DRAGON LADY WITH A MILESTONE: On February 2 a U-2 spy plane surpassed 30,000 hours of flight time. This is a USAF propaganda photo — and a good one. Just so y’all know, I missed it when StrategyPage’s webmaster posted it.
In October 2007 I saw one of these classic planes take-off on a mission. I was at an “undisclosed airbase somewhere in the Middle East.” Shortly after the U-2 take-off, a Global Hawk UAV landed.
Extract from a very old essay:
The U-2 is no beauty, either, though over time my opinion of the Dragonlady’s looks has changed for the better. On the ground, its huge, thin wings are awkward, but once aloft the black spy plane has the stubborn elegance of an ocean-hopping seabird.
I wonder if that’s the way Kelly Johnson and his Lockheed Skunk Works engineers envisioned the U-2 when they designed it in the 1950s — a manned albatross with the altitude and range to take pictures of the Soviet Union so we could count the Kremlin’s missiles, bombers and tanks.
The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the U-2 on its silent vigil helped defeat it, as did its snazzy, hypersonic offspring, the SR-71, another example of Skunk Works genius. Information gleaned from these planes and satellites first helped contain the Cold War (for example, we learned there was no bomber gap), then win it.
The downside of the U-2, however, hit the headlines in 1960, when U-2 CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. A spy plane with a man in it runs that risk — all manned aircraft do.
This is one of the upsides of UAVs like the Global Hawk, Predator and the new, improved attack UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper. When a UAV goes down, we don’t lose an American pilot to death, injury or the humiliation and torture of a Hanoi Hilton.
Aw, go read the whole, old thing. The column discusses the supposedly “au courant new improved invented six minutes ago” concept of mixing UAVs and manned aircraft. Hey, I’ll wager there were U.S. military officers thinking about mixing manned aircraft and semi-autonomous unmanned air frames (in a coordinated strike scenario) at least three decades ago.