When the U-2 Went to Sea
On Aug. 5, 1963, about the time I was graduating from Enlisted Submarine School in Connecticut, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk steamed out of San Diego carrying a most unusual cargo. Under the cover of darkness the night before, a super secret U-2C high-flying surveillance aircraft was loaded onto the deck, tied down, and covered with tarps.
This was the commencement of the operational phase of a fascinating joint effort between the Navy and the CIA called Project Whale Tail.
In 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 over the Soviet Union on Mayday, May 1, 1960.
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.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent availability of heretofore secret documents, we learned of the Soviet’s extreme frustration at their inability to shoot down the spidery aircraft that routinely violated their airspace. It was only after they received classified information from Lee Harvey Oswald following his defection to the Soviet Union, that they were able to down Powers’ U-2. Apparently, Oswald had learned a great deal during his stint as a radar operator and technician at the Atsugi, Japan, staging base for the U-2 overflights.
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 Turkey and Pakistan landed on the other side of the Soviet Union at Bodo airfield in Norway with fuel tanks virtually empty. In an effort to solve this problem, the CIA approached the Navy proposing to develop the ability to launch and land U-2s from carriers.
And thus, on that August morning in 1963, the USS Kitty Hawk sailed out of San Diego Harbor to make history.
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.
Following 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.
While 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 Ranger on March 2, 1964 , off the California coast. This landing had only one small problem when the arrestor hook engaged, forced the plane’s nose toward the deck, and broke off the pitot tube. After quick repairs, Schumacher took off again successfully. During the next several days, Schumacher and the CIA pilots received carrier qualifications from the Navy.
Interestingly, 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.
The 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 Nov. 21-23, 1969, from USS America off the Virginia coast. As part of the operations, the U-2R was even successfully transported down the America’s elevator.
The 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.
Carrier-based 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.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor