When the U-2 Went to Sea

July 3, 2008

During 44 years of service with the Central Intelligence Agency and Air Force, the U-2 spyplane has been flown from bases in the United States, Britain, Cyprus, France, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, South Vietnam, and a few other places.

And it has been operated from aircraft carriers.

Even with an operational radius of some 3,000 miles, U-2s flying out of “safe” land bases could not reach every single area of interest to the United States intelligence community. Some places were just too far away. Thus, in the late 1950s, the CIA came up with the idea of operating U-2s from carriers at sea.

Richard M. Bissell, head of the CIA’s U-2 program, recalled, “Navy officials seemed interested when I approached them, but the Air Force refused to participate.”

In mid-1963 the CIA initiated Project Whale Tale, the goal of which was to adapt U-2s for carrier operation. The glider-like configuration of the U-2 made it capable of taking off unassisted from a carrier when there was a high wind-over-deck factor. Its slow approach speed made arrested landings relatively easy, with the carrier’s arresting cables kept at their lowest setting. The carrier could provide 30 knots of wind over deck into the face of the aircraft, resulting in a closing speed of just 50 knots. The airplane had plenty of power for a wave-off during landing.

Carrier flight tests commenced in August 1963. In the dead of night, a Navy crane lifted a U-2 onto the deck of the carrier Kitty Hawk, which was based at North Island naval air station in San Diego. On the next morning (Aug. 5), as the ship steamed off the California coast, Lockheed test pilot Bob Schumacher took off with a full fuel load and with a deck run of 321 feet.

Hard Landing

Next, Schumacher made a number of practice approaches, and he then commenced landing. A CIA report said, “Although the takeoff was very successful, the attempted landing was not. The aircraft bounced, hit hard on one wingtip, and then just barely managed to become airborne again before reaching the end of the deck.”

The Navy then performed modifications to three U-2A variants. It gave them stronger landing gear, an arresting hook, and wing “spoilers” capable of canceling aerodynamic lift when the aircraft came over the deck. These aircraft were designated as U-2Gs and painted with N-series civilian serial numbers and Office of Naval Research markings.

In preparation for further carrier operations, Schumacher and several other CIA pilots were checked out in the Navy’s T-2A Buckeye jet trainer and made practice landings on the training carrier Lexington.

The first successful carrier landing of a U-2G occurred March 2, 1964. Schumacher made a series of touch-and-go landings aboard the carrier Ranger steaming off the California coast. He then made the first full landing of a U-2 aboard a ship. In that first landing, the hook engaged, but the rear of the U-2 tipped up and the nose dug into the deck, breaking the pitot tube. After hasty repairs the U-2 was flown off.

A few days later, Schumacher and CIA pilots made several successful takeoffs from and landings on Ranger. The upshot of these successful trials was that the Navy considered five CIA pilots to be carrier-qualified.

The carrier-based U-2 evidently wasn’t in high demand. In fact, it is known to have flown only one operational mission, as part of Operation Seeker. It occurred in May 1964. Ranger launched a U-2G spyplane to monitor nuclear tests carried out by France at Mururoa atoll, a Pacific test site in French Polynesia. U-2G photographs indicated that France would be ready for full-scale production of nuclear weapons within a year.

Bigger Aircraft

Several more CIA pilots became carrier-qualified over the next few years, but the only significant event concerned a change in aircraft when the program went to the U-2R.

The U-2R variant, which entered service in 1967, was 40 percent larger than the earlier U-2. It had twice the range and could carry a payload four times as large. The Navy aircraft had an arresting hook. The outer six feet of each wing folded back to facilitate handling aboard ship. The aircraft bore the fictitious Navy markings N812X.

The trials of the U-2R, using the deck of the carrier America, took place during the period Nov. 21-23, 1969, off the Virginia Capes. One of the pilots was Bill Park, a former Air Force fighter pilot and senior Lockheed test pilot. He was joined by four CIA pilots. The five of them underwent an abbreviated carrier training course and then flew the America trials.

Testers aborted the first landing attempt when they discovered that the ground crew had left the locking pin in the tailhook assembly. The rest were successful. In a report on the subsequent trials, Park said:

“The airplane demonstrated good wave-off characteristics, and I felt at the time that landing could be made without a hook. We required very little special handling and even took the airplane down to the hangar deck. The outer 70 inches of the wings fold and by careful placement on the elevator we could get it in [the hangar] with no problem.”

For all that, the idea of the seagoing U-2 just never generated much enthusiasm. The official CIA history contends that the agency conducted no further U-2 missions from an aircraft carrier. It said: “Aircraft carriers are enormously expensive to operate and require an entire flotilla of vessels to protect and service them. The movement of large numbers of big ships is difficult to conceal and cannot be hastily accomplished, while the deployment of a solitary U-2 to a remote airfield can take place overnight.”

The Navy wasn’t finished with the U-2, however. In a separate program in 1973-74, two U-2R aircraft were modified to the U-2EPX configuration for evaluation by the US Navy for the ocean surveillance role. During the evaluation the airplanes were fitted with a derivative of the AN/ALQ-110 Big Look surveillance system, a modified AN/APS-116 forward-looking radar (useful for detecting surface ships and periscopes or snorkels of submerged submarines), and an infrared detection unit. The radar, fitted in the U-2’s sensor or “Q” bay, had an antenna protruding below the fuselage in an inflatable radome.

The U-2EPX was to link its radar to surface ships under a program known as Outlaw Hawk. Other sensors, including space- and land-based, were to be linked to a command center ashore and, subsequently, fitted in the carrier Kitty Hawk. During the Outlaw Hawk exercise involving Kitty Hawk, the carrier steamed from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, with the U-2s flying from California. (The participation of U-2s in another Outlaw Hawk exercise in the Mediterranean was canceled.) The U-2EPX concept died because of high costs and the promised effectiveness of satellites for ocean surveillance.

Lockheed, ever hopeful of an enlarged U-2 program, also proposed the 315B design, a two-seat variant that would carry Condor anti-ship missiles under its wings. Development of the Condor missile-which was to have carried a conventional or W73 nuclear warhead-was canceled before becoming operational. Yet another “payload” envisioned for U-2s in this period was a pair of drones that would be released to serve as decoys for missiles fired against the U-2.

Still, no U-2 variant ever entered naval service. At the same time, Boeing proposed a much larger aircraft of this type (i.e., a powered glider with a 200-foot wingspan) for the ocean surveillance role. The Navy did not build it.

The carrier and naval aspects of U-2 development and operations, though interesting, occupy but a few pages in the record of the U-2 spyplane, a most unusual and important aircraft.

Norman Polmar is a Washington-based defense analyst and author. He has written several books on aviation, naval, and intelligence subjects, his latest being Spyplane: The U-2 History, on which he based this article. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Longer Reach for Soviet Seapower,” appeared in the June 1990 issue.