Why the U.S. Military Still Flies Cold-War Era Planes

The U-2 shows how old technologies die hard.

A U-2 plane at an airbase in South Korea
A U-2 plane at an airbase in South Korea (Reuters)

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.

But still: The U-2 is a really old plane. And it’s not even the oldest plane in the USAF’s fleet. The earliest models of the B-52 Stratofortress and the C-130 Hercules started flying in 1954. In fact, according to Layne Karafantis, a curator of modern military aircraft at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., “The Air Force has six aircraft types that have been flying for more than fifty years.”

The Air Force’s reliance on old planes is an uncanny instance of a phenomenon British historian David Edgerton described in his 2007 book, The Shock of the Old. The book’s contrarian approach to the history of technology privileges “technology-in-use” over innovation, focusing as much on condoms, bicycles, and corrugated iron as it does on computers and nuclear power. In one startling example, Edgerton recounts how the German army relied on horses—not trains or trucks—as the basic means of transport during World War II. By the end of the war, the Wehrmacht had lost approximately 1.5 million horses in its attempt to conquer modern Europe. When I asked Edgerton for a one-word term to describe the persistence of old technologies in our daily lives, he deadpanned, “Normality.”

“The problem,” Edgerton explained to me, “is we think technology can only be new.” Outside of intelligence circles and Northern California, where the U-2 program employs more than 1,000 people, the continued use of these planes seems so unlikely, so archaic, that it’s difficult to square with the USAF’s reputation for lusting after the highest, fastest planes. In the 1960s, the USAF’s X-15 pilots set records for both that still stand. The USAF’s investment in cutting-edge flight and missile technology underwrote the U.S. aerospace industry for most of the Cold War. Since then, the Air Force has continued to lobby for extraordinarily expensive weapons systems, including the F-35, the most notorious military boondoggle of the twenty-first century. Even Edgerton, who wrote the book on technological longevity, declared the idea of the USAF flying U-2s to be “astonishing.”

Old technologies—“things,” in Edgerton’s parlance—simultaneously populate our world and escape our notice. The generation of aircraft built after World War II was built to last. Old planes are familiar, reliable, and trusted, but they require constant attention to keep in working order. The work of maintenance is essential, but invisible, the costs recorded as “depreciation” or “overhead.” Politicians and CEOs scramble to claim credit for their investments in R&D, but technicians, mechanics, and janitors keep the world running. By confusing the history of innovation with the history of technology, Edgerton argues, we not only miss this labor, but also we misunderstand the work of scientists and engineers. “The majority have always been mainly concerned with the operation and maintenance of things and processes; with the uses of things, not their invention or development,” he writes in the introduction to The Shock of the Old.

This counterintuitive way of looking at technology is starting to find its way into broader use. This spring, for example, a group of scholars gathered at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, under the banner of “The Maintainers.” Even so, the continuing evolution of “old” technologies like the U-2 stymies historians’ attempts to categorize them. With its interchangeable nose cones and sophisticated surveillance equipment, there’s no reason not to think of the U-2S as a cutting-edge, contemporary technology, a twenty-first-century companion to the more recognizably modern unmanned Global Hawks (aka, drones) that also fly out of Beale. At the same time, the U-2S retains some of the quirkier aspects of the original U-2’s design, like an exceptionally long wingspan and a bicycle wheel arrangement, that make the plane notoriously difficult to fly. “Nobody starts as a U-2 pilot,” Terino says. (The plane carrying Eadie and his co-pilot was one of five two-seat models used for training flights.)

For museums, persistent technologies present curatorial challenges. How do you convey to visitors that something is both a historic artifact and a contemporary tool? The challenge is compounded for military technologies, with their exorbitant price tags. At the Smithsonian, Kerafantis says, “We are only able to take possession of an aircraft that’s been retired, because if it were still flying, why would you put it in a museum?” Museums inevitably end up with older models that are similar to, but not quite the same as aircraft being flown today. Because the Smithsonian’s U-2, the seventh ever built, was used in the Middle East in the 1970s, it’s been painted in desert camouflage. Visitors sometimes object that it can’t possibly be a “real” U-2, because “real” U-2s are black.

But of course it’s a “real” U-2. Like all technologies, planes are flexible. They change both through use and through the actions of their users. They undergo maintenance and updates; they get paint jobs and new radar bays. They hide in plain sight on Beale Air Force Base’s website and in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, soaring high above global U.S. reconnaissance targets. If you happen to be in Washington, you can even see one yourself, hovering just below the ceiling of the “Looking at Earth” gallery at the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. Look carefully: U-2s are easy to miss.