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Video: U-2 Carrier Ops

by John Reed on December 6, 2011

With all the talk this week about unmanned spy planes, we thought we’d visit the aircraft that has defined the genre for more than half a century now; the Lockheed Martin U-2 Dragon Lady. U-2s have been shot down plenty of times all over the world while flying some of the most important intel missions ever (Cuban missile crisis, anyone?). More than 50 years after they entered service, the U-2 continues to provide valuable intel over the battlefields of Afghanistan.

What many people don’t realize is that U-2s were actually flown off aircraft carriers in the 1960s. Yup, modified U-2s took off and landed from the carriers USS Ranger and USS America between 1964 and 1969. These weren’t just test flights to see if you could land a jet the size of a U-2 on a ship. U-2Gs and U-2Rs flew actual recon missions from the two carriers.

Click through the jump to see wild footage of a U-2G taking off and landing aboard the Ranger in in 1964. Notice how the Dragon Lady doesn’t use a catapult to take off from the ship, it simply uses most of the flight deck as its runway, similar to the way this KC-130 did aboard the USS Forrestal in 1963. I’ve got to say, the bicycle-wheeled Dragon Lady’s landings look even hairier than regular carrier traps.

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{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

Morty December 6, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Awsome lets spy on china see what we can find


David December 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

China definitely has means to shoot it down.


Morty December 6, 2011 at 1:20 pm

It was a joke any country can shoot that thing down even in the 1960's


Roland December 7, 2011 at 1:11 am

I believe U-2 can still be very effective if they use cruse missiles over a distance drop instead of bombs when it comes to the country's self defense. Romanian air force are already using this methods on their war planes.


Roland December 7, 2011 at 1:12 am

I mean cruise missiles.


tiger December 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Dead spies…..


Michael December 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Amazing. Full flaps down? Steady take-offs and landings in spite of the obvious wind. Impressive.


mhmm... December 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Just curious but it says U2s were shot down plenty of times all over the world.
I have only ever heard of the Gary Powers incident. What type of numbers are you talking about?


@4FingrsOfBurbon December 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Just Russia, Cuba and China (Taiwan, shot down over China, I think).


Ronaldo December 6, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Confirming the China shoot down. They still have large bits of it on display there.


tomteej December 7, 2011 at 3:29 pm

The Chinese put four shot down U-2s on display during the 1960. These were the Taiwanese operated U-2s. The two Pilots that survived were imprisoned and released in 1982.


tiger December 6, 2011 at 6:35 pm
benny December 6, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Gary Powers was the only shot down pilot who did not take the cyanide pill.The others did. Gary was a propaganda pawn in the cold war, and could for a spy trade.


tomteej December 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Incorrect. Two Taiwanese U-2 Pilots were captured in China after being shot down in the 1960s. They were imprisoned and released in 1982.


beepster August 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Only two AMERICAN U-2's have been shot down. Over Russia and over Cuba. Neither used cianide. The Major in the one over Cuba (Cuber) was picked up by the Coast Guard. The Russian shoot-down was flown out of Texas. The Cubian shoot-down was flown out of Arizona. I think the U-2G is actually a U-2C. The U-2R was the mainstay from the early 60's to mid 80's until the TR-1 came along. Later renamed U-2, but I don't know the series. Retired by then. AND, both shoot-downs were U-2C's.


Joe Donoghue August 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Powers was shot down on a mission out of Peshawar, Pakistan. Major Anderson who was killed in the Cuba shootdown was launched from McCoy AFB (now Orlando Int. Airport). Anderson's body was returned to the US by the Cubans some time later. Powers did not carry cyanide. He had an optional poisoned needle hidden inside a half dollar. The U-2G was a U-2C with tailhook and other carrier mods. Anderson's plane was a U-2F (in-flight refuelable) borrowed from CIA. U-2R first flew in 1967. Current models are all U-2S with a GE engine. I do not believe Anderson or any of the five Chinese pilots shot down over China carried any personal destruction device. (PDD)

@papanoels December 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Yeah its true. Its been shot down many times. Not to mention accidents and test failures.


Lance December 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Need to use the SR-71 and retire the U2 nothing in the Chinese or Russian arsenal can shoot one down still.


Gregory Savage December 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Agreed, bring the sr-71 back. 1000 missiles shot it with no losses is a pretty impressive record.


tiger December 6, 2011 at 6:18 pm

We have drones now. The need for manned air recon is gone.


Darren December 6, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Where did they hangar the U-2? On deck?


blight December 6, 2011 at 3:02 pm

It shows that aerospace hasn't pushed the boundaries in the armchair categories of speed and max altitude. Instead, aerospace has focused on maneuverability, avionics, more efficient engines…less spiffy to the outsider.


tiger December 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Not bad for guys with paper & slide rules.


Anonynous December 7, 2011 at 3:01 am

I think they would have to. Would it even fit on the elevator?


blight December 7, 2011 at 7:59 am

The engineering redesign for folding wings would've added considerably to the cost. Admirals today would /insist/ on this capability, back then it was something you lived with. If WW3 began and you needed to launch combat aircraft urgently, just dump the sucker into the sea and get into the fight.


SonOfAGunner December 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm

I too wonder about where they were stowed on board. Did they have special U2 version(s) whose wings folded or broke down in some way? My (sometimes faulty) memory tells me the U2 wingspan was ~100 feet. That would need a mighty big berth.


Val December 7, 2011 at 2:05 pm

U2's werent kept on the ship(s); once their pics/data were down loaded the aircraft were turned around and re-launched. Pilots didnt egress the aircraft and engines werent shut down due to special fuel used by them in those days…..


blight December 9, 2011 at 11:28 am

U-2's used the J57 and J75. Off-the-shelf and not particularly special.
J58, on the other hand….definitely special fuel.

As far as the web /claims/, U-2G's were flown off Ranger, and U-2R's flown off the America (CV-66, as seen in these images) in 1969.

The flights off the Ranger were to observe nuke tests in the Pacific. My guess is the U-2's were taken aboard the CV, transported near the destination and flown off to observe and return. The alternative is basing a U-2 in Australia or somesuch, and risk observation and still incur the range penalties that come with being far from the target.

If you fly a U-2 from a nearby carrier, it might also be loiter time. You can loiter near the target for a long time, and every minute you would've spent flying to the target and back is a minute you can spend on station gathering data.


blight December 9, 2011 at 11:38 am

Ah. Here we go. Definitely special fuel, which if anything would call for the engines being shut off to conserve it.

"JPTS is a specialty fuel and is produced by only two oil refineries in the United States. As such, it has limited worldwide availability and costs over three times the per-gallon price of the Air Force's primary jet fuel, JP-8."

I thought it was the SR-71's engines that were reported in Ben Rich's books to require a separate external device to start them.

And sadly, the CIA has still classified large parts of the following monograph.

Large blurbs about Whale Tale are still redacted..or the document was redacted partially while the classification changed and the PDF was never updated? Hm.


Joe Donoghue August 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm

The U-2G (and all the early aircraft built in the 1950s had an 80 foot wing span. A special dolly supported the aircraft and allowed it to be moved sideways and brought below deck to the ship's hangar. The aircraft was transported on the deck-edge elevator with one wing extending over the water.

The U-2R was designed with folding wing tips mainly so it would fit existing hangars. I am not sure if the U-2R could be brought below deck. There is no record of the U-2R ever having flown an operational mission from a carrier. From 1964 till 1974 the CIA attempted to keep about five of its U-2 drivers carrier qualified. They had a mirror landing system set up at their Edwards North Base runway and obtained carrier deck time every year or two for re-qualifying the pilots. All of the original twelve U-2Rs were built to accommodate the tailhook modification if needed.

$20mike December 7, 2011 at 12:09 am

notice guys holding their ears on takeoff,W/Ocatapult!lotsa smoke,too!saw a few at monthan,had their own sound..escorted by smaller jet,supposedly as a spotter,way cool!!


Roland December 7, 2011 at 1:29 am

I believe U-2G can still be very effective if they use cruise missiles over a distance drop instead of bombs when it comes to the country's self defense. Romanian air force are already using this methods on their war planes.


blight December 7, 2011 at 8:00 am

U-2's aren't meant to carry ALCMs. We have strategic bombers for this kind of thing (though many of our ALCMs are now in storage or have nuclear payloads removed).


Jeff W December 7, 2011 at 8:34 am

This is one aviation story I did not know about. Thanks for sharing it with us.


Justin December 7, 2011 at 10:50 am

Wow, that is definitely something I've never seen, nor would I ever think I'd see. Gotta make Hornet pilots who complain about trapping feel a little bit like babies. (Obvious sarcasm, as trapping on a deck is never easy.) The acceleration with no catapult aid is impressive to say the least. That must have been one skilled pilot. This was probably towards the end of an era of adventurous flying, dating back to the dawn of flight. Undoubtedly a lot less lives lost since, though.


Val December 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm

it was n o big deal, the aircaft was nothing more than a highly powered glider. Early models used the J-57 engine, later ones wit the enlarged intakes were powered by the J-75……


ken kriner December 8, 2011 at 10:30 am

wWe have a U-2 under restoration here at the Moffett Field Museum. When we searched for info on the history of our U-2 we found it had in fact been used for the carrier landing/takeoff tests. The Air Wing of the Moffett recently aquired and restored the tail hook that was on our U-2 which is being restored in NASA colors as they had it last, but the tail hook will be installed as part of it's history. When restoration is complete it will be displayed at the Moffett Museum Air Park. We are restoring the U-2 inside and out and slowly finiding as much of the cockpit components as possible.


@papanoels December 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm

I thought htey used a tail hook for normal landings as well?

I find it fascinating that thse could even land on carriers. given the difficulty of just landing on a normal runway.


S. Pyle USAF RET December 11, 2011 at 10:25 pm

We have to be careful what we use today, look what happened over Iran, now those a–h—- and the Chicoms and Russians have our latest technology. Because our new government was afraid to self destruct the bird, OH we don't want to hurt some bad guy on the ground, maybe they will just give it back, or maybe we can trade some candy for it.


Bob Storck December 17, 2011 at 12:45 am

Only 2 US pilots lost in actual recon, many in training, etc. During 'Nam, about a dozen "surogate" ROC pilots flying missions over politically sensitive areas lost, at least 6 over China itself.


howard December 28, 2011 at 2:02 pm

i guess if the deck guys stabilizing the winds held on they could
get a dip in the ocean out of it… very impressive.
me being the Comm of the carrier?
i’d want to observe from my below deck bunker.
hard to believe they really did this let alone found
a jet jockey to pilot them.
hats off fly boys!~


Steve Dixon January 6, 2012 at 8:54 pm

You guys have gotta be kidding! Landing a U2 on an "ISLAND" the size of Tasmania at a speed of around 60 knots would be a piece of cake compared to a proper jet. The absolute best pilots I ever saw were the Australian's who operated A4's and S2's off the old HMAS Melbourne – a WWII Modified Majestic Class that was operated until 1983. The S2's had a starboard wingtip clearance of around 8 feet when landed exactly on the centreline – yep — 8 FEET


J. Davis January 6, 2012 at 11:37 pm

I have never seen another Navy aircraft climb like that even after a catapult boost!!!


gt350 January 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm

I just don't understand if the SR-71 still kick but on any plane we have now, and the cost amortized since it was built can be more expense then a F-35 or a F-22. I know they have different Job's ,but it shouldn't be hard to add bombs to it –or even make it better with modern tech?


Charles Christian August 21, 2012 at 11:50 am

That Ranger flight of the U-2G in May 1964 took off from North Base, at Edwards AFB. It was a small compound with a building big enough to hold that bird and some offices. Lockheed CIA pilot Bob Schmacher? was the driver. I stood next to the left wing tip as it was rolled quickly out of the building with a short run way directly in front. It then quickly started it's TO roll and was up in a few hundred feet, dropped pogo sticks, got on it's tail and went almost straight up so that it was visable from roads a mile away only a short time. It had the new J75 engine and little fuel so was not heavy for the short flight out beyond the horizon to the Ranger. I was there to replace the man who went out to the Ranger to do communications for the mission in the S. Pacific. Mission was to monitor French atomic tests there and gather air samples, etc. I was a CIA Communicator doing two years in S.Calif supporting the U-2, A-12, development of the SR-71 and the Corona satellite project. I did U-2 overseas for three year tour before and did communications support for the last two U-2 overflights of the USSR


Michael in SJ November 12, 2012 at 7:26 pm

I was on board the Connie, CVA-64 (65-67) and we caught and launched a U-2 off San Diego. I watched from the island and it was treat to see it come in, barely pull the wire and then launch without catapult.

I am not sure of the time frame, but I believe we did this during quals in early 1967, as I got out in April of that year.

I had a Project Manager working for me (2009-2011) whose father flew B-52s during 'Nam and then later flew U-2s out of Beale AFB in NorCal. His father knew some of the pilots who did the carrier ops.


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tiger December 6, 2011 at 6:22 pm

We invented Space satellites & Now we have Drone to do close up spying real time. No need to fly back & develop miles of film or risk a pilot in Iran.


tiger December 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Let him get credit for the P-38, Constellation, F-80, & F-104 As well……


Dfens December 6, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Damn straight we have drones. Lots and lots of drones. They're f'ing everywhere.


blight December 7, 2011 at 8:02 am

Starfighter didn't do so hot. He's more famous for Skunk Work's clandestine aircraft (the U-2 and the SR-71) than his work that went to the main plant.


Dfens December 7, 2011 at 8:59 am

I'm saying you can't do it, because I've seen the simulations. I'm not just pulling it out of my ass. The SR-71 had a convergence of good things going for it. It could fly high, it could fly fast, it had a relatively low radar return, it could go a long ways on a tank of gas for a supersonic cruiser, it was reasonably maneuverable for a fast airplane. It is easy to hit a fast target when it is not maneuvering like a ballistic missile. It is even easier to hit a target that shows up in the same spot in the sky night after night like a satellite. It is even easy to hit a subsonic aircraft that can't maneuver like a fighter. The corner of the envelope the SR-71 lived in makes it a hard target for a missile, even today.


blight December 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

Weren't there numerous safety complaints about the aircraft in German and Italian service?


tiger December 9, 2011 at 10:38 am

The Germans wrecked a bunch of them in operating accidents. It was kinda of a rookie killer. The Italians were using them as late as 2004. http://www.starfighters.nl/


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