top of page

The Lady With The Dragon Tattoo

The Lockheed U-2 spy plane is an American single-jet engine, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It provides day and night, high-altitude (70,000 feet, 21,300 meters), all-weather intelligence gathering. Nicknamed, "The Dragon Lady", It was flown during the Cold War over the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. It became somewhat famous when one was shot down that was flown by Gary Powers in 1960 over the skies of Russia by a surface to air missile.

The U-2 has also been used for electronic sensor research, satellite calibration, scientific research, and communications purposes. The U-2 is one of a handful of aircraft types to have served the USAF for over 50 years, along with the Boeing B-52, Boeing KC-135, and Lockheed C-130.

Though the USAF and the Navy would eventually fly the U-2, the CIA had majority control over the project, code-named Project DRAGON LADY. The USAF agreed to select and train pilots and plot missions, while the CIA would handle cameras and project security, process film, and arrange foreign bases. USAF pilots had to resign their military commissions before joining the agency as civilians. The program only recruited fighter pilots with reserve USAF commissions, as regular commissions complicated the resignation process. The program offered high salaries and the USAF promised that pilots could return at the same rank as their peers. The CIA's standards for selection were higher than the USAF's once the latter began its own U-2 flights; although more candidates were rejected, the CIA's program had a much lower accident rate.

The U-2 remains in front-line service more than 60 years after its first flight, with the current U-2 beginning service in 1980. This is due primarily to its ability to change surveillance objectives on short notice, something that surveillance satellites cannot do. A classified budget document approved by the Pentagon on 23 December 2005 called for the U-2's termination no earlier than 2012, with some aircraft being retired by 2007. In January 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced the U-2's pending retirement as a cost-cutting measure during a larger reorganization and redefinition of the USAF's mission. Rumsfeld said that this would not impair the USAF's ability to gather intelligence, which would be done by satellites and a growing supply of unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft.

In 2009, the USAF stated that it planned to extend the U-2 retirement from 2012 until 2014 or later to allow more time to field the RQ-4. Upgrades late in the War in Afghanistan gave the U-2 greater reconnaissance and threat-detection capability. By early 2010, U-2s from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron had flown over 200 missions in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, as well as Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.

In March 2011, it was projected that the fleet of 32 U-2s would be operated until 2015. In 2014, Lockheed Martin determined that the U-2S fleet had used only one-fifth of its design service life and was one of the youngest fleets within the USAF. In 2011 the USAF intended to replace the U-2 with the RQ-4 before fiscal year 2015; proposed legislation required any replacement to have lower operating costs. In January 2012 the USAF reportedly planned to end the RQ-4 Block 30 program and extend the U-2's service life until 2023. The RQ-4 Block 30 was kept in service due to political pressure over USAF objections, who state that the U-2 costs $2,380 per flight hour compared to the RQ-4's $6,710 as of early 2014. Critics have pointed out that the RQ-4's cameras and sensors are less capable, and lack all-weather operating capability; however, some of the U-2's sensors may be installed on the RQ-4.

The U-2's retirement was calculated to save $2.2 billion. $1.77 billion will have to be spent over 10 years to enhance the RQ-4, including $500 million on a universal payload adapter to attach one U-2 sensor onto the RQ-4. USAF officials fear that retiring the U-2 amid RQ-4 upgrades will create a capability gap. In the House Armed Services Committee's markup of the FY 2015 budget, language was included prohibiting the use of funds to retire or store the U-2; it also requested a report outlining the transition capabilities from the U-2 to the RQ-4 Block 30 in light of capability gap concerns.

In late 2014, Lockheed Martin proposed an unmanned U-2 version with greater payload capability, but the concept did not gain traction with the USAF. In early 2015, the USAF was directed to restart modest funding for the U-2 for operations and research, development, and procurement through to FY 2018. The former head of the USAF Air Combat Command, Gen. Mike Hostage helped extend the U-2S to ensure commanders receive sufficient intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage; stating "it will take eight years before the RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet can support 90% of the coverage of the U-2 fleet. In 2015, the RQ-4 was planned to replace the U-2 by 2019, though Lockheed states the U-2 can remain viable until 2050. As of January 2018, the U.S. Air Force budget for 2018 had indefinitely postponed the retirement of the U-2. In February 2020, the U.S. Air Force submitted budget documents with confusing language suggesting that it could begin retiring U-2s in 2025 but clarified afterwards that no retirement is planned.

The U2 is still flying missions in an environment that no other aircraft can operate in. At 70,000ft and above, the spy plane still has the stratosphere largely to itself. At altitudes of an access of 70,000 feet, the pilot is more of an astronaut than classic aviator. Given the altitude and average length of missions that can last for hours, the suit and helmet that is worn is very similar to the ones worn by typical astronauts. The pilot breathes 100% oxygen. Due to the very thin air at such extreme altitudes, the pilot faces the constant danger of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and altitude-induced decompression sickness. Only the elite are chosen to fly such a modern marvel that has serviced the nation for more than 65 years. One such pilot is that of Major Kristopher Duckett - United States Air Force.

On May 14, 2021 Maj Duckett, call sign "Judge", flew his last mission in the ol' Dragon Lady. Although he ends on a glorious note, his road to becoming an Air Force pilot is one of a motivational but humbling story. Growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana he once saw a recruiting poster of an F-16. It was there that he knew that he had a higher calling, literally. While in high school he was routinely homeless which caused him to miss an excessive days of absence. As a result he was unable to graduate with his diploma and obtained his GED instead. It was not that he did not have the scholastic aptitude to obtain a high school degree, it was however truancy due to the instability of being homeless. He first emotional setback was learning that the Air Force did not enlist GED recipients.

He would later learn that although active duty Air Force would not accept GED recipients, he could however enlist through the Louisiana Air National Guard. As a Senior Airman, he was assigned to working on F-15 ejection seats in the 159th fighter wing. He desired to literally be in the pilot's seat as opposed to repairing them. He was told by elements in his command that he would need a college degree in order to become an officer and pilot. Furthermore he was informed that the Louisiana Guard would pay 100% of his tuition to any state school. From there he would apply to Louisiana Tech University. Eventually he would earn his commission and become a navigator in a combat search and rescue unit. Applying and being accepted into flight training, ultimately he would fly C-130's. In his own words:

"Yesterday was one of the most bittersweet of my professional lifetime. My first combat mission was more than a lifetime ago but after 6303 days on watch, my wheels touched down for my final active mission. Although not my fini flight this was my fini mission.

After climb out, the heavens once again opened to a smooth brilliant peace, the sky was truly beautiful. On this day, the “Lady” and I danced one final time, keeping vigilance, projecting power, monitoring peace. Honestly, It was tough holding back the tears as I watched the earth below move by... but time marches. On to the next path.

It has been my honor to serve for and with truly the finest people across all career fields and every service both civil and military. I hold a special place for every single one of YOU as you have, in no small measure, cared for my life every time I’ve taken to the skies.

It is my hope that by doing my job that I have made my people, my service, and my land a safer place.

Major Duckett's career speaks volumes for itself. Prior to flying the U2, he taught foreign allied aviators in militaries abroad how to fly the aircrafts of their counties. His path to becoming an aviator in the cockpit of one of the most exclusive and pivotal aircrafts in the entire history of powered flight is an exemplary tale. His story is that of the ultimate underdog story - where there is a will, there's a way. Initially he desired to play the trombone in a marching and follow in the foot steps of his grandfather and become a truck driver. But because he saw an F-16 recruiting poster at a career day event, he decided to follow his passion. Although he did not meet the traditional path's requirement, he sought out non traditional pathways to obtaining his goals. Committed to excellence and a thirst to propel the field of aviation and aerospace science, he pushed the envelope forward. We at FlyBoy Aviation wish Major Duckett continued success in all of his future endeavors as he embarks upon a new path.

U2 “Black Dragons” #8 (solo #1018) and #9 (solo #1040).

“Judge” and “Eli”


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page