanes, would provide direct intelligence of Soviet activityand would do so without political risk.



Peebles, Curtis. Shadow Flights: America's Secret Air War against the Soviet Union. Novato, CA: Presidio. 2000.


U-2 Spy Plane

U‐2 Spy Planes

views updated May 18 2018

U‐2 Spy Planes. To avert a surprise nuclear attack, some American intelligence analysts immediately after World War II believed that “pre‐hostilities reconnaissance” over potential enemy territory would be prudent. But since the Soviet Union, the only nation capable of threatening the United States, had few long‐range bomber aircraft and no nuclear weapons, American reconnaissance aircraft were ordered to respect Soviet air space.

The deepening Cold War and Moscow's growing inventory of nuclear weapons changed attitudes in the early 1950s. In 1954, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation began work on an aircraft that could fly above Soviet air defenses. Modifying an F‐104 interceptor fuselage and giving it a wingspan of almost 100 feet, Lockheed first tested the U‐2 aircraft in August 1955. Essentially a powered glider, the U‐2 could climb over 70,000 feet and had a range of 3,000 miles. The Central Intelligence Agency exercised operational management, but overflights of Soviet air space needed presidential approval. In all, the U‐2 flew twenty‐four missions over the Soviet Union.

In June 1956, American U‐2s began periodic flights over the Sino‐Soviet bloc, carrying cameras as their main sensors, supplemented by communications and electronic intercept equipment. The Royal Air Force also flew overflight missions under the authority of the British prime minister.

The overflights ended in May 1960 after the Soviets shot down a U‐2, but the U‐2's service continued. Several planes were given to the Nationalist Chinese for missions over the People's Republic of China. In October 1962, a U‐2 discovered Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. U‐2s flew missions during the Vietnam War, collected radioactive debris from other nations' nuclear tests, monitored the cease‐fire that ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and served in the Persian Gulf War. They will fly well into the next century.
[See also Intelligence, Military and Political; Satellites, Reconnaissance; U‐2 Incident (1960).]


Chris Pocock , Dragon Lady: The History of the U‐2 Spyplane, 1989.

Vance O. Mitchell

U-2 Spy Plane Incident

views updated Jun 27 2018


On May 1, 1960, an American high-altitude U-2 spy plane departed from Pakistan on a flight that was supposed to take it across the USSR to Norway. Shot down near Sverdlovsk, with its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, captured, the flight triggered a Cold War crisis, aborted a scheduled four-power summit meeting, and poisoned Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's relations with U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Aware that U-2 spy flights constituted a grave violation of Soviet sovereignty, Eisenhower reluctantly approved them beginning in 1956 to check on the Soviet missile program. Even after the May Day 1960 flight was shot down, Khrushchev hoped to proceed with the summit scheduled for May 16 in Paris. But by not revealing he had shot down the plane and captured its pilot, and by waiting for Washington to invent a cover story and then unmasking it, Khrushchev provoked Eisenhower to take personal responsibility for the flight. After that, Khrushchev felt he had no choice but to wreck the summit, cut off relations with Eisenhower, and await the election of Eisenhower's successor.

It is highly uncertain whether the Paris summit could have produced progress on Berlin and a nuclear test ban. Russian observers such as Fyodor Burlatsky and Georgy Arbatov contend that Khrushchev used the U-2 incident as an excuse to scuttle what he anticipated would be an unproductive summit. More likely, Khrushchev was lured by the flight and its fate into a sequence of unintended consequences that undermined not only his foreign policy but his position at home.

See also: cold war; khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich


Beschloss, Michael R. (1986). Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair. New York: Harper and Row.

Taubman, William. (2003). Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: W. W. Norton.

William Taubman

U‐2 Incident

views updated Jun 11 2018

U‐2 Incident (1960). On 1 May 1960, a U.S. spy plane—a U‐2—departed from Peshawar, Pakistan, on a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. It never arrived at its destination—Bodo, Norway. On 6 May, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev announced that the aircraft had been shot down by a surface‐to‐air missile deep inside Soviet territory. Washington countered by saying that the aircraft was on a weather research mission when it strayed off course after the pilot's oxygen system failed. Khrushchev then revealed that the U‐2's film magazines had been recovered and that the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was alive and in Soviet custody.

The incident created a sensation and threatened to scuttle the Soviet‐American summit conference scheduled to convene in Paris on 16 May. In a controversial move, President Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted responsibility for the flights rather than let the world believe that lower‐level functionaries had such authority. He also promised an end to the missions, but refused to apologize. The overflights, he asserted, had been necessary to safeguard American security. An angry Khrushchev refused to attend the summit conference.

The summit's cancellation was both a public humiliation and a personal blow to Eisenhower. He had hoped to make what would have been his final summit meeting a fitting capstone to his presidency by reaching agreement on a number of critical issues. The president even spoke of resigning, but soon changed his mind.

Powers was convicted of espionage by a Soviet court and sentenced to ten years' “deprivation of liberty,” the first three to be served in prison. He served less than two years before being exchanged in January 1962 for a Soviet agent in Western custody. He died in a helicopter crash in 1977.
[See also Cold War: External Course; Cold War: Domestic Course; Intelligence, Military and Political; U‐2 Spy Planes.]


Michael R. Beschloss , Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U‐2 Affair, 1986.

Vance O. Mitchell

U-2 Incident

views updated May 29 2018


U-2 INCIDENT. On 1 May 1960 a U-2 reconnaissance and research aircraft piloted by Francis Gary Powers, on a surveillance mission for the CIA, was shot down over the Soviet Union (over Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg) by a SAM-2 missile. The mission had originated in Peshawar, Pakistan, and aimed at capturing aerial pictures of military installations to monitor the progress of the Soviet missile programs. Upon entering Soviet air space Powers activated his antiradar scrambler, but the plane was spotted by Soviet military authorities. The Soviets shot the plane down; Powers surprisingly enough survived the crash unharmed but unconscious due to lack of oxygen. (Spy plane pilots were not expected to be captured alive if their mission could not be completed.) He was arrested by the KGB and admitted being a spy who had flown across the USSR to reach a military airfield in Norway while collecting intelligence information. On 5 May Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced this act of U.S. aggression. The U.S. government and the CIA responded by denying that they had authorized the flight, but the Kremlin remained unconvinced. Powers was tried publicly (from 17 to 19 August) and sentenced to three years in prison and seven years in a labor camp. Finally, the United States admitted that the U-2 flights were supposed to prevent surprise attacks against American interests.

This incident disrupted the peace process between Washington and Moscow and ruined the Paris summit: the conference was adjourned on 17 May despite President Eisenhower's promise to stop the flights. On 19 February 1962 Powers was finally exchanged for Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel, a Soviet spy.


Gaddis, John L. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Powers, Francis G., and Curt Gentry. Operation Over flight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. Brasseys, Inc., 2002.


See alsoCold War .