The U.S. Air Force is investing more than $50 million to keep one of its oldest types of airplanes flying indefinitely. The U-2, nicknamed the “Dragon Lady” after a CIA program, is the world’s best-known spy plane, easily recognizable from its gliderlike shape and stealthy black color scheme. The Air Force commissioned it from the Lockheed Corporation in the 1950s as a reconnaissance aircraft that could fly above 70,000 feet—an altitude then presumed to be beyond the reach of Soviet surface-to-air missiles.
Today the U-2’s high-altitude capability, adaptable design and relatively low development cost have poised it for a new role: the 65-year-old craft is set to become a vital node in an ambitious network named the Advanced Battle Management System, which will connect weapons and sensors in space, at sea, underwater, in the air and on land.
How could an airplane designed with slide rules in the 1950s still be so versatile? Back then the available technology couldn’t offer the miniaturization and low power consumption engineers take for granted today. Instead, Johnson and other engineers from Lockheed’s Skunk Works engineering division built the U-2 big—63 feet long, with a 105-foot wingspan—and also powerful, allowing it to support the bulky, electricity-hungry cameras, radios and vacuum tubes of the day. Crucially, Johnson’s team also made the craft modular: the contemporary technology was placed in large compartments, where it could later be swapped for modern electronics with relative ease. Today’s sensor and communication systems are much tinier and require far less energy, which gives the U-2 surplus space and power capacity.
Click on this link to read the full article by Eric Tegler at Scientific American.