Breaks Records Before Retirement : U-2 Spy Plane Flies Into Aviation History Books

Times Staff Writer

After 34 years of official obscurity, the once-supersecret U-2 spy plane is getting a chance to publicly show it has the right stuff as test pilots try to set more than a dozen high-flying records before retiring the aircraft forever today.

Monday, on its first try, this last of its kind U-2 shattered an existing altitude record for its class by nearly 20,000 feet. On the way up to a record-breaking 73,700 feet, it set six new rate-of-climb records, getting almost to the edge of space in half the time it took the previous record holder.

This U-2, similar to the one Francis Gary Powers flew to infamy when he was shot down in 1960 on a mission over the Soviet Union, will soon be retired. Its spying duties have long since been taken over by a new generation of spy planes and satellites, and the U-2 has since been serving the needs of scientific researchers.


The slim aircraft with long, slender wings and the look of a glider became a controversial symbol of the Cold War. Designed by Lockheed in 1955 to fly undetected nearly 14 miles above the Earth, the plane’s high-tech cameras spied on military installations. To hide their true identity, the government called them weather reconnaissance planes and said “U” in U-2 stood for utility.

The U-2’s highly classified missions for the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force were a closely guarded secret until Soviet ground-to-air missiles exploded in the air close to Powers’ U-2, disabling the craft in May, 1960. Powers managed to bail out, was captured and put on trial in Moscow.

The episode catapulted the CIA overflights into the limelight and so incensed the late Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khruschev that he canceled a Paris summit meeting with then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Powers--who died many years later in a Los Angeles helicopter crash--was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet prison but then was released two years later in a spy trade.

The Powers case ended U.S. overflights of the Soviet Union, but not the controversy over the spy plane’s work. Another U-2 was shot down over over Cuba in 1962, and three or four more U-2s on CIA missions were shot down over China, according to Chris Pocock, the plane’s biographer.

According to Pocock, Lockheed built 57 of these planes. Because they were so tricky to fly, many of the U-2s crashed. Only this one U-2 is left. Neither Lockheed nor the National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials here will confirm or deny these numbers, but they did indicate indirectly that Pocock’s figures were reasonably accurate.

When new generations of spy planes and satellites took over much of the U-2’s work, the Air Force loaned several of the ships to NASA-Ames Research Laboratories at Moffett Field, near San Francisco. These high-flying reconnaissance planes were flown on atmospheric and weather research missions, they scouted the explosive eruptions of Mt. St. Helens in Washington and helped map the devastating forest fires that burned in Yellowstone National Park last summer.

On Monday, it was nostalgia time at Edwards Air Force Base for Tony LeVier, retired Lockheed test pilot who was the first one to fly the U-2 and who was on hand to watch the plane’s last stab at glory.

“It’s a hell of an airplane,” said LeVier, 76. “That damn plane maybe kept us out of World War III.” He was referring to the spy flights over Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. The U-2s brought back photographic proof of the Soviet missile buildup on that island.

On LeVier’s first test flights in August, 1955, the U-2’s fuel tanks were filled with regular cigarette lighter fluid, not jet fuel. “All of the other fuels we had would vaporize at such high altitudes, so one of the engineers came up with the idea of using cigarette lighter fluid . . . and it worked,” LeVier said. The fuel was designated LF-1, he added.

LeVier took the first U-2 to 50,000 feet on its maiden flight and came close to crashing on landing because of its tricky handling characteristics. In addition to being hard to land, he said the plane flies so high that its wings have little lift in the thin air, and the pilot must keep it at near maximum speeds or the ship will stall and flame out.

“That puts you in a coffin corner,” LeVier said, explaining that going too fast causes buffetting that can shake the plane apart. This means the pilot must keep his speed within a tiny window of only 4 or 5 m.p.h. to survive.

On Monday’s flight, Lockheed test pilot Jerry Hoyt, 48, said his margin of error was only about 2 m.p.h. on his level runs nearly 14 miles above the Edwards runways.

The flights yesterday and today are giving Lockheed’s test pilots a chance to let the old bird take some final bows on the aeronautical stage. Ironically, these performances are nothing out of the ordinary for the U-2. It had been climbing out this fast and flying this high routinely, the experts say.

“We could have done it a long time ago,” said Lockheed Executive Vice President Ben Rich. Rich is in charge of the “Skunk Works,” Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects where the U-2 was born. He explained that because of the U-2’s secret work, the Air Force would not allow the plane’s capabilities to be publicized before. Officially, no one will say even now how many were built or how they flew.

Hoyt took off just after dawn Monday in a thundering roar down the runway. The white U-2 with the NASA markings was airborne in only 150 feet and Hoyt hauled back on the controls and put the ship into a near-vertical climb. Its powerful engine exhausting black smoke, the plane climbed to record altitude in only 12 minutes, 13 seconds. As it passed through each 10,000-foot mark, it broke another climb-to-altitude record, cutting each of them by half.

Today, test pilot Ronald Williams will handle the controls and, taking a heavier load of fuel, he will try for similar records in a heavier weight class. Because of the added weight he is not expected to climb quite as fast or go any higher.

Representatives of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, keeper of all official world aviation records, and the National Aerospace Assn., which keeps the national records, were on hand both days to monitor and certify the new records.

When Williams finishes the last run today, an era ends. This last U-2 will be repainted black, like the original spy planes, and put on display at Warner-Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia.