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Air Force could ground U-2 in favor of Global Hawk

Tony Bevacqua flew secret missions in U-2 spy planes to peer into the Soviet Union, China, over the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam.

The Cleveland native first climbed into a U-2 cockpit in 1957 at a secret base in Groom Lake, Nev., surviving three flame outs on a training mission over the desert before flying the jet around the globe on highly classified flights until the mid-1960s.

“With our altitude above 70,000 feet, you could see way in with the camera,” said Bevacqua, who also piloted Mach 3 capable SR-71 Blackbird in his two-decade Air Force career. “You didn’t go in over Russia and China because of the promise (President) Eisenhower made to (Soviet leader) Kruschev of no overflights.”

Decades later, the SR-71 has long since retired, while the glider-like U-2 still flies miles above the Earth, but could be grounded because of Air Force budget cuts, and replaced by the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.

Looking past the Iron Curtain

The long-winged U-2 played a crucial role after the Soviet Union imposed the Iron Curtain and gathering intelligence over the enormous expanse became “practically impossible,” said Douglas Lantry, a curator at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

“They did a really good job of buttoning up their borders in that way,” Lantry said. “We were initially in the early days of the Cold War practically blind to what those guys were up to.”

Bevacqua flew the jet on high-altitude air sampling missions to detect nuclear weapons tests along with photo reconnaissance flights.

The high-flying pilots sometimes suffered from the bends, or decompression sickness. The Air Force eventually pressured the aircraft at lower altitudes to ease the problem, said Bevacqua, 81, of Yuba City, Calif.

Pilots found the jet a challenge to fly because it “can be tough to land especially if you have any cross winds and you have the fatigue factor as well as a landing coming at you.”

The Air Force did not initially want the unsolicited Lockheed proposal for a high-flying glider, known as the CL-282 that became the U-2. “Lockheed’s design was really radical,” Lantry said.

In the early 1950s, the service set its sights on a twin-engined B-57 Canberra with longer wings for a high-altitude, long-endurance mission but got behind the glider-like, single-engine U-2 after the Eisenhower administration chose it as a secret Central Intelligence Agency plane, Lantry said.

The Soviets shot down CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers in a U-2 in 1960 and Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson was killed in a U-2 over Cuba in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It was a U-2 flight that confirmed Soviet missiles in Cuba during the perilous standoff between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev. The Soviets pulled the missiles out of the island nation after a U.S. naval blockade.

Still flying

Six decades since the first U-2 flight, the plane, reborn as a larger model with new a range of sensors instead of a single high-resolution film camera it originally carried, has a key role in aerial reconnaissance today.

Richard Aboulafia, a Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group analyst, said the decision to sideline the U-2 is “risky.”

“But with a budget environment as constrained as it is, the Air Force is forced to take risks,” he said.

Rene Freeland, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman, said in an email the federal government has recognized the significance of Global Hawk’s capabilities, which recently set the longest military endurance flight — longer than 34 hours — without refueling.

“Global Hawk has the safest record of any aircraft in the Air Force’s active inventory and provides the most cost-effective and efficient means of gathering high altitude long endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information over a wide geographic area,” she said in the email. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center has a Global Hawk office at Wright-Patterson.

Loren B. Thompson, a Lexington Institute defense analyst and an aerospace industry consultant, said it’s unlikely the U-2 will leave the fleet for several years.

“First of all, it will take that long to transfer the most important sensors from the U-2 to the Global Hawk and even after that happens the Global Hawk will not be able to accomplish some of the missions the U-2 can,” he said.

The Global Hawk can fly longer than the U-2, but has a smaller payload, and can’t fly as high, he said. “The Global Hawk was conceived to replace the U-2 but it’s so different that they really are complimentary systems,” he said.

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