Peter W. Merlin's UNLIMITED HORIZONS: DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE U-2
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
Unlimited Horizons is an exhaustive history of the development and use of the Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaisance plane which is famous for being shot down during a secret mission over the Soviet Union in 1960.
I very much enjoyed learning the details of how the aircraft was developed in an era when computers were primitive and so much of testing was trial and error. Some interesting details:
- To reduce development time designer Kelly Johnson reused the fuselage and tail assembly design of the F104 Starfighter. Look at the early models and you’ll see the resemblance.
- Development of the aircraft took place in extreme secrecy. All operations were hidden or cloaked in some way. Even parts were ordered under false names and transferred in unmarked trucks from one location to another.
- Designed to fly very high (about 70,000 feet) its lightweight design and extreme wingspan restricted its maneuverability when compared with the fighter jets of the time. Exceeding its narrow range of acceptable maneuverability when turning while ascending or descending could result in a loss of control, especially lower altitudes. Many pilots learn the hard way how the plane behaved in such situations.
- Missions could extend to 8- 10 hours at a time. Reliance on the partial pressure suits used in the aircraft in the early years resulted in great pilot fatigue.
- For many years a dual pilot trainer version did not exist, only single seat models. This was a challenge for training.
- For years attempts were made to qualify the aircraft for takeoff and landing from aircraft carriers. This necessitated strengthening key parts of the aircraft and adding an arresting hook. The Navy resisted this due to the great expense of such operations (and because the aircraft was controlled by the CIA and the Air Force, I presume).
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the U2 program is its longevity. Developed very quickly to perform a very specific mission—remote camera spying on Soviet military installations while spy satellites were still under development—the aircraft morphed over many years to accommodate new missions, power plants, and electronics.
Did Kelly Johnson and the people at Lockheed, the CIA, and the U.S. Air Force realize they were developing a “platform” whose utility would extend over decades? Probably not. Aeronautical history of the time is littered with failed jets and engines designs. Operational survivors from then are few. The U-2 stands out.
Somehow the lightning struck with U-2. The design may remain useful and adaptable for decades to come, even when faced with replacement by pilotless drones.
Review copyright (c) 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald. The ebook version of this book can be downloaded for free from NASA here: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/ebooks/unlimited_horizons_detail.html .