CV-66 USS America, November 1969
In the late 1950s, the CIA began to look into options for extending the range of its U-2 spyplanes. The early model Dragon Ladies had a range of only 3000 miles or so, and required bases in Turkey or Pakistan to fly over the USSR, then land at Bodø Air Station in Norway with fuel tanks nearly dry. Given the performance of the U-2, it was beloved that one could land on and take-off from a Forrestal-class supercarrier with only minor modifications. The CIA approached the NRO, and Operation (sometimes Project) WHALE TAIL was born. Late one night in August of 1963, a U-2A was craned aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, which then sailed out of San Diego Harbor. Safely out to sea (and out of sight), the U-2 launched from the deck, managing a 300-foot takeoff roll without the ship’s catapult. Test pilot Bob Shumacher performed several landing approaches, which proved that a U-2 could manage a approach (including a possible wave-off) and arrested landing without issue.
As a result of the test, Lockheed modified three (possibly four) U-2As, reinforcing the landing gear and adding an arresting hook and spoilers. In March of 1964, Bob Shumacher began trials of the newly christened U-2G, landing this time on the USS Ranger. This time the trials were less successful, and the aircraft pitched down into the deck when the hook grabbed the arresting cable, breaking off the pitot tube. The damage was repaired on the carrier, and the plane successfully took off again.
Another accident occurred, this time with pilot Jim Barnes, who approached the deck too slowly and stalled just over the Ranger’s fantail. Barnes firewalled the throttle, avoiding a crash but striking the arresting gear with a wingtip, tearing off the skid in the process. Barnes was able to fly to Edwards AFB, where the U-2 was repaired. The U-2Gs were further modified after the accident, adding reinforcing plates and springs to the wingtip skids.
There was only one recorded mission from an aircraft carrier: Operation FISH HAWK in May of 1964. USS Ranger sailed to the South Pacific with the mission of spying on an expected French nuclear test. A CIA NPIC interpreter was added to the ship’s crew, and the Navy set up a lab for rapid development and analysis of whatever film the Dragon Lady captured. A U-2G, modified with “sniffers” for atomic particles, flew to the Ranger from California via Hawaii. Two sorties were flown between May 19th and May 23rd, and after initial results were obtained on the Ranger, the film was flown to New York for further processing by Eastman Kodak.
Even with the success of FISH HAWK, rapid evolution of technology meant that the need for U-2 carrier ops was limited. Improvements in engines allowed the planes to fly further, even without in-flight refueling. Advances in satellite technology granted the ability to survey wide swathes of land without having to risk aircraft. New camera technology provided lighter modules that also could transmit data in real-time. Still “You Never Know...”, so the CIA retained carrier capabilities in newer makes of the U-2, with the U-2R being flown onto the USS America in 1969 to prove the concept still worked. The U-2R, being larger than its predecessors, also featured folding wings, and as part of the test “N812X” was lowered on the carrier’s elevator and was maneuvered without issue into the hangar deck.
CIA pilots kept up with carrier qualifications, flying T-2 Buckeyes, into the Eighties, though again, no further use of U-2 on carriers has been detailed.