Developed under total secrecy at the Groom Lake Facility in Nevada, Clarence L ‘Kelly’ Johnson’s famous design first took to the air in August 1955. Although some slight effort was made to disguise the aircraft’s purpose by giving it a ‘Utility’ designation, its task of photographing the Soviet Union from high altitude began almost immediately.
The CIA-sponsored over-flight programme was proving more successful than anyone had hoped for when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk in May 1960. As a result both Powers and the U-2 were thrust into the glare of the world’s media.
Pessimists thought that this was the end of the U-2 programme, but in fact it has never lost its place as a vital American reconnaissance asset. In October 1962 U-2 missions over Cuba confirmed the presence there of Soviet ballistic missiles, and the world was plunged into the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although the Soviet Union remained the key target for U-2 operations during the Cold War, the aircraft also operated in other theatres and regularly flew over China and the Middle East.
A second generation aircraft, the U-2R, first flew in 1967and went into series production not much later. These aircraft, along with the original Cold War survivors, remain active in the United States Air Force to this day.