When the U-2 Went to Sea
This was the commencement of the operational phase of a fascinating joint effort between the Navy and the CIA called Project Whale Tail.
the years before we had perfected satellite surveillance, the CIA collected most
of its intel using high-flying U-2 spy aircraft. The U-2 had become a household
name three years earlier following the downing of Francis Gary Powers in his U-2
These spidery, fragile, unarmed gliders-with-a-jet-engine aircraft had been developed at Lockheed in the 1950s, and were state-of-the-art aircraft that could fly higher than anything the Soviets were capable of shooting at them.
the collapse of the
single most irking shortcoming of the U-2 was not its lack of armament, but its
relatively short range. In the mid to late 1950s and early 1960s, U-2s taking
off from bases in
thus, on that August morning in 1963, the USS
Kitty Hawk sailed out of
Famed test pilot Bob Schumacher had the stick as the insubstantial looking aircraft fired up its single jet engine and rolled to a graceful liftoff in only 321 feet without using the ship’s catapults.
his successful launch, Schumacher made several landing approaches, proving that
the U-2’s slow
approach speed and high excess power provided plenty of margin for error in case
of a waveoff. On his first attempt at an actual landing, however, one wingtip
struck the deck, and Schumacher barely got the aircraft back in the air before
it tumbled over the side.
Undaunted, Lockheed and the Navy modified three U-2As, adding stronger landing gear, an arresting hook, and wing spoilers (which decrease lift during landing). One of the initial problems with the U-2 was that it seemed not to want to land. On the aircraft’s initial test flight, Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier tried to land unsuccessfully four times before finally bringing the aircraft back to earth on his fifth attempt.
these modifications were taking place, Schumacher and several CIA pilots
developed and honed their carrier landing skills flying T-2
Buckeye trainers from the USS Lexington.
Schumacher landed the first U-2G (as the modified U-2 was called) on the USS
the operational ability to take off from and land on a carrier was used only
once. In May 1964, a U-2G operating off the USS
Ranger monitored the French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll.
technology continued to advance, however. In 1967 Lockheed introduced the
40-percent larger U-2R, with twice the range and four times the payload. This
plane had an integral arrestor hook, and the four outer feet of the wings folded
to facilitate easier carrier operations. Lockheed test pilot Bill Park and four
CIA pilots conducted sea trial from
world of technology was changing rapidly by this time, however, and none of
these carrier-capable U-2Rs ever entered active service, having been completely
superceded by highly maneuverable, moderately inexpensive spy satellites.
U-2s are only a footnote to Cold War history, but U-2s in modern configurations
still serve our country in scientific application, and even occasionally for
special military ops.
This article was compiled from information made available by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Aerospaceweb.org - which is a non-profit organization operated by engineers and scientists in the aerospace field, whose goal is to provide educational information on a variety of subjects ranging from aviation to space travel to weaponry, and various Navy historical sources.