10 Things You Didn't Know About the U-2

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The U-2's long, gliderlike wingspan helps it reach high altitudes quickly but also makes it very tricky to land.

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1. Early tests of the U-2 were shrouded in such secrecy that many flights were mistaken for UFOs. (Nobody at the time believed manned flight was possible above 60,000 feet.) Indeed, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than half of the reported UFO sightings were actually flights by the U-2 or other experimental high-altitude aircraft.

2. For the first few years of the program, U-2 pilots were offered a suicide pill (containing potassium cyanide) in case they were captured. Most declined.

3. Since September 2001, the U-2 has flown some 3,700 missions in support of counterterrorism operations or the war in Iraq, totaling more than 32,900 hours in the air.

4. The early U-2 was so difficult to fly that pilots had a tiny window of 6 knots in which they could safely fly at high altitude. If they went faster, the plane could be buffeted by winds that could tear off the tail or a wing. Too slow and the plane would stall. Later improvements to the plane made it easier to fly.

5. The U-2 remains the world's most difficult plane to land. With the pilot strapped into a spacesuit, visibility is limited, and the only way to land is to stall the engine a few feet above the runway. A chase car (often a Camaro or Pontiac GTO) races behind the plane to cue the pilot on when to stall.

6. Only about 80 pilots are currently qualified to fly the U-2 in operations. Just over 800 pilots have ever flown U-2 operations.

7. The U-2 was developed, built, tested, and deployed in 17 months—and came in under budget.

8. There are 36 U-2s active in the Air Force today, including five two-seat trainer planes, one test plane, and two operated by NASA.

9. U-2s are permanently stationed at Beale Air Force Base in California; Royal Air Force Akrotiri, Cyprus; Osan Air Base, South Korea; and an undisclosed base in southwest Asia. They can be deployed almost anywhere on very short notice.

10. The U-2 is 63 feet long and 16 feet high, has a 105-foot wingspan, and can reach speeds above 410 mph.

Sources: CIA; U.S. Air Force; 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the Dragon Lady by Chris Pocock; reporting