Posted on August 01 2021
First flight of Lockheed Martin's U-2 took place accidentally on August 1, 1955 when the highly efficient wings inadvertently caused the prototype to become airborne during a high-speed taxi test. The first official flight took place three days later with legendary Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier at the controls.
In 1999 Aviation Week's then Editor-in-Chief David M. North reached the highest altitude he had ever flown, in a U-2. He recounted the experience in a blog for Aviation Week, which was originally published in February 2015. Read his original pilot report in the Aviation Week archives.
A flight in the U.S. Air Force/Lockheed Martin U-2ST gave me the opportunity to reach 74,000 ft., the highest altitude I had ever flown. It beat out my previous high of 51,000 ft. as a pilot of a Learjet Model 28.
I had requested a flight in the U-2 from the U.S. Air Force’s public affairs group, and they were responsive as usual. I went to Beal AFB near Sacramento with Denis DiPierro who was head of the magazine’s video production unit. Denis and I had worked together on the Su-27 and MiG-29.
Arriving late in the day I was assigned a bungalow in the visiting officers quarter area. I have often marvelled that the Air Force always did better in transient housing than the U.S. Navy. It is probably because we spent more time at sea than visiting different bases. Maybe it has changed over the years.
I was fully briefed on aspects of the flight to be held the next day. The day included a session in the altitude chamber wearing my space suit. It appeared to be working, as my body did not turn to mush.
The flight with Lt Col. Carl Trout was really enjoyable, and I was able to see how these truly dedicated pilots operated, although I did not see how they tolerated flights of 10-hr. or more in the relatively small cockpit. We reached an altitude of 74,000 ft. and I was able to observe the contrails of airliners returning from the Pacific at some 30,000 to 40,000 ft. below me.
I found the U-2 very stable in flight as long as you observed the low speed and high speed limits. It appears to be a very efficient and cost-effective means of achieving the reconnaissance mission it has been assigned. Satellite and drone use has eaten into their mission, but I still feel there is a need for the U-2 type of hands-on coverage.
After the flight, I was subjected (with little objection) to the downing of a yard of ale to receive my U-2 pin in the bottom of the yard. This all-hands ritual was held in the bar in the operations building, another perk the Navy should copy. I know I did not get near the record quick downing of the full yard, but did uphold the Navy in at least not being in the bottom of list. I sure did spill a lot of beer on my flight suit to get to the end of the yard.
Some two months after the pilot report was published I met a one-star Air Force officer, who was in the chain of command for the U-2 program during a formal dinner. He told me that I gave too much information away in the pilot report. He would not elaborate beyond that. Which brings up a salient point. There were times that I would be asked by the service or manufacturer if they could review the pilot report before publishing, and I always replied in the negative. I attempted to have any questions I might have answered before writing. The Taiwanese Air Force would not agree to those terms so I never did fly the F-CK-1 indigenous fighter developed in Taiwan, with the help of Lockheed Martin.