The U-2 provides high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance, day or night, in direct support of U.S. and allied forces. It delivers critical imagery and signals intelligence to decision makers throughout all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, low-intensity conflict, and large-scale hostilities.
The U-2S is a single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude/near space reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft providing signals, imagery, and electronic measurements and signature intelligence, or MASINT. Long and narrow wings give the U-2 glider-like characteristics and allow it to quickly lift heavy sensor payloads to unmatched altitudes, keeping them there for extended periods of time. The U-2 is capable of gathering a variety of imagery, including multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar products which can be stored or sent to ground exploitation centers. In addition, it also supports high-resolution, broad-area synoptic coverage provided by the optical bar camera producing traditional film products which are developed and analyzed after landing.
The U-2 also carries a signals intelligence payload. All intelligence products except for wet film can be transmitted in near real-time anywhere in the world via air-to-ground or air-to-satellite data links, rapidly providing critical information to combatant commanders. MASINT provides indications of recent activity in areas of interest and reveals efforts to conceal the placement or true nature of man-made objects.
Routinely flown at altitudes over 70,000 feet, the U-2 pilot must wear a full pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts. The low-altitude handling characteristics of the aircraft and bicycle-type landing gear require precise control inputs during landing; forward visibility is also limited due to the extended aircraft nose and "taildragger" configuration. A second U-2 pilot normally "chases" each landing in a high-performance vehicle, assisting the pilot by providing radio inputs for altitude and runway alignment. These characteristics combine to earn the U-2 a widely accepted title as the most difficult aircraft in the world to fly.
The U-2 is powered by a lightweight , fuel efficient General Electric F118-101 engine, which negates the need for air refueling on long duration missions. The U-2S Block 10 electrical system upgrade replaced legacy wiring with advanced fiber-optic technology and lowered the overall electronic noise signature to provide a quieter platform for the newest generation of sensors.
The aircraft has the following sensor packages: electro-optical infrared camera, optical bar camera, advanced synthetic aperture radar, signals intelligence, and network-centric communication.
A U-2 Reliability and Maintainability Program provided a complete redesign of the cockpit with digital color multifunction displays and up-front avionics controls to replace the 1960s-vintage round dial gauges which were no longer supportable.
Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955. Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other U.S. decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability. In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis. In more recent times, the U-2 has provided intelligence during operations in Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. When requested, the U-2 also provides peacetime reconnaissance in support of disaster relief from floods, earthquakes, and forest fires as well as search and rescue operations.
The U-2R, first flown in 1967, was 40 percent larger and more capable than the original aircraft. A tactical reconnaissance version, the TR-1A, first flew in August 1981 and was structurally identical to the U-2R. The last U-2 and TR-1 aircraft were delivered in October 1989; in 1992 all TR-1s and U-2s were designated as U-2Rs. Since 1994, $1.7 billion has been invested to modernize the U-2 airframe and sensors. These upgrades also included the transition to the GE F118-101 engine which resulted in the re-designation of all Air Force U-2 aircraft to the U-2S.
U-2s are home based at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale Air Force Base, California, but are rotated to operational detachments worldwide. U-2 pilots are trained at Beale using five two-seat aircraft designated as TU-2S before deploying for operational missions.
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
one General Electric F118-101 engine
105 feet (32 meters)
63 feet (19.2 meters)
16 feet (4.8 meters)
Maximum takeoff weight:
40,000 pounds (18,000 kilograms)
more than 7,000 miles (6,090 nautical miles)
above 70,000 feet (21,212+ meters)
one (two in trainer models)
Initial operating capability:
active force, 33 (5 two-seat trainers and two ER-2s operated by NASA); Reserve, 0; ANG, 0
(Current as of September 2015)
Point of Contact
Air Combat Command, Public Affairs Office; 115 Thompson St., Suite 210; Langley AFB, VA 23665-1987; DSN 574-5007 or 757-764-5007; e-mail: email@example.com