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Bell X-16

Ok, let’s get this out of the way to start with: There never was an X-16 aircraft. There was a program to develop it and a mockup was constructed, but the program was cancelled before a real aircraft was built. So, the astute reader will have figured out what I’m really going to blab about, but before we do lets pay the X-16 a little respect.

It was a challenging program. Started in the mid fifties, the aircraft was intended to perform reconnaissance at 70,000ft with a 3,000 mile range.  This meant the aircraft had to be light with efficient engines and generate a lot of lift, and Bell were on the right track when the program was cancelled. Its long, flexible, high aspect ratio wings gave it great lift and minimized the weight. The Pratt and Whitney J57 engines were also a good choice for high altitude operation.

How can I say these things for an aircraft that was never built? Because it’s spiritual successor, the Lockheed U-2, used all these features. It even used the engine the Pratt and Whitney team had developed.


The U-2 was designed at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, one of Kelly Johnson’s many projects. The U-2 wasn’t an Air Force program. It was intended as a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft that would overfly foreign, often hostile, countries, and the US was concerned about the problem of a military aircraft entering another country’s airspace. In all honesty, I can’t see the difference between a CIA over-flight and a USAF one, and the distinction was probably more to do with who wanted the money, the program and the intelligence.

The U-2 first flew in 1955 at Groom Lake, the fabled “Area 51” of all good science fiction. It’s one of those strange things, but several successful aircraft have performed their first flight on what was only intended to be a high-speed taxi run, and the U-2 was no exception. In the U-2’s case the unexpected flight was blamed on the greater than expected efficiency of the wings. It’s a credible claim because landing the U-2 is difficult because the wings generate so much lift a chase *car* follows behind the landing aircraft to talk the pilot down. In fact the U-2 is a difficult aircraft to fly because at 70,000ft there is only 10 knots between its maximum speed and its stall speed. Try imagining driving like that on the freeway.

There have been several iterations of the U-2, increasing the size of the aircraft, the thrust of its engines, its fuel capacity and recently its cockpit avionics. More than fifty years after it first flew, these changes are planned to take the aircraft into the 2020s.

The U-2 has been present at every major US conflict, most recently Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraqi. It’ll be present at future conflicts because it holds one advantage over Satellite reconnaissance, the U-2 can be sent anywhere we want without having to wait for celestial mechanics to bring a satellite over the point of interest.

As remarkable as the U-2 is as an aircraft, it’s the payload it carries that is what makes it useful. Early aircraft carried a Perkin-Elmer camera.

Perkin-Elmer ground camera carrier in the bay of the U-2

It was a monster by today’s pocket camera standards, but it could resolve 2.5ft details of the ground from the aircraft operating altitude. Not bad for the 1950s.

The U-2’s payload has been constantly upgraded with optical, radar and monitoring systems. It has to be said that it’s designers have a sense of humor having fitted systems named Senior Glass, Senior Spear, Senior Ruby, Senior Span, and Senior Spur to a fifty year old aircraft. Despite their retirement joke, today’s U-2 is used to detect roadside bombs and eavesdrop on mobile phones, and it’s still competitive against the unmanned Global Hawk.

U-2 on deck of USS America

Probably the most remarkable development in the use of the U-2 was the attempt to extend its range by adapting it for carrier landing and take-off. The aircraft seems so large and fragile compare to a fighter aircraft, yet its high lift wings and light weight compensated with a lower landing speed. The problem was that landing the U-2 was difficult to start with, landing it on a pitching, rolling, 30mph football field must have been extreme. As can be seen in the next video, touchdown and catching the wire wasn’t easy.

In the event, operational carrier flights only occurred twice, both times from USS Ranger to observe France’s detonation of an atomic bomb at a test range in the Pacific. Later U-2’s were modified for in-flight refueling, even though that meant 15hr flights for their pilots.

The U-2 has been engaged in several high-tension situations: Captain Gary Powers being shot down over the USSR and Major Rudolf Anderson who was killed while observing the Soviet build in the Cuban missile crisis. They’re both fascinating stories.

The U-2 is still in operation, almost 15 years after its replacement, the SR-71, was retired. I bet it’ll be with us for another decade. What do you think it’ll be up to?



(Images courtesy of Wikipedia and video from Creative Fission)

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