On the morning on Tuesday, September 20, just after 9:01 a.m. local time, two pilots ejected from a U.S. Air Force training flight above California’s Sutter Buttes, just north of Sacramento. One of them, Lt. Col. Ira S. Eadie, died; the other, whose name has not been released, is recovering. Though tragic, crashes during training flights are perhaps unavoidable. What’s more surprising is that these pilots were flying a U-2 spy plane, an iconic aircraft first built in 1955.
Most civilians associate the U-2 with the Cold War, not the War on Terror. Designed to fly at 70,000 feet, the glider-like U-2 allowed the United States to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union even before the satellite era. Its most famous moments came in 1960, when Soviet authorities downed and captured pilot Francis Gary Powers—a story Hollywood dramatized in last year’s Bridge of Spies—and in 1962, when the images it collected over Cuba set off the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why, in an era of drones and reconnaissance satellites, is the U.S. Air Force still using Eisenhower-era planes?
I put this question to John G. Terino, a professor at the USAF’s Air Command Staff College, located at Maxwell Air Force Base. First of all, he explained, the thirty or so U-2s being flown out of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, California, have experienced major upgrades since Powers’ day. The current model, technically a U-2S, has a longer wingspan, more room for sensors, interchangeable nose cones, and a slightly more pilot-friendly cockpit. The military and the intelligence communities prize the U-2S and their pilots for their flexibility and responsiveness. But most important is what Terino refers to as the U-2’s “multispectral capabilities.” Depending on the configuration of the surveillance equipment, the U-2 can take photographs, see through clouds and trees, and collect a range of signals intelligence, the details of which are carefully guarded by the military.