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Sunday, 18 August 2013

#10things you probably didn't know about the development of the #U2 #spyplane

In response to a Freedom of Information Act the National Security Archive recently released a substantially less redacted version of a history of the U2 spyplane programme.  The latest version of this history, written by CIA historians Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach has newly declassified material with respect to the U-2. 

10 things that caught my eye from their history are below.

1) A sextant was the U2 pilot's principal navigational during the 1st 3 years of deployment - among the unique devices developed for the plane was a small sextant for making celestial fixes during the long overflights.

This was needed because when there was cloud cover the periscope could n’t be used to identify features on the ground to aid navigation. When clouds were not a factor however the periscope proved highly accurate for navigation.  During the final tests before the aircraft became operational U-2 pilots found they could navigate by dead reckoning with an error of less than I nautical mile over a 1000 nm course.

2) High-altitude testing of the plane led to a tremendous increase in reports of UFOs - such reports were most prevalent in the early evening hours from pilots of airliners flying from east to west.

In the mid 1950s, most commercial airliners flew at altitudes between 10,000 and 20,000 feet and military aircraft like the B-47s and B-57s operated at altitudes below 40,000 feet.   Consequently once U-2s started flying at altitudes above 60,000 feet, air-traffic controllers began receiving increasing numbers of UFO reports as it was believed that manned flight at 60,000 feet was not possible. 

Not only did the airline pilots report their sightings to air-traffic controllers. but they and ground-based observers also wrote letters to the Air Force unit at Wright Air Development Command in Dayton charged with investigating such phenomena. 

U-2 and later spy plane flights flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s.

3) The programme was based on a wrong assumption - that Soviet radar tracking capability was limited to 40,000 feet and so an aircraft at 65,000 feet would be undetected.

This assumption was based on the fact that the Soviet Union used American-built radar sets supplied under Lend-Lease during WW2. These sets could target up to 90,000 feet but their high power consumption burned out a key component quickly. Therefore the sets were normally not turned on until an early warning radar had detected a target and those early warning radars were limited by the curvature of the earth to a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet. But the problem with this assumption was that the Soviet Union, unlike Britain and the United States, had continued to develop radar technology after the end of WW2. 

4) Originally the intention was for non USA citizens to fly the plane - but not enough could be found so pilots were recruited from the US Air Force (but to join the programme they had to resign from it and assume civilian status).

In authorizing the U-2 project President Eisenhower wanted the pilots of the planes to be non-US citizens. It was his belief that, should a U-2 come down in hostile territory, it would be much easier for the United States to deny any responsibility for the activity if the pilot was not an American. At least one pilot from England was brought to the USA to be trained but it isn’t known whether that pilot actually flew the plane operationally.

5)  Manufacturing the plane's special fuel led to a shortage of fly spray - the fuel required petroleum by products that Shell normally used to make its " Flit" fly and bug spray. To produce the fuel needed in the spring and summer of 1955, Shell had to limit the production of Flit, causing a nationwide shortage. 

To get the U-2 aircraft ready to fly, Lockheed engineers had to solve problems never before encountered including the need for a fuel that would not boil off and evaporate at the very high altitudes for which the aircraft was designed.  So a retired Air Force General who was a vice president of the Shell Oil Company arranged for Shell to develop a special low-volatility, low-vapour-pressure kerosene fuel for the craft

6) The US Airforce rejected the proposed design for the aircraft - so CIA support for it was sought and gained (although the airforce continued to play an important role in the project)

The Airforce rejection was because the design only had one engine and was too unusual and because the Air Force was already committed to the modification of the B-57.  Although the design had strong backers among some Air Force civilians and CIA officials, the key decision makers at both Air Force and CIA remained unconvinced and for them to make the decision one additional source of support was necessary - prominent scientists serving on government advisory boards.

7) In designing the U2 spy plane the usual technical specifications were ignored - This was to ├íchieve the altitude and speed performance required in an aircraft that would have a reasonably useful operational life until about 1960. To do this it was thought would require strenuous efforts, extraordinary procedures and a non-standard design philosophy.

8) The project's personnel pioneered the development of ready-to-eat foods in squeezable containers - to keep the pilot fed during the 8 hour long missions. These were primarily bacon- or cheese-flavored mixtures that the pilot could squeeze into his mouth using a self-sealing hole in the face mask.

9) The camera lens development wasn't classified - to speed up the programme the lenses for the camera was developed in the open without classifying documents - a hiding in the open strategy that worked

10) The greatest single loss of life in the entire project was the crash of a regular flight to Area 51 transferring Lockheed employees - these flights transferred Lockheed employees from Burbank to Area 51 on Monday morning and returned them on Friday evening. Less than seven weeks after these flights started an aircraft bound for Area 51 crashed on 17 November 1955 killing all 14 persons aboard the plane, including the Project Security Officer, 4 four members of his staff, and personnel from Lockheed and Hycon.

this nsa archive is the source of this info - ht to the daily digg for a post highlighting that source and wikipedia for the image of the U2 at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford

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