A U-2 pilot looks down on the Chinese balloon. The shadow of his aircraft can be seen on the balloon’s fabric.

Intercepting stratospheric balloons is a new mission for the U-2, that proves again just how versatile the Dragon Lady can be – and how essential it is to retain a manned high-altitude reconnaissance capability. There’s also some interesting high-in-the-sky history that connects the U-2 with balloons.

While the CIA was developing the revolutionary U-2 at great speed in late 1955, a sceptical USAF pressed ahead with an alternative means of photographing the Soviet Union. Over 500 large camera-carrying balloons were launched from western Europe, the theory being that the prevailing jetstreams would carry them west-to-east across the Soviet landmass, so that they could be recovered 8-10 days later in northern Asia.

Codenamed Project Genetrix, this scheme was not a great success, with less than 10 percent of the camera payloads recovered. Many others were shot down by Warsaw Pact fighters, or simply drifted down to earth. The USSR collected the evidence, displayed it in Moscow, and issued strong protest notes.

The CIA wasn’t enthusiastic about the project, and the success of the early U-2 overflights in 1956-57 suppressed any thoughts of balloon reconnaissance. But only for a while.

In mid-1958, the US unsuccessfully floated a few improved balloons over the USSR from east to west. In 1959, as fears grew in the US that the Soviet Union was ahead in the race to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, the same group of Presidential advisors that had recommended development of the U-2, suggested that high-altitude balloons carrying acoustic sensors could detect Soviet missiles ascending into the stratosphere. This was thanks to the sound duct that exists at the tropopause, it was theorized. Apparently, nothing came of this scheme.

(In fact, a project was already underway to modify the U-2 with a large infrared sensor to detect ballistic missile launches. Prototypes were flown, and the Skunk Works proposed building a fleet of 80 two-seat U-2B versions. You can read more about this in Chapter 37 of 50 YEARS OF THE U-2).

Before too long, satellites were providing early warning detection of Soviet missile launches. They were also supplanting the U-2’s core mission of photo reconnaissance over “denied territory”.

In the 1970s, two long-wing high-altitude jets were built in the USSR, the Yak-25PA and the M-17. Some Western observers assumed that they were the latest Soviet attempts to produce a reconnaissance aircraft with equivalent performance to the U-2. (A decade earlier, the Yak-25RV was indeed built for that purpose, but wasn’t a success).

In fact, the two new aircraft were designed to intercept and shoot down US balloons, which remained a concern to the Soviet Union, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Fast forward to recent times, and a new proliferation of high-altitude balloons caused concern amongst U-2 pilots, who inhabited the same airspace. This was Google’s Project Loon. The idea was to provide Internet connectivity to deprived areas of the world, using fleets of balloons with the latest materials and navigation technology. Google ended the project in January 2021, saying that it was not commercially viable.

During the latest flap over Chinese balloons, some popular media have inevitably ’rediscovered’ the Dragon Lady. It’s a sadly familiar phenomenon. How come this Cold War spyplane is still in service?

The answer will be obvious to readers of these pages: unrivalled man-in-the-loop, high-altitude performance with flexible, high-tech sensors. In this case, the U-2 may have made use of SYERS to image the balloon, and ASIP to determine whether it was communicating. 

The US Fiscal Year 2024 Defense Budget request will be published in two weeks’ time. Once again, there are calls for the USAF to divest ‘legacy systems’. I hope the service is not again tempted to phase out the Dragon Lady in favor of the latest unmanned wonderplane. That was tried before, with the Global Hawk. I’ll leave you with a photo of that inferior platform – taken from above by a U-2!


  1. I nearly hit what I assumed was a weather balloon at 45,000 over Lake Ontario around 2008. ATC was unaware of it. I was surprised to hear from the National Weather Service that they do NOT put transponders on board balloons.


  2. I nearly hit what I assumed was a weather balloon at 45,000 over Lake Ontario around 2008. ATC was unaware of it. I was surprised to hear from the National Weather Service that they do NOT put transponders on board balloons. aaa


  3. My father was Recon pilot (U2, XF-12…and likely others). This is one of the few photos I have ever seen or viewed from a U2 out of much interest. The stories of some of the stranger, unexplained things my father described seeing, those were far more incredible, and how interesting that the world never found out about any of them!


  4. The Skunk Works plucked promising engineers from Lockheed Flight Test staff. They were there on Friday, gone on Monday.


  5. Global Hawk is there to augment not Replace the U-2. The GH can fly 30+ hours putting a man in that situation is dangerous and unreasonable. The GH maybe an “inferior platform” yet like any tool it has a Job and will never replace the Man in the Loop.


  6. Anyone know about a U2 landing at Sacramento Executive airport during the pandemic, 2019-2020? I live in that flight path and it about blew my mind when i passed over my house .
    I asked around but everyone thought i was crazy!


      • Ha. my airforce buddy said no way because its a really small airport, but nothing else looks like a U2. Im thinking he forgot his toothbrush…he was down then up in 5 .


  7. Am I the only 1 in awe, that the U-2 is capable of doing such a steep bank at this altitude?.
    I mean wouldnt the wing on the outer radius will be at supersonic while the 1 on the inside would be at a stall?


    • I consulted a veteran U-2 pilot. Piloting skill is the answer, ensuring that the aircraft is controlled in all three axis (pitch, roll and yaw) to minimise the speed differential.


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