The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", is a single-engine, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It provides day and night, very high-altitude (70,000 feet / 21,000 m), all-weather intelligence gathering. The U-2 has also been used for electronic sensor research, satellite calibration, and communications purposes.
You can see why the U-2 is considered the most difficult plane in the world to fly. Each pilot has a co-pilot, who chases the plane on the runway in a sports car. Most of the cars are either Pontiac GTOs or Chevrolet Cameros - the Air Force buys American.
The chase cars talk the pilot down as he lands on bicycle-style landing gear. In that spacesuit, the pilot in the plane simply cannot get a good view of the runway.
Upon takeoff, the wings on this plane, which extend 103 feet from tip to tip, literally flap. To stabilize the wings on the runway, two pogo sticks on wheels prop up the ends of the wings. As the plane flies away, the pogo sticks drop off.
The plane climbs at an amazing rate of nearly 10,000 feet a minute. Within about four minutes, it was at 40,000 feet, higher than any commercial airplane. We kept going up to 13 miles above Earth's surface.
You get an incredible sensation up there. As you look out the windows, it feels like you're floating, it feels like you're not moving, but you're actually going 500 mph.
The U-2 was built to go higher than any other aircraft. In fact today, more than 50 years since it went into production, the U-2 flies higher than any aircraft in the world with the exception of the space shuttle.
It is flying more missions and longer missions than ever before, nearly 70 missions a month over Iraq and Afghanistan , an operational tempo that is unequaled in history.
The pilots fly for 11 hours at a time, sometimes more than 11 hours up there alone.
By flying so high, the U-2 has the capability of doing reconnaissance over a country without actually violating its airspace. It can look off to the side, peering 300 miles or more inside a country without actually flying over it. It can "see" in the dark and through clouds. It can also "hear," intercepting conversations 14 miles below.
The U-2, an incredible piece of history and also a current piece of high technology, is at the center of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.