Nearly five decades after the first U-2 spy plane took flight, an updated version with the latest equipment sped down the runway in Palmdale recently to begin another century as America's eye in the sky.
But before it could take flight, it needed a little help from a piece of relatively unsophisticated equipment: a Chevrolet Camaro. Another pilot in a chase car--a Camaro in this case, a Ford Mustang in others--followed the lumbering plane and radioed directions, a routine followed in every U-2 takeoff and landing to help deal with poor visibility from the cockpit.
It was a humbling scene considering an unmanned reconnaissance plane that could take off, fly and land by itself was just a few hundred yards away, waiting to take its first flight and looking to eventually replace the venerable U-2.
For now though, or for at least 20 more years as its supporters hope, the U-2, a vestige of the Cold War, will keep its title as the mainstay of the nation's airborne intelligence.
Since 1992, the Air Force has spent $1.4 billion upgrading a fleet of U-2s, whose lineage dates back to the 1940s, so they can fly higher and faster and take better pictures.
Lockheed Martin Corp.'s legendary Skunk Works facility in Palmdale developed the aircraft, and about 650 people still work on the program there. Raytheon Co.'s engineers in El Segundo have been developing more powerful sensors and radars for the U-2.
"This ain't your father's Oldsmobile," said Maj. Gen. Robert Behler, commander of the Air Force's center for command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. "These upgrades have really made the U-2 a 21st century aircraft."
Despite the popular notion that the U.S. still is flying U-2s built in the 1950s, all 31 U-2s in operation were built in the 1980s in Burbank.
Though the design is similar, they have a 40% larger fuselage than their predecessor, which gained worldwide attention in 1960 when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, escalating Cold War tensions.
Supporters like to point out that despite the advent of unmanned aircraft such as Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk, the U-2 still is the world's highest-flying aircraft, capable of climbing past 70,000 feet and taking images in which an apple can be distinguished from an orange.
Aircraft Equipped With the Latest in Avionics
That's because the U-2S, the latest version of the spy plane, has been fitted with the world's most advanced sensors, radar and more-powerful jet engines. It also has been coated with new radar-evading materials. Two weeks ago, the first U-2S with a glass-panel cockpit display similar to ones found on new Boeing 757s were delivered to the Air Force.
The new digital glass panels, which cost about $3.5 million, or more than three times what the original planes cost to develop and build, replace the 1960s analog gauges and give pilots significantly more situational awareness.
One major advantage of the new panel is that U-2 pilots will have a much better view of the ground, using one of three electronic displays.
In the past, they had to peer into a large tube in the center of the cockpit panel that acted like an inverted periscope, which gave them their only view of the ground.
With all the enhancements, the U-2 continues to provide invaluable airborne intelligence, Air Force officials said. Although robotic spy planes such as the Predator and Global Hawk have gained much of the attention in Afghanistan, the U-2 has been the real workhorse, they said.
Last week, in a Pentagon briefing about lessons learned from the military operations in Afghanistan, an Air Force official said the U-2 has been flying every day over the country and has been providing most of the intelligence used in Operation Enduring Freedom. The aircraft has flown more than 265 missions, each lasting an average of 10 hours.
And for the first time, the U-2s were used along with an unmanned spy plane to cross-check potential targets to ensure they were the correct ones, providing what one official called an "amazing capability" that the military had never had before.
"The U-2 is playing an incredible role in Afghanistan," Behler said. "There is a lot of life left in this aircraft."
Moreover, the Air Force has been testing a new communications system on the U-2s even as they were flying military operations over Afghanistan.
The new satellite-based system, a pod attached to the top of the aircraft, allowed pilots to transmit images and data instantly to a ground facility in California. From there, the information was analyzed and then retransmitted to the Air Force command center in Saudi Arabia, all within minutes.
Previously, the pilot had to return to base after a mission that could take as long as 10 hours before collected information could be processed.
Handling U-2 in Flight Remains Difficult Task