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.


RIAT is the Royal International Air Tattoo, the world’s best and largest military airshow, held at RAF Fairford in the UK every year in July. Fairford is also the stopover base for U-2s being ferried between the US and the deployment locations in the Near and Middle East.

So when I learned that a two-plane ferry was scheduled for the week after RIAT this year, it seemed natural to try and persuade the 9th Wing to tweak that schedule, so the U-2 could be on display at the show. Actually, the wing needed little persuasion, and the plan was eventually approved by higher authority.

My photos below show U-2S 80-1073 on the display line; the detachment commander (callsign ‘Mango’) being interviewed by RIAT’s own television station; the armed guard provided by the British police; the crowd interest in a display of the pilot’s pressure suit and helmet; a new Tesla electric car being used for chase; team members sheltering from the inevitable airshow rain; and the departure from Fairford after the show.

static display low-res

Mango interview low-respolice guard low-resPSD display low-resIMG_6894 low-res

rain shelter low-restakeoff cropped low-res


The Dragon Lady is now featured in the Air Warriors series of videos for The Smithsonian Channel. This 50-minute documentary covers the span of U-2 history from the early overflights of the Soviet Union, though the Gary Powers shootdown, the Cuba Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and onwards into the recent action over Afghanistan. It contains some great archive footage.

I was a consultant to the producers, Red Rock Films. I suggested some interviewees and was interviewed myself. My good friends and former U-2 pilots ‘Fuzzy’ Furr, Jeff Olesen and Chuck Wilson are also featured, not forgetting current U-2 driver ‘Chaos’ who brings the story up to date.

I was not asked to review the script. It is mostly accurate, but the discussion on today’s U-2 sensors fails to make a proper distinction between radar imagery (eg the ASARS) and electro-optical and film imagery (eg the SYERS and the OBC).

The film was completed before the US Air Force confirmed that the Dragon Lady would not be retired. However, the narrator says that “the smart money is on the U-2 remaining in the inventory for many years.” He got that right, for sure!

UPDATE June 2018:

This documentary has now been posted on YouTube at:


The US Air Force Fiscal Year 2018 defense budget request has been published, and it confirms what I wrote here and elsewhere in March. “We plan to keep the U-2 well into the future – there is no retirement date,” said Maj Gen Jim Martin, the Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget. “We need both the Global Hawk and the U-2 to meet the demand for ISR,” he continued.

Therefore, funding on improvements to the Dragon Lady can now be unlocked. Over the next five fiscal years, the Air Force plans to spend nearly $250 million in procurement and $156 million in R&D. There’s money for the ASARS-2B radar upgrade that I described previously, and also for the “stellar tracking initiative.” (That’s a ‘star tracker’ to provide an alternative means of navigation in case of GPS jamming by adversaries). There will also be enhancements to the optics and focal planes of the SYERS-2C imaging sensor; the SIGINT system; and the defensive electronic warfare system. There’s even some funding for a “technical refresh” of the good old wet-film Optical Bar Camera (OBC).

There’s more money to continue development and testing of  the U-2’s ability to act as an airborne communications node. These include the ubiquitous Link 16, the F-22’s InFlight Data Link (IFDL) and the F-35’s Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL).

Also in the works: upgrades to the pilot helmet and pressure suit, a new look at the ejection system, and the installation of a flight data recorder.

By my calculation, this is the fifth time that an official plan to retire the U-2 has been overturned. You can’t keep a Good Lady down!



The Accident Investigation Board report into the crash of TU-2S 80-1068 on 20 September last year is available online, from the Scribd website. It shows, once again, why U-2 pilots must be more careful when flying this jet, than any other in the US military inventory. In this case, misfortune turned to tragedy when the ejection seat of instructor pilot (IP) Steve Eadie collided with the right wingtip of the U-2 on its way out, killing him instantly.

That happened because the aircraft had stalled and was rolling sharply left, with the nose dropped well below the horizon. Eadie was the IP on the first of three interview rides that each prospective new U-2 pilot must take. They were exploring the “approach to stall” together at a safe height in the training airspace northwest of Beale AFB. Why is this necessary? As the report notes, the U-2’s final approach speed is only 10 knots above its stall speed, compared with 30 knots for most aircraft.

The IP let the student do the first approach to stall, but there was an uncommanded left wing drop. The IP then demonstrated the maneuver, but he needed nearly full right yoke to keep the wings level. The student then tried a second time, but a left roll again ensued. Tellingly, the student was not unduly alarmed “due to his experience with similar attitudes as a T-38 instructor pilot.” (He was already based at Beale with the 9th Wing, flying its smart, black-painted T-38s).

But the IP judged that the TU-2S was rapidly approaching the minimum uncontrolled ejection altitude (which is 5,000ft above ground level in the U-2). He was sitting in the front cockpit, per usual practice, and may have ejected first – the seats are not automatically sequenced in the TU-2S.

Both seats functioned as advertised, and the student landed with minor injury – a broken ankle. But poor Steve Eadie was already a corpse upon on arrival at ground level.

This student of U-2 history, and some U-2 pilot veterans that he consulted, noted the lack of any reference in the accident report to a wing-balance check having been conducted on this training mission before the approach to stall maneuvres were attempted. Quite a few U-2s have crashed over the years because of uneven fuel states in those long wings. My copy of the U-2 operations manual advises aircrew to “ensure the…fuel balance is checked. Recover immediately if any unusual stall characteristics develop.”

There was also no indication in the board’s report, that any corrective trimming had been applied after the first or second maneuvers, to address the wing drop problem.

But whatever is done is done. Steve left behind six children, and thanks to the generosity of the Beale community and the U-2 Brotherhood, a memorial fund that will help pay for their college education (amongst other things) is heading for its target. But you can still donate at this link.

As for the student pilot, his broken ankle has mended, and he has been accepted for U-2 pilot training.


As I noted in DRAGON LADY TODAY, the already-super performance of the radar imaging system on the U-2 could be significantly enhanced by upgrading it with an Active Electronically-Scanned Antenna (AESA). In fact, a test program to do just that is underway. But it has been slowed by budgetary restrictions. And because the U-2 is still officially scheduled for retirement in Fiscal Year 2020, only one prototype system has been funded. And flight tests from Palmdale that are expected to take six months won’t start until Fiscal Year 2018.

Raytheon completed a critical design review for the ASARS-2B last year. In addition to the AESA, this new version of the U-2’s unique Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System will include a modified receiver; new software algorithms; new maritime modes; and the ability to interleave modes simultaneously.

Raytheon started work on ASARS-2B two years ago, and has received just under $50 million in Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017 for the new version. But I’m hearing that it will be money well spent. ASARS-2B will have double the range of the current 2A version, providing a real ‘deep look’ into areas of interest from the U-2’s cruising altitude above 70,000 feet. The extra power and beam agility that an AESA provides via its individual transmit/receive modules will be properly exploited. Resolution of the new system will be “eye-watering”, I have been told.

Putting that in context, the current ASARS-2A already offers resolutions of between three and one meter in its three search modes, and from 0.9 to 0.3 meters in its five ‘spot’ modes. There is also an ‘enhanced point imaging’ mode with even better resolution. Eleven ASARS-2A sensors were procured for the U-2 program through the 1990s. Raytheon has totally refurbished them in recent years, adding another 5-10 years to their life.

Of course, the great advantage of synthetic aperture radar systems is that they provide imagery day or night, and whatever the weather. In the case of the U-2, the system is controlled by the operators and image analysts in  the ground stations. They report that, compared with the radar sensor on the Global Hawk Block 30 that was also provided by Raytheon, ASARS-2A is already superior by virtue of the greater height at which it is flown, and the power that the U-2 can supply to the single transmitter. ASARS-2B would increase that advantage. Moreover, it would also exceed the performance of the latest-build MP-RTIP radar sensor that equips the Global Hawk Block 40. At least in SAR-imaging mode, if not also in moving-target-indicator (MTI) mode.

NBC News recently reported from Osan airbase in Korea, and featured a U-2 ASARS mission: