George May 11, 2010 7:49 AM

Just a note reflecting on the longevity of the U2 program. While stationed at Bien Hoa AB, Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1970 the daily routine for many was to was the early dawn takeoff of the U2 aircraft and early evening landing. You could always tell when it was ready to land as it would circle the airfield, very quietly going round and round as it waited for the ground crew and vehicle(s) to catch up at landing and grab the wings that could bend enough to touch the runway without support.

justin heideman May 11, 2010 9:37 AM

Seems to me the SR-71 Blackbird was a superior plane. Not only did it fly higher than the U2, it flew faster and further. Also, no one was ever shot down in the SR-71.

Dave F May 11, 2010 9:47 AM

@ kashmarek:
She was the 2nd female Air Force pilot to fly the U-2, so the glass ceiling was already broken.

John May 11, 2010 11:08 AM

@ Justin

Yes, I’d say the SR-71 was a better plane in terms of performance than the U-2. However, the U-2 had been updated with data links so some of the intelligence data collected could be utilized while the aircraft was still in flight. That update hadn’t occurred with the SR-71 so before using collected intelligence, the aircraft had to land.

Jim Ramsey May 11, 2010 11:35 AM

What does it say about the genius of Kelly Johnson that he could design both the F-104, which has almost no wing, and the U-2, which is basically a jet powered sail plane?

AB Chalmers May 11, 2010 11:55 AM


There have been at least a couple SR-71 memoirs already published… look for the book Sled Driver on Amazon.

mcb May 11, 2010 1:06 PM

@ justin heideman

“Also, no one was ever shot down in the SR-71.”

How can you be sure? Would any of the operating agencies have told us if any had? I daresay we’d have never learned about Gary Powers’ ill-fated flight if the Soviets hadn’t needed the public relations coup.

Quiet Guy May 11, 2010 1:37 PM


I reckon that the only armed forces that could knock out an SR-71 and would want to were the Russians and they would have been quick to boast about it.

BlackBudget May 11, 2010 1:57 PM

Not sure about any shot down, but have it on good authority that one SR-71 took itself out in early testing.

Something about having an “unstart” in one engine at mach too-fast that makes for a sudden urge to turn left, hard and repeatedly.

Mel May 11, 2010 1:59 PM


The difference is in loiter time. The average SR-71 mission lasted 3hr6min (, U-2 missions, as people have said, lasted dawn to dusk. U-2 didn’t have to be as lucky in order to see something worth seeing.

phred14 May 11, 2010 2:53 PM

I was under the impression that the weakness of the SR-71 was the fuel and other equally exotic requirements. According to an article I read, the SR71 had its own fleet of tanker planes, since nothing else ran on the same fuel, and since it leaked badly until properly warmed up, it was always refueled in-flight. By keeping an eye out for those tanker plains, among other signs, you could tell when an SR71 mission was happening and roughly where it was going. In that respect it lost one of the bigger advantages of a plane relative to a spy satellite – predictability. I was also under the impression that the SR-71 needed an absurdly clean runway, so that’s another prep sign you could watch for.

The short mission profile also acts to tighten the window of exposure, though it also reduces the amount of warning to get hidden.

It seemed to me that a replacement for the SR-71 (Aurora?) wouldn’t really need any greater capabilities, just simpler logistical support.

LJ May 11, 2010 4:22 PM

I highly recommend “Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed” by Leo Janos, Ben R. Rich

It is a fantastic read!

Arclight May 11, 2010 5:47 PM

I think the obvious difference between the SR-71 and the U2 is cost. The SR-71 used exotic everything – special tools just to take bolts off, special lubricants, absurd amounts of special fuel, exotic fuel for starting, and the list goes on.

The U2 is basically a large glider with a single jet engine. It’s a much better deal in terms of cost, and is much better suited to the missions we have today.

If we own the sky, there really is no reason why we would need the SR-71. Plus missiles eventually caught up to its amazing speed and altitude, spy satellites closed most of the gap, and it became a dinosaur.

Just me $0.02

Kevin Larkin May 11, 2010 7:46 PM

The Chicoms shot down several U-2s over the Taiwan Strait and the wreckage is on display at the Military Museum in Beijing.

kangaroo May 12, 2010 9:31 AM

@George: Didn’t know that Vietnam was a staging ground for U2 flights. Why did we, instead of Japan, S. Korea, etc? Why would you use an active war zone, rather than places within our sphere of influence?

Ian May 12, 2010 12:12 PM

Speaking of the U-2 –

“Lt. Col. Joseph Santucci climbed down the ladder of the U-2 Dragon Lady, then felt his legs give way. That’s when he realized how exhausted he was, physically and mentally.

The pilot had just endured nearly an hour of hugging the spy plane’s manual controls to his chest — using every ounce of strength in his 160-pound frame — to keep the jet from plunging into a steep dive.”

tensor May 14, 2010 1:57 AM

As other commenters have noted, the main advantage a spy plane has over a satellite is the ability to loiter over the area it watches. Another advantage is being closer to the target. Modern unmanned aerial vehicles can do this with greater ease and more surveillance ability than could the U-2; they need not fly where the difference between stall and overspeed is a few knots. One hundred and fifty pounds of meat, and all of the life-support equipment required, places a huge weight burden upon an aircraft, which modern technology has removed.

Stevie Gee May 17, 2010 2:53 AM

James Bamford describes an unusual feature of the U2 ejection seat – it was originally designed to kill the pilot. That Powers survived being shot down is doubly amazing given that little piece of knowledge.

johnnyc October 12, 2013 9:22 AM

I feel it isunpatriotaclly greedy for the self proclamed “gods of the air” to charge so much for their books. So many of us mortals loved the aircraft but cannot waste that kind of money to support their ego and pay for their beer; or what ever their escape is now.

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