Tag Archives: U-2 Dragon Lady

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “One such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Check Out These Amazing Photos Taken By A U-2 Pilot At The Edge Of Space

This is the panorama you get from the cockpit of a legendary U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft.

Ross Franquemont is a U-2 pilot and instructor at the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, based at Beale Air Force Base, California. Fortunately for the rest of the world, he is also a great photographer. In fact, the incredible images you can find in this post were taken by Ross during missions flown at high altitude (something around 70,000 feet) in the Dragon Lady aircraft.

If you want to learn more about the iconic spyplane click here to read our recent article or use the search button on the right hand side of the site (type U-2 and find all the stories we have published on the U-2). Meanwhile, enjoy this unbelievable collection of photographs taken at the edge of space that Ross has allowed us to share with our readers.

Taking off from Beale AFB (All images credit: Ross Franquemont)

California as seen from the cockpit of a U-2.

Front view, heading to the San Francisco Bay.

With a flag inside the cockpit.

To survive in the thin atmosphere where the Dragon Lady operates, pilots wear pressurized space suits.

Day to night the dividing line called the terminator can be seen in the upper right.

Ross shot also a composite image of the Aug. 21, 2017 eclipse.

Taken from the back cockpit of a TU-2S. You can see the student pilot in the front cockpit using a red light.

San Francisco and the Golden Gate bridge.

Panorama selfie!

Sacramento area at night.

Lake Tahoe at the border between California and Nevada.

San Jose and San Francisco and the Bay.

Ross brings his sons toys on some sorties. Not only do they serve as mascots, they are also used to protect his camera.

Image credit: Ross Franquemont

What’s this new camera installed on a U-2 spyplane spotted at Palmdale?

While Lockheed Martin works on its  stealthy replacement, looks like the U-2 is still being modified.

Lockheed Martin has just revelead the “TR-X” a Skunk Works proposal for the next generation, all-new stealthy spyplane to replace the iconic U-2 Dragon Lady.

The new aircraft will combine the features of the U-2 and those of the RQ-4B Global Hawk UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) into a new ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) platform capable to operate at very high altitude and to penetrate contested airspace.

For the moment, the Air Force is not committed to the new design or any other U-2 replacement concept: addressing reporters earlier this week, Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for ISR, said the U.S. Air Force can’t simply afford its two high-altitude ISR platforms (U-2 and RQ-4) as well as develop the new aircraft.

Indeed, even though it could continue to operate for other two or three decades, the U-2 is slated to be withdrawn from use in 2019 and when the upgraded Global Hawk will take over all the high-altitude ISR tasks.

Nevertheless, even the Dragon Lady is constantly being upgraded with new sensor packages, as the images in this post seem to suggest.

Taken by Kevin Joyce from Sidewinder Aviation Photography at Palmdale, California, widely known as “Skunk Works” LM’s Advanced Development Program Facility (that is to say, where some of the most futuristic “black projects” are developed), the photos show a new, big camera installed underneath the nose section of a Dragon Lady landing at Air Force Plant 42.

Any idea what it can be? Just a new wide-angle hi-rez camera?

U-2 Palmdale large

Image credit: Kevin Joyce / Sidewinder Aviation Photography  (H/T Matt Hartmann for the heads-up)


“Several U-2 spyplanes shooed away by our missile systems” Iran says

According to a senior Iranian commander, several reconnaissance aircraft, including some U-2 spyplanes, have been frighten away by Tehran air defenses as they flew close to Iran’s airspace.

On Dec. 22, General Shahrokh Shahram, Lieutenant Commander of Khatam ol-Anbia Air Defense Base said that Iran’s air defense units scared away several surveillance planes, including some U.S. U-2 Dragon Lady spyplanes that were flying near the borders of Tehran FIR (Flight Information Region).

“During yesterday and today [Dec. 21 and 22] warnings have been issued to several reconnaissance aircraft of the trans-regional states which were flying near the FIR (Flight Information Region) of the country’s borders[..] Some of these were U-2 spyplanes” Shahram said according to FNA (Fars News Agency).

FNA speculates the aircraft may be spying on Iran ahead of “Mohammad Rasoulallah (PBUH)” drills, scheduled between Dec. 25 and 31.

Earlier this month an Iranian top officer, Air Defense Commander Brigadier General Farzad Esmayeeli, said that a U-2 “stealth aircraft” flying close to Iran’s airspace was tracked, warned and somehow forced to make a U-turn by Iranian missile systems, “even though this type of plane can’t be picked up by any radar screen.”

Coated with RAM (Radar Absorbing Material) and designed to be hard to detect on radars, the U.S. Air Force U-2 is not considered a real stealth aircraft, even if it embeds radar-evading features.

U.S. Air Force U-2s have been operating in the region for years departing from Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE.

Along with a certain number of indigenous systems under development, Iranian air defenses include a mixture of Soviet and Western surface-to-air missile systems. Among them the HQ-2 (CSA-1 GUIDELINE, a Chinese-produced S-75 derivative – the SAM systems which downed Gary Power’s U-2 back in 1960) and the S-200 (SA-5 GAMMON) both theoretically capable of shooting down a high-flying target.

Indeed, although it may struggle against cruise missiles and modern stealth bombers, especially if accompanied by significant EW (Electronic Warfare) support, Iran’s air defense system, with its batteries along the coast (one of those is Bandar Abbas in the south of the country) can pose a significant threat to several aircraft, including U-2s or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) flying over the Persian Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

Iran reportedly shot down an Israeli drone near Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in central Iran last August. Finding the small drone is like finding needle in a haystack General Esmayeeli said addressing a students gathering on Dec. 7. “We should take good care not to harm passenger planes when identifying and shooting down such drones,” he said.

A classified Pentagon report obtained by The New York Times in 2012 claimed that Iranian SAM batteries had fired at civil planes at least three times between 2007 and 2008.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin


The story of the first U-2 spy missions over Soviet Union

U-2 operations in Europe in 1950s.

According to documents released last year, the first four “Dragon Lady” planes destined to launch spy missions over Soviet Union were deployed to RAF Lakenheath on Apr. 29, 1956 under the cover story that a Lockheed-developed aircraft would be flown by the USAF Air Weather Service to study high-altitude weather phenomena such as the jet stream and cosmic ray effects up to 55,000 feet.

However, the first overflight missions were not launched from Lakenheath due to events outside.

Firstly an incident in Portsmouth harbour involving a frogman who was to look at the hulls of Soviet ships which had brought Soviet leaders to the UK  that soured Anglo-Soviet relations so much so that the then British Prime Minister Eden wrote to President Eisenhower asking for the overflights to be postponed until things had calmed down.

Then, two days later a U-2 on a training flight was spotted by the British radar network making the RAF scramble jets to intercept the “unknown” aircraft: as a result, the British air ministry announced that a special National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) aircraft was conducting high-altitude research over the UK.

Due to the continued overt publicity and the fact that the US State Department had told Prime Minister Eden that there was only one U-2 example operating from Lakenheath, when in fact there were four, and not wanting to raise further reaction, the spyplanes were moved to Wiesbaden in West Germany.

The exposure continued as Wiesbaden was one of the busiest airfields in West Germany and the sight of strange looking aircraft with very long wings raised significant interest. Wiesbaden was a temporary home as after having more powerful J57/P-31 engines fitted, the U-2’s were later moved to Giebelstadt near the East German border.

The first overflight of “hostile” territory took place on Jun. 20, 1956 when a U-2 equipped with a A-2 camera flew over Poland and East Germany. The mission film was rushed back to the U.S immediately and the pictures were considered to be of good quality.

The spyplanes were not given permission from the President to fly over the Soviet Union until Jun. 21, 1956; however no flights were to be undertaken before the end of June 1956.

The first few days of July found the weather was not good over the target area therefore two more overflights were carried out, the first over Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria and the second over East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania.

President Eiasenhower was briefed on the first of the two overflights and was anxious to know if the U-2s had been tracked on radar. The CIA admitted that the U-2 had been picked up on radar but had been misread.

The first overflight of the Soviet Union took place on Wednesday Jul. 4 1956 from Wiesbaden: the Dragon Lady flew over Poznan (Poland) then Belorussia and then north to Leningrad and finally back to Wiesbaden via the Soviet Baltic states. The main area of interest on this first flight were the naval ship yards in Leningrad.

The second U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union took place the very next day and brought the plane over the Soviet capital Moscow: this was to become the only time a U-2 ever flew over Moscow itself.

On both missions, U.S. black spyplanes went after several targets, including the new Myasishchev M-4 “Bison” bomber.

President Eisenhower was concerned that, although the Soviets could not intercept them, the U-2 overflights of Moscow and Leningrad could worsen the relations with USSR and eventually cause a war.

For this reason, he ordered that the U-2 missions stop if the spyplanes could be tracked.

The overflights were resumed in 1957 from Alaska and, beginning in 1959, British pilots were involved in U-2 flights after an agreement between CIA and MI6. But this is another story…..

Richard Clements for The Aviationist.com

U-2 new

Image credit: Lockheed Martin



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