If you have read DRAGON LADY TODAY, you will already know that NASA flies two U-2s from Palmdale that are specially configured for science missions. Designated ER-2 (ER = Earth Resources), these aircraft were delivered in 1981 and 1989 and, like the rest of the U-2 fleet, were re-engined with the GE F118 engine in the mid-1990s.

But they did not receive the glass cockpit upgrade known as the RAMP (Reconnaissance Avionics Maintainability Program) when the US Air Force fleet was modified from 2002-2007. Instead, they retained the mainly round-dial instrument panel, and the famous drift sight that dated from the original U-2, providing a 360-degree view of the ground below through folded and magnifying optics:

NASA old cockpit

However, NASA eventually decided that an ER-2 cockpit upgrade was now needed, along with the Cabin Altitude Reduction Effort (CARE) that Air Force U-2s received five years earlier. The CARE mod reduced the standard cabin altitude of the jet from 29,000 feet to 15,000 feet when flying at cruising altitude. This was deemed necessary after a marked increase in the number of pilots who were experiencing decompression sickness (DCS).


A new cockpit panel has been designed by the four NASA ER-2 pilots and the program’s engineers (who act independently of the Lockheed Martin U-2 engineers that work on the same airfield on depot maintenance or new development efforts). It is being implemented in three stages, after LM has performed the CARE mod on the two aircraft in the depot.

Why has NASA not simply adopted the RAMP upgrade? The ER-2 pilots told me that design is now nearly 20 years old, since when avionics capabilities have moved on apace, and computer memory has increased exponentially. They wanted a cockpit panel that was customized to their unique requirements, including an avionics system that allows the easiest possible integration of the experimental sensors that research scientists wish to fly on the two aircraft.

The RAMP upgrade and CARE mod involves structural modifications in the cockpit area, and the cockpit instrument panel is part of this primary structure. It would have been too expensive for NASA to make changes to the panel, so the two NASA aircraft are returning from the depot with the glass cockpit instrument panels installed, but empty of display glass. The panels do have the holes cut for the three big (8 x 10-inch) multifunction display (MFD) screens of the RAMP cockpit, plus the two smaller (4 x 4-inch) holes. The RAMP cockpit is shown here:

RAMP cockpit

NASA is bolting aluminum plate to these holes, within which it will first re-host some previous ER-2 instruments of its own choice, including the high-accuracy Multi-Display Unit (MDI) that digitally provides altitude, airspeed, and Mach number. Below the modified central MFD hole, a Warning Caution And Advisory (WACA) panel will be installed. This panel is being custom-built by NASA to advise the ER-2 pilot of system health and status. The number and type of annunciations in the WACA panel had to be carefully worked out due to limited space in the new instrument panel.

The old standby gauges of altitude, airspeed, attitude, and magnetic heading are being retained for now. But a modern Electronic Standby Instrument System (ESIS) from L3Com will be added soon to replace them in one space-saving device. Concurrent with the ESIS effort, a modern commercial off-the-shelf MFD with high accuracy Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) GPS will be added where the left MFD is situated on the RAMP U-2s. The new MFD is essentially a Flight Management System (FMS), and will have a moving-map; GPS as well as ILS approach capability; the controls for an ADSB mode S transponder; and in-flight weather and traffic displays.  This set-up will allow the ER-2 to fly worldwide in any airspace into the foreseeable future. Here is a diagram of the interim new NASA cockpit:

NASA ER-2 short-term new cockpit with ESIS Feb19

In a third stage of the upgrade, replacements will be sought for the ER-2’s legacy Attitude Direction Indicator (ADI), Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) and Inertial Navigation System (INS). Because the panel is already cut for large MFDs, this upgrade will feature large glass panels and look very similar to the current Block 20 U-2s.

There was no place for the driftsight on the RAMP cockpit panel, and neither is there in the new ER-2 panel. But since the NASA pilots were still using the driftsight – for instance, to ‘hunt’ for clouds that were relevant to an experiment – one or more downward-looking cameras will be installed below the fuselage, with their imagery wirelessly connected to an I-pad in the cockpit. This IPAD will also integrate with the new MFD to wirelessly connect flight planning information into the panel mounted GPS.

The ER-2 upgrade will also retain and improve the connectivity between the aircraft and the ground, via INMARSAT, that allows the scientists to direct and modify their experiments in real time.

NASA 809 has already returned from the depot and NASA engineers are now rebuilding the cockpit. It should fly again next May. The other aircraft, NASA 806, is currently in depot and will return the same month. It should fly again by the end of the year.

The ER-2 pilots claim that they have a higher workload than US Air Force U-2S pilots, monitoring and manipulating the scientific experiments, and keeping the aircraft at the constant altitude that is often required, rather than implementing a Mach hold climb. (The normal altitude that NASA offers on the ER-2 is 65,000 feet, more than 5,000 feet below that of the Air Force U-2S. But higher altitudes can be achieved if required).

The NASA jets are certainly kept busy with new campaigns. In the last year alone, they deployed to Warner Robins and Hawaii, in addition to numerous campaigns flown from the home base. The list of available sensors for the ER-2 exceeds 20, and another 20 or so different sensors are in various stages of planning.

My thanks to ‘Coach’ Nelson and the other NASA ER-2 pilots Tim Williams, Dean Neely and Stu Broce (whose cockpit photos are shown above). Below is my photo of NASA 806 doing a low flyby at the LA County Airshow, Lancaster, CA last year.

NASA 806 low pass


I am often asked that question, usually by someone to whom I have just explained that the Dragon Lady remains the world’s premier reconnaissance aircraft, and was not retired years ago!

The answer is currently 31, comprising 25 single-seat U-2S models that can fly operational missions; four dual-cockpit TU-2S trainers; and two ER-2 versions that fly science missions for NASA.

The total will change to 32 because the Air Force has decided to rebuild 80-1099, the single-seat model that was damaged in a ground accident at Al Dhafra airbase, UAE, in August 2008. While the jet was undergoing phase maintenance, with the engine removed, the Emergency Start System (ESS) was mistakenly activated.

The ESS is essentially a tank of hydrazine that can spool up the U-2’s F118 powerplant inflight, sufficiently to relight it at high altitude. The tank is situated in the right fuselage. When the unstable liquid fired, some of 1099’s mainframes were burnt. Fortunately, flames did not spread to the fuel lines or sump tank. But the jet had to be airlifted back to the US. Earlier attempts by the Air Force to repair it were unsuccessful, but now Lockheed Martin will do the work at the Palmdale depot.

Unfortunately, I hear that another U-2S that was also damaged in a ground accident at Al Dhafra, is a write-off. This is 80-1089, which was being towed at night in late 2016 when it was hit by a speeding ground vehicle driven by a local worker. He evidently did not see the U-2, and impacted the trailing edge of the right wing with such force that he was killed, and the wing was pushed forward into the fuselage. Some parts from 1089 will be used to restore 1099.

Incidentally, on page 97 of DRAGON LADY TODAY, I mistakenly listed U-2S 80-1082 as still operational. In fact, this was the aircraft that crashed on 22 June 2005 when returning to Al Dhafra after an operational mission. The power takeoff shaft from the engine failed, disabling the hydraulics and the electrics. Duane Dively, a very experienced pilot, was tragically killed when he flew into the ground while trying to troubleshoot the problem in a dark cockpit on a dark night.

The only other U-2 to have crashed since then was two-seat trainer 80-1068 on 20 September 2016. You can read about that accident by paging down this Forum section until you reach the post: “U-2 Trainer Crash Report”.


The 9th RW has flown another journalist: Michael Phillips of The Wall Street Journal. There is a very good video of his experience on the WSJ website:

Equally interesting, Phillips was told about a new project to use artificial intelligence to help interpret the imagery from the U-2’s Optical Bar Camera (OBC). On pages 30-31 of DRAGON LADY TODAY, I described why this panoramic wet-film camera was still being used on occasional U-2 missions, despite this digital age.

But with such huge area coverage returned by each OBC mission, the image analysts (IAs) are overwhelmed by the task of viewing it all. So the Air Force enlisted the help of engineering students at Stanford University to develop artificial-intelligence tools to identify objects of interest.

Now this is not the first time that automatic target recognition has been employed to aid IAs. But the Stanford students must be onto something, since their work will be tested by the Air Force over the coming months, according to Phillips.


Now that the U-2 is staying in service for the foreseeable future, many possibilities for making it even better are being explored. Some are now funded, some are still on wish-lists. But Lockheed Martin U-2 program manager Kyle Franklin (below) has every reason to be optimistic. He told me recently: “we’re a sunrise platform now” – a reference to all those years when the Dragon Lady was slated for retirement as a “sunset” system.

Kyle Franklin portrait photo rcvd Mar17 cropped

First up, the new active-array radar antenna. Test flights of the prototype ASARS-2B should start soon. I have already described the big jump in performance that Raytheon expects to achieve (scroll down to read the story: “Radar Imaging Could Be Even Better). A production contract should be awarded next spring, with procurement extending until 2023. Raytheon also wants to upgrade the ‘back-end’ processor and other boxes of this premier system, to make the ASARS-2C version. But 2C is not yet funded.

Then the multispectral imaging sensor. The current SYERS already offers 10-band coverage in the -2C version. Some enhancements to the optics and the focal planes are now in the budget. But it is no longer in production, and UTA Aerospace Systems has moved on to the MS-177, another high-end long-range sensor. This provides greater area coverage and can track moving targets. It is going onto the Global Hawk, and there’s a good argument for buying a few more to equip the U-2.

The U-2’s Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP) is a relatively new sensor, but new signals are emerging all the time, and adversaries are developing new encryption techniques. Northrop Grumman will be funded to improve ASIP, and to address ‘vanishing vendor’ and reliability issues.

BAE Systems provides the U-2’s electronic warfare system, and it will also be upgraded to counter the ever-improving air defenses that the Dragon Lady might encounter. In particular, the low-band subsystem of the AN/ALQ-221 will be modified so that the U-2 can operate in what the Air Force calls “moderately contested environments.”

The bad guys are also jamming GPS navigation systems. The U-2 has an integrated GPS/INS and, unlike the UAV that was touted as its replacement, there’s a pilot onboard that can react to such contingencies. But for complete assurance, an astro-navigation system is desirable. Years ago, the U-2 had a star-tracker, and it may have one again in the future. The Draper Laboratory is working to reduce the size of a system that it has already flown on a larger aircraft.

Screen Shot 2018-05-25 at 18.14.28

On page 94 of DRAGON LADY TODAY, I described the exciting possibilities of a ‘Tri-Int’ U-2 (above). That is, one that can carry both the ASARS imaging radar and the SYERS multispectral sensor, as well as the ASIP. At the moment, the Dragon Lady has interchangeable noses that carry either ASARS or SYERS. But if the ASIP could be consolidated in the right wing pod, SYERS or the MS-177 could be carried in the left pod. This idea is not yet funded, and there are some significant technical issues, including generating enough power for all three sensors to operate simultaneously, and obtaining enough bandwidth to relay all the imaging data to the ground in real time. But Franklin expressed optimism that it could happen “sooner rather than later.”

In a series of test flights from Palmdale and Elmendorf airbase, AK, over the past few years, Lockheed Martin has demonstrated the significant utility of the U-2 as a data conversion and relay platform for other aircraft, including the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. The drive towards Open Mission Systems, and LM’s development of the so-called “Einstein Box” has been well-reported elsewhere. I will be returning to this subject in these pages, but for now, you should know that this box also offers some significant possibilities for the onboard processing and fusion of reconnaissance data. “It’s incredibly flexible,” Franklin told me.

What about the airframes? The U-2 program has to endure many ill-informed comments about what an ‘old’ airplane it is. As I made clear on page 16 of DRAGON LADY TODAY, this is nonsense. And now the Air Force is paying for a Loads and Environment Spectra Survey (L/ESS). The U-2 program manager expects it to confirm that the jet is good for 75,000 hours of flight. At current utilization rates, that could keep the Dragon Lady in service until the end of this century!


Post - SHADY LADY cover Mar18

“Shady Lady: 1,500 hours Flying the U-2 Spy Plane” by Lt Col Rick Bishop, Crecy Publishing, UK, 2017, £18.95. Distributed in the US by Specialty Press, $24.95

If you want to know what it’s really like to fly the U-2, look no further than this book. Rick Bishop was a Dragon Lady pilot for most of the years between 1979 and 1991, ending as the 99th SRS commander. His love affair with the jet is evident from nearly every one of the 280 pages. Yes, this is a long account – but no U-2 ‘driver’ has ever chronicled his experience for public consumption in such detail before.

The chapters on how he applied, qualified, and trained to fly “one of the world’s most unconventional flying machines” should surely be required reading, for anyone who aspires to become a U-2 pilot in the future. The demanding nature of the job has been described many times before, not least in my own books. But there is no substitute for a vivid, first-person account.

Rick goes on to describe his operational deployments to Korea, Cyprus, the UK, and Florida. Although he is careful not to give away classified information, there are plenty of stories that were new to me. Challenging missions into the Arctic to monitor a Soviet Navy exercise from Mildenhall lasting up to 12 hours, made even more difficult by fog and snow at this British airbase. A ‘hot’ air sampling mission to sniff out the secrets from the last-ever nuclear test in the atmosphere, conducted by the Chinese. A complete generator failure during a functional check flight. And so on.

The author wants you to understand the tight-knit camaraderie that is generated by those who fly and support the U-2 in the US Air Force. He succeeds admirably. But in so doing, he inevitably dispels much of the mystique that has surrounded the program. For sure, some of that has anyway been dispelled, in the 26 years since he left Beale. Even so, I wonder whether this book will be well-received by everyone within the “U-2 Brotherhood.” They still enjoy being identified as a secret society…





Improvisation has always been a tradition in the U-2 program. In the earliest days, it was the fixing of a piece of string above the cockpit transparency to give the pilot some indication of yaw, and the addition of that rear-view mirror so that he could monitor contrails. Later, it was the parcel delivery vans that were bought off-the-shelf and modified to provide transport to the flight line for the pressure-suited pilot and his attendants from the Physiological Support Division (PSD). There are many other examples.

In a new and very good article, Defense News reporter Valerie Insinna describes how the 99th RS at Beale AFB is continuing the tradition by using tablet computers for navigation and unclassified communications, and a software application that gives mission planners access to datalinked information from previous sorties. Coming soon will be a means to capture navigation or physiological data from the Garmin watches worn by pilots:


At the recent US Air Force Association convention and exhibition near Washington DC, I was interviewed by Vago Muradian, who runs The Defense & Aerospace Report website. We discussed the future of the U-2, and some related matters:

Vago is very well known in defense circles, and – like me – has been privileged to take a ride in the Dragon Lady to high altitude.