U-2 Spy Plane Evades the Day of Retirement





The U-2 spy plane, the high-flying aircraft that was often at the heart of cold war suspense, is enjoying an encore.

Four years ago, the Pentagon was ready to start retiring the plane, which took its first test flight in 1955. But Congress blocked that, saying the plane was still useful.

And so it is. Because of updates in the use of its powerful sensors, it has become the most sought-after spy craft in a very different war in Afghanistan.

As it shifts from hunting for nuclear missiles to detecting roadside bombs, it is outshining even the unmanned drones in gathering a rich array of intelligence used to fight the Taliban.

All this is a remarkable change from the U-2’s early days as a player in United States-Soviet espionage. Built to find Soviet missiles, it became famous when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in one while streaking across the Soviet Union in 1960, and again when another U-2 took the photographs that set off the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Newer versions of the plane have gathered intelligence in every war since then and still monitor countries like North Korea.

Now the U-2 and its pilots, once isolated in their spacesuits at 70,000 feet, are in direct radio contact with the troops in Afghanistan. And instead of following a rote path, they are now shifted frequently in midflight to scout roads for convoys and aid soldiers in firefights....



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