The U-2 is one of the icons of the Cold War. The high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, developed under the watch of Kelly Johnson, has been in continual operation in the United States since 1957. It's fifty plus year service run saw a number of variants and a huge number of military and civilian uses. One of the more interesting events in the U-2s history, from a technical perspective, is the fact that the aircraft was tested for use on aircraft carriers. Initial tests were conducted in 1963 and 1964 with U-2Gs and the aircraft underwent more formal sea trials aboard the USS America in 1969, as part of Project Whale Tale, using the larger U-2R. Yes, they operated a plane with a 103 ft wing span off of a carrier. By way of comparison, the F-14 had a wingspan of 64 feet.

Why operate a U-2 off a carrier? The CIA could not reach all the territories it wanted to see from land bases. Strangely, not everyone was thrilled with the Dragon Lady being over their territory or taking off from their airports. Carrier deployment allowed a way around this problem.

A U-2 wing under construction at Lockheed's Skunk Works

The U-2R used for the later tests was significantly larger than the U-2Gs tested in 1963 and 1964 and included a number of design features to aid in carrier operations. The plane featured beefed up gear and spoilers on the wings to fight the U-2's tendency to float when it got into ground effect. Obviously, there was a tail hook added to aid in landing. Finally, the last 6 feet of the wing tips folded to allow the aircraft to be more easily handled on deck and to fit in the hangar deck.


The U-2 shows off its folding wing tips (NASA TR-1 variant shown)

The U-2's low takeoff speed and massive amount of lift made takeoffs relatively easy from the carrier's deck. The U-2's 80 knot landing stall speed meant that a closing speed of on 50 knots could be achieved if the carrier was running into the wind. This made landing, on calm seas at least, relatively easy as well. While the U-2 utilized a tail hook for landing the pilot of the 1969 tests, Bill Park, felt they could even land without the hook if need be.


The U-2's tail hook on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

So why didn't the U-2 become a staple of carrier operations? The nature of the U-2's mission mandated quick deployment to trouble sports. Carriers just didn't offer that kind of capability. According to excerpts from a CIA report published by

"Aircraft carriers are enormously expensive to operate and require an entire flotilla of vessels to protect and service them. The movement of large numbers of big ships is difficult to conceal and cannot be hastily accomplished, while the deployment of a solitary U-2 to a remote airfield can take place overnight."


Getting ready for flight aboard the USS America in 1969

Final sea trials of the U-2 occurred during the 1970s and tested the aircraft in a naval surveillance role. There were even ideas of equipping the U-2 with nuclear anti-ship weapons. By this time, satellites were able to carry out much of surveillance that the Navy was interested in and the idea of operating the U-2 off of carriers was finally dropped.


Interestingly, the only operational missions the U-2 undertook off a carrier were not against the Soviets or Chinese, but against an erstwhile ally. A U-2 was deployed to spy on French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. These missions confirmed the CIA's belief that the French were on the verge of deploying operational nuclear weapons.

The U-2 continues to serve today around the world. Thirty-two are in USAF service and NASA operates a number for high altitude research. Carrier operations of the U-2 may only be a footnote, but it highlights the versatility of the aircraft. That versatility has served the country well and is part of the Dragon Lady's amazing history.