The U-2 on display in the American Air Museum, part of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in the UK, has a remarkable history. That includes how it arrived there. I am proud to say that this was my idea, although much credit is also due to those who approved the transfer, and the dedicated group that prepared it for display.
This aircraft had an extraordinary history. It made its first flight at the Burbank, CA home of the Lockheed Skunk Works in October 1956. It flew as a U-2A for the CIA which identified it as Article 359, and was based in Germany and then in Japan.
In December 1960 it was transferred to the US Air Force’s operational Dragon Lady squadron as serial number 56-6692. It returned to the CIA in mid-1962, and was re-engined, making it a U-2C model. It joined the Agency’s operation at Edwards North Base, ready to deploy. One year later, it was converted for inflight refueling, thus becoming a U-2F. Thanks to this modification, 359 then made one of the longest-ever flights in an original U-2s – 13 hours 20 minutes.
During the mid-1960s it flew over mainland China nine times as part of the CIA’s joint operation with the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) on Taiwan. In 1968 it was returned to the Air Force, after the refueling and other systems specific to the CIA were removed, thus making it a U-2C model again! It remained at Edwards with the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) for several years on various research programs.
In December 1974 it rejoined the USAF U-2 squadron for operational tests of the Airborne Location and Strike System (ALSS). an operational test program. In August 1976 it was once again in Lockheed’s depot for conversion to the U-2CT tandem-cockpit configuration for pilot training. It served in this role at Beale AFB until it was finally retired in December 1987, having flown 7,900 hours and made 11,330 landings!
In February 1988, 56-6692 was then airfreighted to RAF Alconbury. This was the home of the 17th Reconnaissance Wing, that was flying missions with later-model U-2R aircraft over central Europe, to monitor developments in the Warsaw Pact countries. The idea was that 692 would be a ground-based Battle Damage Repair (BDR) trainer, meaning that it would be deliberately dented so that maintenance crews could practice repairing U-2s that had been damaged by an enemy attack. Vandalism!
692 now faced an uncertain future. Might it be scrapped? So I intervened. I contacted 17th Wing commander Col Doug Cole to suggest a transfer to Duxford. He was agreeable. I then contacted Ted Inman, Director of the Imperial War Museum there. He was enthusiastic – until I explained that the U-2 had an 80-foot wingspan! The aircraft would need to be housed in the large hangar at Duxford, but this was already nearly full. However, the attraction of having such a notable exhibit prevailed!
Fortunately, only a few holes were bashed in this historic airframe before the end of the Cold War, whereupon the 17th Wing’s sole squadron was slowly run down and deactivated, with its jets returning to the 9th RW at Beale AFB in the US. By 1991, few were left.
Next, formal permission to transfer the aircraft was obtained from Bg Gen Larry Mitchell, commander of the 14th Air Division at Beale, and Bg Gen Charles Metcalf, director of the Air Force Museum, which controls all USAF aircraft that are preserved and displayed.
But in the tandem cockpit configuration, and painted white, 692 hardly looked like a ‘real’ U-2 spyplane anymore. I discussed the problem Bob Anderson, the U-2 program manager at Lockheed, and with Bill Bonnichsen, a Lockheed technical representative (techrep) who was assigned to Alconbury and whom I had met previously there. They said that 692 could be returned to a single-seat configuration by removing the rear cockpit, although a new fairing for the fuselage top would have to be fabricated from sheet metal. The ‘battle damage’ could be repaired, and then the jet could be painted matt black, just like its old days. Bill got permission to spend time on the project from his boss Fred Carmody in the US, who was manager of all the Lockheed techreps.
The work to ‘deconvert’ and restore 692 began in mid-1991 and took almost a year. Some 50 people at Alconbury worked at various times on the project, led by Bill and SSgt Elliott Johnson, from the 17th Wing maintenance squadron. Over 2,000 man hours were logged as the volunteer team removed the second cockpit, repaired the BDR holes, replaced the wing slipper tanks and cockpit instruments, corrosion-proofed the interior skin and structure, and sanded and repainted the exterior.
Then the aircraft was dismantled and moved by road to Duxford, where it was re-assembled with the help of museum staff led by Chris Chippington, Conservation Manager. It was formally handed over on 26th June 1992. During the ceremony, a U-2R from Alconbury made a flypast.
692 remained in the big hangar until the American Air Museum was built in 1996, where it was suspended from the ceiling, after retracting the undercarriage.
Before that happened, the cockpit was still accessible. It was my pleasure to invite veteran U-2 pilots who were visiting the UK, to climb in and renew their acquaintance with ‘The Article’. They included Carmine Vito and Hervey Stockman, who flew the first overflights of the Soviet Union for the CIA in 1956, and Sqn Ldr Robbie Robinson, the commanding officer of the Royal Air Force group that joined the CIA’s Detachment B in Turkey in 1958.
Moreover, in 1995 the aircraft was towed out of the big hangar for the filming of a documentary on the MayDay 1960 shooting-down of a U-2 over the Soviet Union. It was made by WGBH-TV in Boston for The American Experience series on the PBS channel. Yours truly donned a partial pressure suit and helmet and climbed into the cockpit to portray the unfortunate pilot Gary Powers! You can watch this film on YouTube here.
Duxford attracts some 2.5 million visitors a year. Hopefully, most of them go into the American Air Museum to see 692, which ‘flies’ above an SR-71, its erstwhile successor. Also suspended from the ceiling, and pointed at the U-2, is the museum’s SA-2 – the Soviet surface-to-air missile that downed pilot Powers in 1960! On the floor beneath the U-2 is a B-camera, the sensor that was used for most overflights of the Soviet Union and China.
If you go to Duxford, don’t miss it!