Landing a U-2 on a conventional airstrip is often considered to be one of the most difficult jobs in aviation, so you’d think that landing a U-2 on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier would be all but impossible. But you’d be wrong.
As any “Dragon Lady” pilot will tell you, nothing about flying the U-2 is normal. Because of the high altitudes the plane flies at and an only partially pressurized cabin, pilots wear pressure suits not unlike those you’d find in early NASA space missions. As you can imagine, wearing a space suit in a cramped cockpit can make moving, working, and even seeing all a lot more challenging.
“First, once that pressure suit is on it makes you feel like you are wearing a sleeping bag, stuffing a football helmet on your head, and ski gloves to make dexterous movements even harder,” wrote Lt. Col. Mikko LaValley of the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron.
“Second, the visibility in the cockpit just got really restricted. The helmet cuts off large portions of the peripheral vision. Without the pressure suit helmet you could see side references and sometimes the wings, with the helmet on, all that is gone.”
Landing a U-2 on a runway is hard enough
To make matters worse for the pilot when landing, the bottom section of the front canopy of the U-2 has been known to fog up on humid days, further limiting visibility. In order to make it feasible to land safely, the pilot in the U-2 has to rely on another rated pilot chasing the aircraft down the runway in a sports car to provide direction as it closes with the ground.
The Air Force uses all sorts of cars for the job, from Camaros to Audis, just as long as they can keep pace with a jet-powered spy plane as it comes in for a landing.
“That car has to be able to accelerate from zero to close to 100 mph in a turn to come into position behind the airplane on the runway,” LaValley explained.
Once the U-2 is about ten feet off the ground, the pilot in the chase car, referred to as the “Mobil Officer,” has to relay the exact position of the aircraft and its far-flung wingtips to the pilot who’s flying nearly blind inside.
“These calls tell the pilot how far off the ground he/she is, whether or not they are line up with center line, if the wings are level, and if any control inputs are needed. On a windy, rough air day, the Mobil can be extremely busy helping the pilot ride a 40,000 pound bicycle down the runway!”
If it’s that hard to bring a U-2 spy plane to safe stop on the controlled surface of an Air Force landing strip, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that it might be impossible to put the capably-but-finicky Dragon Lady on the U.S. Navy’s flat tops. But like so many defense programs throughout the Cold War, seeming impossible was never really seen as a valid reason not to make something work. In fact, the U-2 has flown off America’s carriers on more than one occasion.
Why try to fly the U-2 from an aircraft carrier?
The U-2’s original fuel range of around 3,000 miles gave it the ability to cover a ton of ground, but not enough to operate from American-based airstrips when keeping tabs on far-flung opponents in places like the Soviet Union. Instead, U-2s often operated from airstrips in foreign nations, with on-the-record flights departing from Cyprus, France, India, Pakistan, Thailand, South Korea and more. But the CIA knew this reliance on the goodwill of foreign partners was a strategic shortcoming, and they started looking for alternatives as early as 1957, just a few years after the U-2 first entered service for the intelligence agency.
Then, in 1960, the need for an alternative to foreign airstrips became much more pressing. On May 1 of that year, a U-2 spy plane flown by CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 high-altitude surface-to-air missile. It marked the end of the U.S. being able to defeat Soviet defenses with altitude alone, saw Powers captured and placed in prison for two years, and in the moment, was a significant setback for American foreign policy. Powers’ U-2 had taken off from an airstrip in Pakistan’s capital city of Peshawar, and in the aftermath of the incident, relations between Pakistan and the U.S. soured considerably. Further diplomatic and political fallout reverberated around the world, from Washington D.C. to Tokyo.
If finding an alternative to foreign airstrips seemed worthwhile before, it seemed essential after 1960.
Project White Tale
1963 was a red-letter year for the Navy’s flat tops and for famed aviation firm Lockheed. In October of that year, then Lieutenant James Flatley III would make history successfully landing and taking off from the deck of the USS Forrestal multiple times in an absolutely massive C-130 Hercules. Flatley and his crew proved the Lockheed cargo planes could be used to resupply carriers at sea, though the challenge of doing so proved too great for the Navy’s interests at the time. You can learn more about this incredible initiative in our full feature about it here or watch our YouTube video about it below.
But two months before Flatley’s C-130 would make history with a landing on the Forrestal, Lockheed test pilot Bob Schumacher would carve his own name into the record books (albeit, secretly) with a takeoff.
Months before, the CIA had approached Lockheed’s legendary engineer Kelly Johnson to see if he thought the U-2 he designed could manage flight operations from an aircraft carrier. Despite how challenging the plane could be to operate, Johnson was confident the airframe could do the trick with just a few modifications; chief among them were adding hardier landing gear and an arresting hook to capture the steel cables traditionally used to slow and stop aircraft aboard carriers.
Confident that the effort was possible, Lt. General Marshall S. Carter, serving as Deputy Director of the CIA, assigned Assistant Director of the Office of Special Activities (OSA), Colonel Jack Ledford, to assess its feasibility. Ledford, in turn, placed his deputy, James A. Cunningham, at the head of a joint team comprised of representatives from the CIA, the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and Lockheed, tasking them with identifying any measures needed to bring the concept to fruition.
As a part of this effort, declassified CIA documents reveal, Cunningham’s team worked out issues ranging from how to get the large aircraft onto the ship, how to move it around the carrier deck, and how to keep classified CIA U-2 operations a secret when operating from a crowded aircraft carrier.
The first of those issues were both solved by Lockheed, who provided a specialized fuselage sling for loading and unloading the aircraft, as well as a fuselage cart dubbed the “Lowboy” for positioning the U-2 on the deck of the ship. As far as keeping things a secret, Carter aimed to present U-2 flights as anything but reconnaissance missions over contested airspace, citing previous cover stories the CIA had worked out with NACA (the predecessor to NASA) for similar flights as inspiration.
“A clear and plausible cover story, stoutly maintained by responsible persons concerned and supported by the IDEALIST Detachment aboard the carrier, can probably preserve the fiction of innocuous use of the U-2 for considerable time,” Cunningham wrote in his report.
“This story will require precise and unequivocal attention to every detail.”
On July 23, 1963, General Carter, armed with Cunningham’s recommendations, agreed to pull the trigger on White Tail, giving Lockheed the go-ahead to begin modifications on two of the CIA’s existing spy planes, as well as directing the OSA to make arrangements to get some of the CIA’s U-2 pilots trained for aircraft carrier operations. The CIA and the Navy were now nearly convinced the U-2 could fly from the Navy’s flat tops, and it was quickly coming time to prove it.
Sneaking a U-2 aboard an aircraft carrier for its first flight
On the night of August 1, 1963, a team from the Navy, CIA, and Lockheed secretly loaded a U-2A onto the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk, moored in the San Diego harbor. The team and crew there to support its flight were given space to work under either the designation “Lockheed employees” or “ONR Staff,” for the Office of Naval Research, to hide the presence of America’s foreign intelligence service.
The following morning, the Kitty Hawk’s commander, Capt. Horace Epes, addressed the presence of the strange aircraft and the need for secrecy among the crew as the carrier steamed out to sea.
“The details of this program, and today’s test are classified because of the obvious far-reaching implications of this program with relation to [REDACTED],” a declassified report recounted Epes saying.
“In this regard it is important that there be no discussion or disclosures of this test to unauthorized persons. This means anyone who is not aboard today.”
On August 5th, it was time for the CIA and Lockheed to put their spy plane to the test. Unlike the flight suits common to the Kitty Hawk’s flight deck, Lockheed test pilot Bob Schumacher emerged from the depths of the ship wearing the U-2’s signature pressure suit, looking more like he was preparing for a deep dive in a submersible craft than a history-making flight. Once he was cleared for takeoff, Schumacher throttled up and let the incredible lift provided by the spy plane’s 103’ wingspan do what it did best. In just 321 feet, the U-2 left the deck of the Kitty Hawk and proved that you could deploy it from an aircraft carrier.
After a brief flight, Schumacher made a number of practice approaches, ensuring he could manage the difficult aircraft as it closed with the moving vessel. With the aircraft carrier moving at 30 knots, the U-2 approached it at just 80, held aloft by its high-lift wings. As touched down on the flight deck, the U-2’s relative speed to the carrier was just 50 knots, but even at such a low speed, landing the “Dragon Lady” is no easy feat.
“Although the takeoff was very successful, the attempted landing was not. The aircraft bounced, hit hard on one wingtip, and then just barely managed to become airborne again before reaching the end of the deck,” the CIA report states.
After the heart-stopping failed landing attempt, Schumacher decided taking off had been enough and diverted to Lockheed’s airfield in Burbank, some 100 miles away. The mission was a partial success, but it was enough to prove the concept was viable. Right away, the CIA green lit another round of changes to a handful of U-2s for further testing, and sent two teams of pilots to Monterey and Pensacola Naval Air Stations to become carrier certified.
Modifying the U-2 and the aircraft carrier for the job
Lockheed’s modified U-2 for aircraft carrier duty was dubbed the U-2G, and it saw a number of changes to the original design. First, heavier landing gear was added to withstand the force of carrier landings, with care taken to ensure the new system was rated for double the deceleration of the standard aircraft’s brakes. Heavier-pressure bulkheads were added around the landing gear to withstand impact with the carrier’s deck. Lockheed took arresting hooks for their T2V SeaStar jet trainer and modified them for the U-2, incorporating augmented longerons in the fuselage to better withstand the forces exerted on the airframe when it caught the carrier’s cables. The hook was then covered by an aerodynamic plastic fairing that was jettisoned upon approach to the carrier.
The U-2G also added a mechanically operated fuel jettison system that would allow the aircraft to dump its fuel in the event of an emergency or if it was approaching a carrier with too much on board to manage a safe landing. Mechanical spoilers were added about midway outboard on the trailing edge of each wing that could be activated via a switch near the aircraft’s throttle. When engaged just before landing, the flaps would deploy and stall the U-2 almost immediately, allowing it to “spot-land” more accurately. These added flaps were considered the most important change to the U-2 by the CIA, who believed it would resolve the aircraft’s landing woes.
On the carrier itself, lightweight arresting cables that measured one-inch in diameter replaced the standard 1.5-2 inch cables commonly found on flight decks. The change was made to minimize how much vibration the cables sent through the body of the spy plane as it ran them over during landing.
Operation Fish Hawk
By February of 1964, the CIA had three U-2Gs ready for testing and two flight crews trained to fly them. On March 2, Schumacher was once again chosen to fly the newly renovated U-2, this time departing from a land-based airstrip with orders to land aboard the USS Ranger, a Forestall-class super carrier sailing off the California coast.
Schumacher made a series of touch-and-go landings on the Ranger, coming down onto the deck and then throttling back up to get the U-2 back into the sky. Finally, he felt as though the conditions were right and the aircraft could manage the landing and made his final approach. As he brought the U-2 down on the aircraft carrier, its new tail hook grabbed the cable just as it was intended, but the rapid shift in momentum and weight pitched the tail upward, driving the nose of the plane into the deck and breaking its pitot tube (an instrument used to measure air speed). The damage was minor and the team on board were able to repair the aircraft in just a few days.
Once mended, Schumacher and other CIA pilots made a series of successful take-offs and landings aboard the Ranger, resulting in five pilots the CIA deemed certified for such operations. The effort would culminate two months later, when the first U-2 was launched from an aircraft carrier in an operational setting: monitoring French nuclear tests at Mururoa atoll, a test site in French Polynesia.
Two reconnaissance flights were launched over three days without incident and with the French totally unaware. The mission was a success, but it would be the last time a U-2G would launch from a carrier for active operations.
A bigger U-2 takes on aircraft carrier duty
In 1967, the U-2R entered service, boasting a design that was 40% larger than its predecessor. All that added size came with a number of significant improvements, including quadruple the payload capacity of previous U-2s and twice the range. Within just two years of entering service, the CIA was already itching to find out how this new U-2 would fare aboard an aircraft carrier.
They added a reinforced arresting hook, and in order to make carrying the U-2 aboard an aircraft carrier more manageable, the outer six feet of each wing was modified to fold up, like many other carrier-aircraft.
Former Air Force fighter pilot turned senior Lockheed test pilot Bill Park was chosen, alongside four other CIA pilots, for abbreviated carrier training before being tasked with putting the U-2R to the test. The first test flight of this new iteration U-2 from an aircraft carrier took place off the deck of the Kitty Hawk-class USS America on November 21, 1969. Things were progressing well, but the landing attempt had to be canceled when it was discovered that the ground crew had forgotten to remove the locking pin from the tail hook assembly. However, every subsequent flight was a success.
“The airplane demonstrated good wave-off characteristics, and I felt at the time that landing could be made without a hook,” Park later recounted.
But despite the success of the trials aboard the America, the CIA was having trouble finding the value in fielding a U-2 aboard an aircraft carrier. While it did eliminate the need for foreign airstrips, a carrier strike group wasn’t exactly sneaky, nor was it cheap. To make matters worse for the U-2 and its aircraft carrier aspirations, satellites were beginning to seem like a better alternative for many reconnaissance missions.
“Although successfully tested from the deck of the USS America off the coast of Virginia in 1969, the U-2R did not fly operational missions, its technological capabilities having been surpassed by space-based reconnaissance platforms,” the CIA explains in its official history of the program.
After the CIA gave up, the Navy gave the U-2 one more chance
The CIA may have felt that carrier strike groups were too pricey and high profile for their secret missions, but the Navy saw the potential for a powerful maritime intelligence tool in the revamped and more powerful U-2R. In 1974, they chose to obtain their own U-2 for carrier testing.
This time, the modifications weren’t just to support take-off and landing, however. A new nose section was added to house an X-band phased array AN/APS-116 radar. Equipment pods on the leading edges of each wing were also added. On the left side, the pod housed a Return Beam Vidicon camera that could produce high-fidelity images without the need for film. The pod on the opposite wing housed an AN/ALQ-110 radar signal tracker that was linked to another camera.
Inside the aircraft’s payload bay, a suite of electronics were added, including an actual data link that would allow the U-2 to send radar data back to the aircraft carrier, ground-based installations, or any other ships with line-of-sight in almost real-time. A Navy-variant U-2 carrying these systems represented a significant leap forward in maritime surveillance for America’s carriers, but by then, aircraft weren’t the only way to keep tabs on large swaths of ocean.
The Navy dubbed this heavily modified U-2R the EP-X, but even the added capability of this new platform wasn’t enough to outpace rapidly advancing satellite technology. For the third time in a decade, the U-2 had proven it could operate aboard America’s aircraft carriers, but was deemed too impractical for continued use.
Today, the U-2 remains in service with the U.S. Air Force, but no U-2 has ever entered operational service with the U.S. Navy.