U2 spy plane

What does the U2 do that can’t be done by satellite?

Does it “see” things better, get into positions, or otherwise enhance the information that can be gathered by satellites?

Satellites are on pre-determined flight paths. It is a relatively simple thing for another government to figure out when a satellite overflight will be and arrange their activities around it when it isn’t overhead. It is possible to re-task a satellite to alter its orbit and timing but satellites have a limited amount of fuel so doing so effectively shortens the useful lifespan of that very expensive piece of equipment. Also, it doesn’t take long for the country being watched to twig to the new schedule and work around it.

A U2 can come at you whenever it feels like, maneuver for better shots and so on. While radar may see it coming that may not be enough advanced warning to cover whatever it is you are up to.

Not to mention that a satelite is much farther away than a U2.

Let me add a little to what whack said. Back in the early 80’s every few weeks an Air Force C-5 would land late at night at Burbank airport, pull up to the Lockheed building and park. Screens would be raised around the plane, and then about an hour or so later, the plane would depart. This became so common that local airplane types would gather to watch such a large plane land at such a small airport. There was even an article in the LA times about these landings. No one knew why these planes were landing (or if they did, they weren’t talking)

Several years later it came out that the C-5’s were picking up F-117 stealth fighters for transport to the airbase where there were stationed. The landings were scheduled to occur between Russian satellite passes. Because of this, the F-117 was deployed and operational before anyone had a clue.

Satellites only have a limited coverage over any one spot on earth. The U-2 can loiter for a long time.

This is a huge reason. It’s a very tactical asset which can go wherever it’s needed. That can’t be said for a satellite.

So we still have the U2. It dates from 1955, with current model from 1989.

So why not the SR71? We still have a few flying.


Cost per result.


Let me just say that the SR-71 is one bad ass lookin’ plane.

(Sorry for the continued hijack.)

Another reason we don’t have the SR71 is that we really don’t need it. High speed is not essential for photo surveillance. The SR71 doesn’t really reach altitudes that much higher, either, so it is not really much less likely to be hit by anything. There is more room on a U2 for camera, and such, as well.

The SR71 was a very nifty cool plane, for which no reasonable mission could ever be found. And it leaks fuel like a rain cloud until it hits speed and altitude. (Actually, until it heats up from going faster than hell.) Even as a combat plane, it really has no advantages except that it can outrun any damned thing in the air, including most missiles.

Satellite photos are much wider area coverage, and correspondingly coarser resolution. When the U2 comes down to sixty or seventy thousand feet, it can see much smaller objects, and can circle around to get different angles on something, if you need to. It can also fly back over the same place a bit quicker, too. Like this afternoon, instead of tomorrow.


“In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world, Beats a '52 Vincent, and a red headed girl.” ~ Richard Thompson ~

U2’s have been shot down - think Francis Gary Powers - but the SR-71’s speed prevented any shoot-downs even though upwards of 100 surface-to-air missiles were fired at them during the Blackbird’s career. The Blackbird also had six equipment bays in the belly plus one in the nose in a much larger airframe than the U-2, so I tend to disagree with your “room for a camera” statement.

The SR required a very costly infrastructure just to support the aircraft. It burned its own unique fuel. It had to have unique tankers capable of supporting it in addition to several other one-of-a-kind items it required. The costs involved were massive. It was and still is one of the most capable and beautiful aircraft made, but in the end its costs per return were deemed too high.

Besides, I am still not convinced it wasn’t supersceded by something that could out-class it.

This does not really make sense to me. Surely the F-117 could fly to wherever it needs to be deployed. Also, although the Galaxy is a huge plane it does not appear to be large enough to carry a F-117. The cargo bay is only 19 feet wide and the Stealth has a wingspan of 43 feet. Is the support equipment for the stealth so unique that it needs to be transported covertly to avoid identification?


I believe it - they built them in the LA area, but didn’t want to fly them out of there because about a million people would see that they exist. Remember that the F117 existed for several years before it was acknowledged. Also, I’m pretty sure that it’s transported to where it’s needed - instead of flying them to the other side of the world, having to worry about refueling, they load them onto a C5 and take them there. I could be wrong. If I’m right, they would have to be able to take the wings off for transport.

I’ve always wondered about that, after reading something that Heinlein wrote. Is it possible to hit a U-2 flying at speed/altitude and have it make a controlled landing, or would it just come apart? Heinlein’s point was that the Russians didn’t shoot it down; it fell down, probably due to mechanical failure, and even then, it had to have been way inside Russian territory, because that thing could glide for a long way…

At the time the F-117 was built, it was so secret that nobody knew about it. If they were to fly it from Burbank everybody in LA would have known about it.
As far as the size of the cargo bay vs the size of the F-117 goes, if you take the wings off the F-117 isn’t anywhere near 43 feet wide. Think about it.

Originally posted by ** Kilt-wearin’ man**

And the career of the U2 includes so many refits, and improvements precisely because of Gary Powers, and the other times it has been shot at. My point is that while it is true that the SR-71 is less likely to be shot down, it is not enough less likely to be shot down to require all of its performance benefits. The new U-2 doesn’t come down to lower altitude in hostile territory to make its photographs. A big part of its new high survivability equipment is a much better camera, designed for it, so that it can now remain above 100,000 feet, and still take useful reconnaissance photos.

Size matters. But size isn’t everything. The camera was designed for the plane, and the plane for the camera. It makes a big difference.

The SR-71 was an experimental design to go fast as hell, very high. It does. Nothing we have now is as fast. But even the Air Force never really wanted the damned thing, because we have no mission for it, and cannot foresee any mission for it in our projected technological future. It also costs a young fortune to not fly one, and a mature fortune to actually take off. Landing is another whole thing, because you need special handling at both ends of your trip. It’s a Ferrari. If war were a racetrack, it would be great. But war is a construction site. You need a truck.


I think that the U-2 does “see” things better.

The distortion caused by the atmosphere is a continuing problem for spy sattelites. The difference between 70,000 feet and low earth orbit may seem to be trivial since both altitudes are far above the densest atmosphere, but a spy satellite usually has to take its shots at a more extreme angle, causing more atmospheric distortion.

Dr. Edwin Land reputedly convinced Eisenhower to go ahead with the U-2 project by explaining that our spy cameras could spot a golf ball at a distance over ten times farther away than the human eye can. That story may have been conflated with another one I was once told in which a camera developer had a U-2 photograph golf balls set on an airfield.

It’s certainly possible that there is something that outclasses the SR-71, at least in some respects.

Well, I admit I didn’t think about taking the wings off. That would probably make it a bit smaller. Thanks for the info.


In matters relating to the U-2 incident, I tend to believe the pilot involved, the Russian military (who’ve released records since the fall of the USSR), the USAF, and most aviation historians in the world before I believe a sci-fi author - even one as respected as Heinlein. From what I understand, the missile didn’t hit the U-2 in question, but with SAMs, a hit isn’t necessary, shockwave and shrapnel are. The Soviets even managed to knock down one of their own fighters that was trying (in vain) to intercept the U-2 at the time (there was no chance of the MiG - I can’t remember if it was MiG-15s or Mig-17s that they sent - reaching the U-2’s altitude…) The aircraft basically disentigrated due to the nearby SAM detonation - in fact, I seem to recall that Powers never ejected, he just found himself falling after the airframe disentegrated around him.