My, What Pretty, Razor-Thin Wings You Have

Fifty years ago this month, Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR in his Lockheed U-2. The legendary spy plane outlived its successor and is still flying today. To paraphrase Iceman, "We like you because you're dangerous." Amen.


The U-2 was, and is, one of the most dangerous and difficult-to-fly aircraft in modern military history. It outlived the SR-71 Blackbird, one of the coolest planes ever built, because of its simplicity, altitude capability, and relatively low operating cost. Pilots call it the Dragon Lady. Men have been known to get the bends — the same thing that affects deep-sea divers — from flying it at altitude. It's currently used in Afghanistan and Iraq, commuting from a base in the Persian Gulf. The commute flight alone lasts twelve hours.

The following passage is an excerpt from an excellent piece on the difficulty and romance of flying the thing in the New York Times:

The trade-off of a plane built light enough to fly above 70,000 feet is that it is almost impossible to control. And 13 miles above the ground, the atmosphere is so thin that the "envelope" between stalling and "overspeed" — going so fast you lose control of the plane, resulting in an unrecoverable nose dive — is razor-thin, making minor disruptions, even turbulence, as deadly as a missile.

...As I was told before one of my tryout flights, "Landing the U-2 is a lot like playing pool. It's not so much how you shoot as how you set up your shot." Or, as my former wing commander said, "We've all had moments when we could just as easily have made one tiny move the other way and ended up dead."


...Were the risks worth it? Absolutely... It was worth it personally, too. I'll never forget the adrenaline surge of landing what was basically a multimillion-dollar jet-powered glider on its 12-inch tail wheel from a full stall while wearing a space suit. And I'll always remember the peace of sitting alone on the quiet edge of space, out of radio contact for hours.


Reconnaissance will outlive the U-2, but there will always be a divot in the hearts of those who have seen the curvature of the earth, the stars seemingly close enough to touch, and known the satisfaction of having completed a mission with the Dragon Lady.


Awesome. Anyone else get chills from reading that?

Photo Credit: Top shot: Lockheed Martin's Flickr page, which is a hell of a good way to burn a lunch hour. Gary Powers image: Associated Press. All others: Max Whittaker for the New York Times.


(If you're interested in more, check out this other NYT story on the U-2's modern relevance, its 60 pilots, and the difficulties of high-altitude flight. Don't miss the awesome gallery that goes along with it.)

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