In 1954, Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects division (better known as the “Skunk Works”) began work on a reconnaissance aircraft for the Central Intelligence Agency under the codename AQUATONE, while the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command ordered 29 of the new aircraft, designated U-2, under project DRAGON LADY. Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson designed the single-engine jet to carry its pilot over denied territory, while cruising at altitudes above 70,000 feet and carrying a variety of cameras and sensors.
The 48th U-2 airframe built (known as Article 388 or Air Force serial number 56-6721) was the 28th U-2A constructed at Lockheed’s factory in Oildale, California. In October 1957, it was delivered to the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, Texas. During a training flight by a Taiwanese pilot on 3 August 1959, the aircraft was damaged in a bell-landing at Cortez, Colorado, in what has been referred to as “Miracle at Cortez”.
While undergoing repairs from the belly-landing, U2-A #56-6721 was modified to accommodate a second crewman, as well as a suite of equipment to measure infrared emissions from aircraft and missiles, in an effort to provide an early warning of a Soviet nuclear attacks. Re-designated as a U-2D, the aircraft was delivered to Edwards AFB in December 1959 and assigned to the Special Projects Branch of the 6512th Test Group, for use in Projects LOW CARD and SMOKEY JOE, in support of Missile Detection and Alarm System satellite development.
In May 1968, it received new instrumentation for a series of 31 test sorties in support of Program 949, development of a space-borne missile warning system. These tests, involving flights from Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, and Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, continued through October 1968.
During the 1970s, the U-2D served as a chase plane for COMPASS COPE unmanned aerial vehicles. Students from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards occasionally had opportunities to fly the aircraft as part of their studies.
The U-2D s/n 6721 was retired in 1980 and put on display at the March Field Museum in Riverside, California, until 1996. It was then returned to Lockheed Martin’s facility at Air Force Plant 42 for restoration, and was eventually placed on display at the Palmdale Blackbird Airpark in November 2001, where is still remains to this day. U-2 #56-6721 is the last surviving U-2D model, and it never received a J75 engine upgrade unlike majority of upgraded U-2’s.
Timeline and Summary of Significant Events:
- 1956 – One of 29 U-2As built in Oildale, California
- 1957 – Assigned to the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Laughlin Air Force Base, Del Rio, Texas
- 1959 – Damaged during “Miracle at Cortez”, when Taiwanese pilot Maj. Mike Hua managed a dead stick landing at Cortez, Colorado, after his engine flamed out at 70,000 ft
- 1958 – Repaired and modified to a model D, with a second seat and a sensor suite that included a complicated mirror system (MIDAS array) in the fuselage cavity between cockpits, to measure infrared emissions from aircraft and missiles. The rear seat had only a few basic instruments and no flight controls.
- 1960 – Transferred to the Air Research and Development Center (ARDC) at Edwards AFB, where it became part of a four-aircraft fleet, consisting of:
– U-2D #56-6721/Article 388
– U-2A #56-6701/Article 368
– U-2A #56-6722/Article 389
– U-2D #56-6954/Article 394
- 1960/1961 – Frequently flown at Patrick AFB to monitor rocket launches from Cape Canaveral
- 1960/1961 – Visited Hickam AFB to track Discovery/Corona reconnaissance satellite packages after re-entry
- 1961 – Used IR sensor to monitor X-15 launch
- 1966 – Became the only remaining U-2D model after the other U-2D # 56-6954 was sent to Van Nuys and converted to a single-seat U-2C model with a J75 engine
- 1968 – Upgraded with new instrumentation to assist in development of a space-borne missile warning system
- 1970’s – Served as a chase plane for COMPASS COPE unmanned aerial vehicles
- 1978 – Retired and transferred to March AFB museum
- 1996 – Transferred to AFFT Museum at EAFB and positioned at the Lockheed gate at Plant 42
- 2001 – Restored and moved to the Blackbird Airpark on 12 November
Names on the U-2D Aircraft #56-6721:
Left Side: Bob Schumacher – Lockheed Test Pilot
- Co-piloted first flight of the Lockheed Jetstar
- Was taught to fly the U-2 by Tony LeVier
- Flew the first U-2D model, #56-6710/Article 377, on 7 January 1958
- Took off from aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, in a U-2C model, on 5 August 1963. The aircraft was able to take off in 321 feet, without the use of the catapult. Bob made several carrier landing approaches that day
- On 29 February 1964, Bob made the first U-2 landing on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in a U-2G model, which was equipped with a spoiler and a tail hook
Right Side: Bob Murphy – Flight Test Supervisor in charge of maintenance crews and pilot training support operations
- Started out as a 24-year old flight test mechanic on the very first U-2 aircraft, and rose through the Lockheed ranks to become the overall Manager of Production and Flight Test of the A-12 and SR-71 programs
- After a party at Big Oaks Lodge in Bouquet Canyon in November 1955, overslept and missed an ill-fated flight from Burbank to an off-site work location. During a snow storm, the USAF C-54 “shuttle” aircraft was flying 30 feet too low to clear Mount Charleston, and all aboard perished
Sources: Peter. W. Merlin, an aerospace historian, and book 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the “Dragon Lady” by Chris Pocock