Where does the name Dragon Lady come from?

This was the nickname that was assigned by the USAF to denote the military U-2 program in 1957.  It was a reference to a mysterious oriental lady who was a key character in the cartoon strip “Terry And The Pirates”. Originally drawn by Milton Caniff in 1934, the cartoon featured a young American who tangled with pirates along the coast of mainland China. The series remained popular right through the 1950s, by which time Terry was a fighter pilot and the Dragon Lady was on the same side, leading an underground group fighting the communist regime in mainland China. But she remained distant and mysterious, sometimes defeated but never conquered, and anyone who took her for granted would regret it. Just like flying the U-2!

The patch at the bottom of the home page on this website was the first to feature the Dragon. It was designed by the wife of Cozy Kline, one of the first USAF pilots. She had taken art classes in college. “There were some ground rules, such as nothing to suggest picture-taking. I had her draw a dragon entwined around an astrolabe used by ancient navigators,” Kline recalled. He added the legend “Toward The Unknown” after seeing the film of the same name about test-flying at Edwards AFB. 

I thought the U-2 was retired years ago. Is it really still in service?

Oh yes. The original aircraft have long gone. But an enlarged and much-improved version is flying around the world, equipped with sophisticated, state-of-the-art sensors. Most of these aircraft were built in the 1980s.

Wasn’t the Blackbird supposed to replace the U-2?

Yes. But like the U-2, early hopes that it could avoid detection by radar proved false. And although its speed enabled the SR-71 to avoid surface-to-air missiles, it also prevented certain types of reconnaissance. The Blackbird was also extremely expensive to operate and maintain. It was finally retired in 1998.

Why can’t satellites provide all the information that is required?

They can provide much of it. But there is still a need for aircraft that can dwell near an area of interest, watching and listening from adjustable flightpaths. Especially one that can fly very high, and therefore look further.

How many U-2s were built?

55 original models, all from 1955-59. The first batch of 12 enlarged U-2R models were built in 1967-68. This version was put back into production from 1981-89, when 37 more were built, including two ER-2 versions for NASA.

How high can the U-2 fly?

It depends on the flight profile, for instance whether the cruise-climb is halted to obtain greater range. Outside air temperature is also a factor. The early models could reach 75,000 feet. Today’s U-2 may also have this capability, but the USAF will only say that it can fly “above 70,000 feet”.

For how long can the U-2 fly?

Again, this depends on the flight profile, as noted above. During the early years, nine hours was usual. But some aircraft were modified or inflight refueling, allowing 14 hours inflight – pilot endurance permitting! Today’s U-2 can fly for almost as long, if necessary.

Why does the U-2 have those detachable ‘outrigger’ wheels?

Known as pogos, these were provided to balance the wings on the ground, because a two-wheel ‘bicycle’ undercarriage was chosen in preference to the conventional tri-gear configuration, in order to save weight.

What is “coffin corner”?

The margin between the stalling speed, and the not-to-exceed speed, decreases as the aircraft flies higher. In the early models, this margin could be only 10 knots at 68,000 feet. It is larger in the later models.

How many overflights of the Soviet Union were there?

Only 28, all from 1956-60. Contrary to US hopes, the Soviets detected many of the illegal flights on radar, and protested some of them. President Eisenhower was therefore reluctant to approve more.

When Gary Powers was shot down, was he flying at his assigned altitude?

Yes, 70,000 feet. Shortly after the shootdown, it was suggested that engine failure or pilot error had caused the aircraft to descend to an altitude where it could be shot down by the Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile. This theory was based on incorrect technical and intelligence analysis, and sheer speculation. But the story endured.

How many U-2s were shot down?

Seven, all by the SA-2 surface-to-air missile. On 1 May 1960 over the Soviet Union. On 27 October 1962 over Cuba, during the Missile Crisis. Five more were shot down over China from 1962-67, being flown by nationalist Chinese pilots from Taiwan.

How has the U-2 been used since 1960?

In many different ways. Photo reconnaissance over Cuba and during the Vietnam War, and at least 12 other countries by 1980. Nuclear sampling missions. Test flights of many different sensors. Environmental research for NASA since 1971. Gathering radar imagery and SIGINT along the borders of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Similarly around the borders of North Korea for the past 45 years. More photo missions for the United Nations over the Middle East. Daily battlefield reconnaissance during both Gulf Wars. Multi-sensor intelligence gathering since then over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.