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Aging U-2 Will Fight On Into the Next Decade 266

Posted by timothy
from the as-long-as-bono's-hearing-aid-lasts dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "For more than half a century, the CIA and US military have relied on a skinny, sinister-looking black jet, first designed during the Eisenhower administration at Lockheed's famed Skunk Works in Burbank, headed by legendary chief engineer Clarence L. 'Kelly' Johnson, to penetrate deep behind enemy lines for vital intelligence-gathering missions. Although the plane is perhaps best known for being shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 with the subsequent capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 continues to play a critical role in national security today, hunting Al Qaeda forces in the Middle East. The fleet of 33 U-2s was supposed to be replaced in the next few years with RQ-4 Global Hawks, but the Pentagon now proposes delaying the U-2's retirement as part of Defense Department cutbacks." (Read on, below.)
Hugh Pickens continues: "The Global Hawk drone, costing an estimated cost of $176 million each, has 'priced itself out of the niche (PDF), in terms of taking pictures in the air,' says Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. 'That's a disappointment for us, but that's the fate of things that become too expensive in a resource-constrained environment.' The Pentagon has determined that operating the U-2 will be cheaper for the foreseeable future but it won't disclose how much operating the U-2s will cost for security reasons. 'It's incredible to think that these planes are flying,' says Francis Gary Powers Jr., Powers' son and founder of the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Va. 'You'd think another spy plane, or satellite or drone would come along by now to replace it.'"
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Aging U-2 Will Fight On Into the Next Decade

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  • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @04:40PM (#38851437)

    Now why are buying cheap crap for chain the falls apart real fast in other areas?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Dantoo (176555)

      Actually No.. I think.
      Buying cheap crap for chain is not what they do. The crap for chain is quite expensive if you buy it at Boeing for example.
      The falls apart real fast has happened in Iraq for sure and latterly in Afghanistan too but which other areas? I think we are all wondering about the "now why" and I think that is a valid point.

    • The wars have also changed, we won't be going up against Russia anytime soon. Further China is more of an economic threat than a military threat. Their military expanse is more a response to worldwide US presence, they are not as quick as US to invade a country.

      So U-2 would do just fine against Taliban and even Iran. Why spend more money when the needs have changed, hell a bi-plane from WWI will do just fine against Taliban.

      • by turgid (580780)

        hell a bi-plane from WWI will do just fine against Taliban.

        Did they have Toyota pick-up trucks and AK-47s in WWI?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    It can't. Aerodynamics is pretty much a settled science, so is turbine technology, Newton's Laws, and kerosene. There's a reason why 40 year old planes still look like planes today, as opposed to 40 year old computers.

    So I'm always surprised when Space Nutters think there are magical materials and fantasy technologies out there...

    • by kheldan (1460303) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:21PM (#38851595) Journal
      Ah, so the human race has progressed materials science as far as it will go? We already know about all possible alloys, composites, and construction techniques? Science has unraveled all the mysteries of the Universe, all the way down through the quantum level? No possible advances in propulsion technology? Think again.
      • by DesScorp (410532) <DesScorpNO@SPAMGmail.com> on Saturday January 28, 2012 @06:47PM (#38852021) Homepage Journal

        Ah, so the human race has progressed materials science as far as it will go? We already know about all possible alloys, composites, and construction techniques? Science has unraveled all the mysteries of the Universe, all the way down through the quantum level? No possible advances in propulsion technology? Think again.

        Materials science is the only place left to go. We saw the future, and it was unaffordable. Flying cars? Jetpacks? Supersonic airliners? All do-able. All prohibitively expensive and inefficient and unsuited for mass productions. You should read an article called The End of the Future [nationalreview.com]. It sums up something I've suspected for quite some time: while we've made advances we could never dream about... computers, biotech, etc... the advances we did dream about never came, and never will (at least not in our lifetimes or those of our children or grandchildren). All those dreams of colonizing planets, traveling to other stars, floating cities, etc, ran into the hard shoals of reality, both physical and fiscal. Humanity is now actually slowing down [popsci.com], after a century of constantly going faster. 50 years from now, whatever Boeing is producing at it's plant will look largely like what they've been making since the 707; a fat tube with slightly swept wings and jet engines in pods underneath. It may be made of plastics and have advanced computers, but it'll carry around the same number of people and go about as fast as current airliners. The future... the one we wanted... really did die.

        • by decora (1710862) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @07:41PM (#38852505) Journal

          the entire buildup of aerospace in the United States in the 20th century was due to one, and only one, factor. The Cold War. Without the Soviet Union, there would be no Apollo Mission, there would be no Mercury program, there would be no Space Shuttle. The entire thing was a gigantic nuclear brinksmanship contest between two gigantic countries who narrowly missed blowing each other to bits in a holocaust.

          And what of the Soviets? If they had no Cold War they wouldn't have been into space either. Korolev would never have gotten funding from the Politburo unless he had claimed (dubiously) that he could stick nukes on top of his space rockets (err.. i mean missiles comrade, of course).

        • Materials science is the only place left to go. We saw the future, and it was unaffordable. Flying cars? Jetpacks? Supersonic airliners? All do-able. All prohibitively expensive and inefficient and unsuited for mass productions.

          How arrogant are these apes. This one here claims to know so much of their limitations, yet still can't figure out how the basic forces of gravity or electromagnetism work at the subatomic level. No no, It's True; I'm not making this up! You must read this, It's hilarious!
          ....

          It writes of unaffordability and knows nothing of different planetary economic models, even though they've just barely to explore this system. They still have a STOCK MARKET that dictates worth based on feelings instead of instantaneous financial reports! Ha haha!

          Their transportation is yet slow and ground based because they are all still trying to drive the machines themselves! This one believes that personal flying systems are unattainable even though one of his kind has build himself one [youtube.com] from mass produced model airplane parts! [wikipedia.org] (Ridiculously, it's still controlled via organic pilot.)

          They've barely begun to harvest their Sun's power; Can't even leverage their own planet's magnetic field or even LIGHTNING for that matter!

          With this sort of thinking they'll never join the races of the stars... Let us leave the primitives be, but first ensure the probe records all instances of their "How it's Made" broadcast for it's the only anthropologically valuable transmission.

        • by Ol Olsoc (1175323) on Monday January 30, 2012 @12:18AM (#38861673)

          Materials science is the only place left to go. We saw the future, and it was unaffordable. Flying cars? Jetpacks? Supersonic airliners? All do-able. All prohibitively expensive and inefficient and unsuited for mass productions.

          Because many of those things were ideas that in retrospect were not all that smart. Nuclear airplanes and cars are very stupid. Yet they were once proposed and in one case a lot of money was spent on research. Jet packs? They exist already. But hardly practical. The thrust from the ground version is severely limited in energy, and what ar ewe giong to do with the "fly across the English Channel" one?

          But that isn't what I'm thinking of. The U2 is a fine example of it's craft, and what could we build that would be all that much better? We could design a new plane that would be incrementally better, and the design process would be incrementally easier.

          Bu we are just about at the edges of what we are capable of doing with the current technology.

          But before we get the stupid reference to the "Everything has been invented" meme, let me explain.

          The next wave of progress will not be anything like what we have now. I don't know whether it will be in something like Zero point energy, or some other far fetched concept, but I do believe there will be something will be coming along that will make almost everything we make these days look almost silly.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tomhath (637240)
      There's plenty they could do differently today. Stealth technology, carbon fiber, etc. But all of that is expensive. Do you put new tires on the old Ford and drive it to work for another year, or buy a new Ferrari? Depends on your budget.
      • by The Grim Reefer (1162755) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:42PM (#38851683)

        There's plenty they could do differently today. Stealth technology, carbon fiber, etc. But all of that is expensive. Do you put new tires on the old Ford and drive it to work for another year, or buy a new Ferrari? Depends on your budget.

        They already had a Ferrari in the SR-71, but chose to retire it and kept the old Ford.

    • by minkie (814488)

      I'll go along with us not knowing a whole lot more about aerodynamics today compared to 60 years ago, but materials have improved. Carbon fiber has trumped the aluminum-titanium-unobtainium alloys they had then, both for strength/weight ratio and the ease of making complex shapes. Obviously, the avionics are a whole different world, but I assume you were talking airframes.

      Consider, for example, the Russian Soyuz rocket. It looks like something out of the 60's, because it *is* something out of the 60's.

      • by j33px0r (722130)

        Going on the idea of having it already figured out, consider the parts & labor.

        It has to be cheaper & less time consuming to create in install the parts on a U-2 than a newer high tech jet. Less parts, less to go wrong. Strap a new high-tech camera & radar on that old timer and off she goes!

      • by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Saturday January 28, 2012 @08:12PM (#38852733) Homepage

        Maybe it's not perfect, but after 1700 launches, they're pretty much got it figured out. The Space Shuttle was a lot sexier, but when it came to putting mass into orbit cheaply and reliably, Soyuz won hands down.

        The problem is - that while the Soyuz is in fact cheaper than the Shuttle, the difference in reliability isn't all that great. For the currently active marks of the Soyuz booster you have 863 launches with 23 failures - 97.4 percent reliability. Compare that to the Space Shuttle, 135 launches with 2 failures - 98.5 percent reliability. (The numbers for Soyuz get even worse if you count all marks of the booster.)
         
        The reliability of Soyuz is a myth born in echo chamber of space fanboys, it's not supported by reality.

    • by crutchy (1949900)

      So I'm always surprised when Space Nutters think there are magical materials and fantasy technologies out there...

      I guess if you're ignorant anything can surprise you.

      Ever heard of blended wing bodies, carbon and silicon aerogels, aerospikes, feathering, single crystal turbine blades, biosteel, not to mention advances in avionics. Regulatory requirements have also evolved in the last 40 years, particularly in crashworthiness, dynamics/flutter, EMI, fire prevention/retardants, fatigue, lightning protection, operational requirements, etc.

      I'm sure little progress has been required in going from a 45,000 lb thrust e

  • by Third Position (1725934) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @04:42PM (#38851445)

    When I first saw the headline, I thought they were referring to the band.

  • this doesn't mean they still can't put on a good show. "Aging U-2 Will Fight On Into the Next Decade" is just an inflammatory headline. Bono and The Edge may have a few wrinkles now but they got...

    what?

    oh, never mind

  • Oh thank God (Score:4, Insightful)

    by whargoul (932206) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @04:44PM (#38851455) Homepage
    For a minute there I thought the article was referring to that awful group from Ireland.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 28, 2012 @04:45PM (#38851461)

    ... in his first job as an engineer. He retired yesterday.

  • Cuts (Score:2, Interesting)

    by clarkkent09 (1104833)

    It's a shame cause RQ-4 Global Hawks are sexy. But yeah, the days of spending crazy money on cool toys are over, at least for now. I'm all for strong national defense but I'm sure that our military can do the same job with a lot less money if they really put their mind to it.

    • Re:Cuts (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Sir_Sri (199544) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:46PM (#38851707)

      It's not like they couldn't get some global hawks (or similar) but maybe... not so many? It's like aircraft carriers. Ok so you have 11 supercarriers, (+ 2 under construction). Would US standing in the world be significantly harmed if you only ran 9 or 10 for a few years? Or just 9 or 10 permanently. Given that the only other big carriers in existence or under construction are french and british, and they'll have a total of 4 between them, it seems unlikely that the US is in a serious risk for say, the next decade.

      The U2 is still in business because it's cheap, and gets the job done against enemies who can't or don't care to fight back. So trying to decide on a replacement is a difficult exercise in knowing the future. The chinese and russians can (and have) shot them down, but they're more big scale satellite intelligence operations anyway. Day to day movement of chinese or russian forces is mostly low priority because they aren't about to shoot at you, and if they do, using 10 year old global hawks might not be any better a plan than 50 year old U2's.

      • Re:Cuts (Score:4, Informative)

        by Martin Blank (154261) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @09:58PM (#38853495) Journal

        The maintenance on carriers can take significantly longer than one would expect, meaning that of the 11 supercarriers, only four (Washington, Stennis, Vinson, and Lincoln) were in a deployment state. Two others (Enterprise and Eisenhower) were listed at the end of 2011 as surge-ready (could be deployed with about two weeks of prep, though Enterprise is scheduled for retirement later this year), and one (Bush) was in dock at the end of a deployment. Nimitz seems to have just finished a year-long incremental improvement, Truman has been undergoing repairs since last spring and isn't due to return to the fleet until summer, Reagan just started a year-long incremental improvement, and Roosevelt is refueling, a job that won't be done until 2013. Ford won't be joining the fleet until at least 2015.

        So this means that of the 11 in the fleet, only four are deployed, two are deployable, and five are not yet in a usable state. Though the numbers vary by maintenance, repair, and refueling needs, at any given time you can figure that only half of the carriers are available. This may change as more Ford-class vessels come online, but that will take decades to complete.

        • Re:Cuts (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Sir_Sri (199544) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @11:53PM (#38854119)

          And that's different for everyone else how?

          That's why the UK and france signed a joint air group operations agreement. By the time the 2 QE class ships are built in the UK The french CDG will be getting old, so between them they will be lucky to have 1 at sea, one ready, one training and one in maintenance. It's relatively rare to have more than 1/3rd of a fleet operational at any given time no matter what.

          The US likes to use aircraft carriers because it has them. Not because it needs to use them*. Why is there an aircraft carrier in the perisian/arab gulf when you have land bases in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi? The only reason to put a carrier there is that you have one, it's tour rotation is up and may as well use it for something and put it somewhere action might happen. You could just as well base aircraft on land, and sure, you have marginally longer flying distances, but you wouldn't need to pay for a carrier.

          *I don't mean everywhere. There's a legitimate reason to position them next to say, a Chinese carrier or russian forces and so on. There are still big oceans. But even if the US active selection of ships was reduced from 4 to 3, and then 2 in reserve and 4 in various states of repair and refueling hat would not meaningfully impact the US's strategic operational capability - the navy sure, but not the overall US capability. If you're going to go to war with a country that has more than one carrier, you're going to get more than 2 weeks notice. Even Iraq, the first or second time, you had several months of buildup time (and could have arbitrarily taken longer if you wanted it). If you need 4 aircraft carriers to go after al qaeda in afghanistan they're winning and you're throwing money away like well, drunken sailors.

    • Most of the advanced military technology in use today is first generation which usually means more expensive. If a particular technology proves useful and reliable the manufacturing process can be made more efficient to lower the cost. A great deal of the expense when creating new technology is building the tools necessary to actually move the technology from the drafting table and computer modeling to the real world. Once those tools and plants are in place it can also lower the costs. PCs were relatively
  • by NicknamesAreStupid (1040118) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:01PM (#38851517)
    Wow, I thought the SR-71 replaced the U-2 decades ago; and the SR-71 has been retired for years. Why can't the government just use Google Earth, Maps, etc? It would be a kudo for the 'do no evil' company. Serge could hire Bono to declare, "U-2 replaced by YouTube."
    • by tlambert (566799) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:03PM (#38851529)

      latency.

      -- Terry

      • The whooshing sound you heard was /not/ a U-2 flying overhead...

        • No, latency is a good answer. At the rate that Google is going, it will only be a few years before they can slurp as much data from the world as the NSA, CIA and the various other three letter agencies. And the analysts will get relevant advertisements as a bonus.

          Just hang on a bit, it's not the the international situation will be a whole lot different. In the wise words of Tom Robbins [amazon.com], it is 'desperate, as usual'.

          • respect, if only for mentioning 'ol Tom. Almost every GF I've had seems like a character from his books.. that out of the way, i imagine the google results are delayed on purpose... of course, "google ogle" will probably be a product for the analysts shortly..

          • by icebike (68054) *

            No, latency is a good answer. At the rate that Google is going, it will only be a few years before they can slurp as much data from the world as the NSA, CIA and the various other three letter agencies. And the analysts will get relevant advertisements as a bonus.

            Just hang on a bit, it's not the the international situation will be a whole lot different. In the wise words of Tom Robbins [amazon.com], it is 'desperate, as usual'.

            I'm sure you just couldn't pass up the chance for a drive by Google blast, but even you, if honest, would realize this will never be true.
            They will never get that fast.
            Google buy/beg/or barters most of their images, which are useless in tracking a car full of jihadists running thru the back roads, and
            nothing like an orbiting UT or Global Hawk.

        • by tlambert (566799)

          Really, the amount of time between a delta and an event is small.

      • by turing_m (1030530)

        What it lacks in latency, it makes up in bandwidth.

    • Re:Hard to Believe (Score:5, Informative)

      by osu-neko (2604) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:54PM (#38851751)

      Wow, I thought the SR-71 replaced the U-2 decades ago...

      SR-71 wasn't really a U-2 replacement, just a different tool in the toolbox, that made it better suited for some tasks (getting someplace quickly and not getting shot down) and not as good at others (staying airborne in an area for a long time watching, operating within a reasonable budget). It's not surprising the U-2 has lasted so long. It was very well designed for what it does from the start, and much like the same-era B-52s we still keep flying, remains pretty damn good at what it needs to do to this day.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:06PM (#38851539)

    I was once taken to a secret testing facility in a place Where the Streets Have No Name, to examine the current state of the U2. I was not impressed with its performance. At first it had a Rattle and Hum, and after extensive testing exploded in an Unforgettable Fire. There'll be Helter Skelter if they don't get this under control.

    I asked the official who was giving me the tour what they planned on doing about it. He said "we plan to replace it, but we Still Haven't Found What We're Looking For". However, he continued to show Pride in the current model.

    I didn't like doing this on a Sunday, Bloody Sunday, so I told him I was leaving for a Discotheque. With or Without You.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:17PM (#38851587)

    I know the US military is being cut back substantially; but, given that so much military activity this past decade was off-budget (e.g cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), I wonder how much the cutbacks will impact the official US debt, if at all?

    I realize debt is debt, whether it's officially acknowledged or not; but since this seems to be primarily sold as budget reduction I'm curious to see how it's being handled.

    • Look at the numbers. Only the rate of increase is being slowed. The numbers you are seeing as 'savings' are just meaningless fluffies. Makes 'Hollywood Accounting' look real.

    • by Sir_Sri (199544)

      Just because it was off the regular budget doesn't mean it wasn't in the overall budget or included in the US total debt (which is not exactly accurate because the gov't borrows money in blocks, but spends it continuously so there's some disconnect there).

      In terms of how much it saves, well that's harder to say. How many global hawks would they have bought, what's the operating cost per year (assuming they filled the same roles as the U2's) etc. If you trim the budget by 10% that goes a long way to eating

  • by trims (10010) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:23PM (#38851599) Homepage

    They were re-classifed as TR-1(x) models in the mid-80s.

    The U-2 is not longer a "traditional" spy-plane (i.e. photoreconnaissance of fixed points of interest). It had all the high-res photography equipment replaced with side-band IR and wide-angle low-light cameras. Bascially, they turned it from a "oooh, look at that neat weapons complex" single-frame photographer into a massive photo Hoover (or Vax, for our Brit friends).

    Turns out, the U-2 is massively useful here: incredibly high service ceiling, newer semi-stealth improvements in materials, and a batshit crazy loiter time. It outlived the SR-71 because it turns out point-recon is better done by LEO satellites, and the SR-71 can't loiter. Or go slow enough to photograph a wide area well.

    I'm kinda surprised that the Global Hawks are more expensive than the TR-1, though, given that the TR-1 now required non-trivial maintenance, and human costs to fly. Then again, this is 1950s technology, and the B-52 shows that if you can figure out where it works, well, high-tech doesn't always mean better mission success.

    Now, if only they'd cancel those stupid Littoral Combat Ship programs (yeah, we're building 2 production versions, cause we couldn't decide which sucked less), we could look at some significant savings...

    -Erik

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:49PM (#38851725)

      Not all were classified as TR-1 in the 80s, just the ones produced in the 80s. In the 90s, they were all reclassified as U-2. It is a great airplane, and extremely useful. I suspect it will be around for a while, since it flies higher, has a greater payload, and more flexible than the Global Hawk (ie. it doesn't need to be reprogrammed to be re-tasked it in flight). FYI, I have over 600 hours at the controls of the U-2, flying over Iraq, Korea, Bosnia, and other well know hot spots. The current U-2Ss are completely different than the U-2Rs that I flew. I personally knew 4 of the folks that the Times article referenced as being killed on an operational U-2 mission. Long live the dragon lady, the pilots that fly here, and the outstanding crews that maintain her!

    • by icebike (68054) *

      I have no idea what a TR-1 is, but the official US Airforce page still calls them U-2s or TU-2s.
      http://www.af.mil/information/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=129 [af.mil]

      Maybe you are talking about NASA's versions.

    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      They're still universally called U-2s in the military, including at DGS-2 where the last U-2s with wet film still fly. Yes, they have other sensors on them these days, but wet film still has better resolution than digital and that's not going away anytime soon either.
  • by MtViewGuy (197597) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:29PM (#38851617)

    If I remember correctly, the U-2 some years ago swapped out the original engines for essentially modified B-2 bomber engines (the F-118), which cut the fuel consumption and allowed for longer flights at altitudes above 70,000 feet. I believe that with the J57 and J75 engines, the U-2 maxed out at around 73,000 feet; the F118 could probably take it to over 76,000 feet.

    • by icebike (68054) *

      If I remember correctly, the U-2 some years ago swapped out the original engines for essentially modified B-2 bomber engines (the F-118), which cut the fuel consumption and allowed for longer flights at altitudes above 70,000 feet. I believe that with the J57 and J75 engines, the U-2 maxed out at around 73,000 feet; the F118 could probably take it to over 76,000 feet.

      Correct on the engines. But the Air Force [af.mil] will only admit to 70,000 feet. (wink wink).

  • by caseih (160668) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:30PM (#38851623)

    I really enjoyed Ben Rich's book on Skunk Works. One thing that stood out to me is that the real reason we're still flying the U-2 is that Dick Chaney killed the SR-71 program, which was kind of an evolution of the U-2 program. Chaney argued that spy satellites replaced the need for airplanes to do surveillance. Turns out the reason he said that was because he was associated with companies that were into spy satellites and he didn't want the SR-71 to compete for that market. Such a shame that politics played such a large role in the neutering of America's capabilities. Most sad of all was that McNamara ordered the destruction of all plans and tooling for the SR-71. Even if the SR-71 was too expensive to fly, that's still a real crime that much of what was learned in that program has been lost.

    The U-2 is probably much much cheaper to operate than the SR-71, so it's possible the SR-71 would have died anyway. But certainly politics played a huge role in its demise.

    Sadly, in the current political climate it's doubtful Skunk Works would ever produce anything like the U-2, the SR-71, and the stealth fighter. Maybe it's a blessing though. The government seems hell bent on spying on even American citizens. I dunno.

    http://www.blackbirds.net/sr71/fallblackbird.html [blackbirds.net]
    https://www.google.com/search?q=Skunk+Works%3A+A+Personal+Memoir+of+My+Years+of+Lockheed [google.com]

    • by cojsl (694820)

      I really enjoyed Ben Rich's book on Skunk Works.

      Skunk Works is a great book with many great stories about the U2, F-117, and SR-71 programs. I got my copy off the shelf to be sure I didn't mis-remember some items. The U-2 flew up to at least 74,500 feet with a 65,000 cruising altitude. Missions could exceed 6000 miles and last 10-12 hours. The window between stall speed and overspeed buffeting could be so narrow that "our test pilots reported that sometimes during a turn the inside wing would be shaking in stall buffet while the outside wing was shaking

    • by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Saturday January 28, 2012 @08:25PM (#38852801) Homepage

      One thing that stood out to me is that the real reason we're still flying the U-2 is that Dick Chaney killed the SR-71 program, which was kind of an evolution of the U-2 program.

      That's what Ben Rich claims. What Ben Rich fails to tell you however is that the special tankers needed to refuel the SR-71 were just about worn out and badly in need of replacement - at a time when the USAF could barely get enough tankers for the rest of the force. (A problem we're still wrestling with.) He also doesn't tell you that many of the SR-71's systems were wearing out and spare parts were getting scarce, requiring cannibalization between airframes to keep them flying. He also doesn't tell you about the extreme expense involved operating the SR-71 even without these mounting costs... Etc.... etc...
       
      Overall Ben Rich is not a very reliable source for much of anything outside of his direct experience. (I.E. design, engineering, manufacturing.)

  • .. don't fix it. ;)

    The U2 is still flying for much the same reason that the B-52 is still flying: both platforms work, and there's been no reason to improve either of them. (The B-52 is planned to stay in inventory until 2050, and there may well be 100 year old planes still in service at that point.)

  • SR-71 (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bensam123 (1340765)
    It does really make you wonder why the SR-71 is retired and these flying bricks are still flying. The SR-71 can fly higher, faster, longer, stealthier, has better instrumentation, and lets face it, it's just a heck of a lot cooler as it's standard practice to avoid surface to air missile was just fly faster... The SR-71 was and still is a engineering marvel compared to everything around including this hunk of crap.

    This could easily be replaced by a UAV or even standard aircraft. I can only imagine the only
    • Re:SR-71 (Score:5, Interesting)

      by toygeek (473120) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @06:10PM (#38851835) Homepage Journal

      Actually, the U2 can't be replaced so easily. Yes, they could *make* one but it took a huge team to make the U2 work, and Kelly Johnson was no dummy with its design. The problem is that you have to justify spending the time and money and materials to make a new one that works so much better that its worth the expenditure.

      Oh, and the SR-71 was engineered for somewhere around Mach 5 or 6. Its stated top speed was Mach 3, but lots of planes can do Mach 3, and they don't need all the fancy stuff the '71 did. And, I talked to a retired traffic controller who once saw a '71 light up a civilian transponder so traffic could be vectored around it (it had an emergency apparently), they clocked it around 4000mph. Kelly Johnson wouldn't authorize the throttles to be opened full, he wasn't sure what would happen. Some neat stuff about the blackbird.

    • by icebike (68054) *

      SR-71 can't loiter, is not particularly stealthy in this day and age, and flies way too fast to use the modern imaging systems in use.
      Stealth is not that important in the theater the U2 is working, the enemy there has nothing that can reach it anyway.

      These days flying over and snapping a picture is not that important.
      Loitering and sending low-light high quality (extremely high), digital imagery and live video it what matters.

       

  • by o'reor (581921) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @05:38PM (#38851665) Journal

    Well, if it's still relevant, why decommission it ?

    After all, the Russian Air Force has decided to maintain their own 1950's bombers, Tupolev Tu-95 "Bears", [wikipedia.org] at least till 2040. Because they're fast, cheap to fly, and fuel-efficient.

    In a time where oil is scarce and budgets are tight, I'd be happy as a citizen if my own country were to make such a sensible choice. Instead of paying billions for outdated, non-stealthy, gas-guzzling Rafales that no other country wants to buy...

    • by caseih (160668)

      Kind of funny that you mention outdated, non-stealthy, gas-guzzling Rafales as that's exactly what the Tu-95s are as well (as are B-52s). They certainly aren't particularly fuel efficient by any stretch of the imagination. And they are super crazy loud. But just as in cars, buying a new car solely because it has increased fuel efficiency isn't an economically sound choice. In short Russia flies them for the same reasons your country flies "outdated, non-stealthy, gas-guzzling" Rafales. They have them

    • Re:Tu-95 Bear (Score:4, Informative)

      by shutdown -p now (807394) on Saturday January 28, 2012 @08:19PM (#38852763) Journal

      After all, the Russian Air Force has decided to maintain their own 1950's bombers, Tupolev Tu-95 "Bears", at least till 2040. Because they're fast, cheap to fly, and fuel-efficient.

      The real reason, in fact, is that Russia simply can't afford shiny new stuff. And it's not just about the money, but about having the engineering and industrial capacity to keep up. That's why it only has sixteen operational Tu-160, and all of those except for one were originally built back in the USSR.

      This isn't to say Tu-95 is not a decent aircraft. It certainly is, but just as certainly it's showing its age. You can bet that, were USSR still in the game, it would have a new bomber in service by now (but would have kept Tu-95 also, as Soviets tended to not quickly retire older models, letting them serve alongside new ones rather than ditching them quickly).

  • by macraig (621737)

    The Lockheed-Martin Skunkworks' SR-71 Blackbird was *the* aircraft designed to replace the U-2. It's sad that it can't fill that role now because of how it was used as a political bargaining chip. If Gary Powers had flown one of those, he'd be alive today because the missile simply never would have caught up with him before it ran out of fuel. If you're flying an aircraft that can't be shot down by any missile, isn't that even better than an unmanned UAV that can be shot down? Pilot or no, if the aircra

    • Powers did not die when he was shot down, he was taken prisoner and exchanged in a prisoner transfer.

    • by icebike (68054) *

      An aircraft that can't do the job is a total waste of money.
      You can't follow a pickup load of jihadists across a winding mountain road at mach 3.

    • by riverat1 (1048260)

      Gary Powers survived his U-2 being shot down. He died in the crash of a helicopter he was piloting in 1977. However Major Rudolph Anderson died when his U-2 was shot down over Cuba in October of 1962. How many U-2's could you build for the cost of one SR-71? Lockheed's contract for the first 20 U-2's was $22 million dollars.

  • If you haven't already watched this special then I urge you to do so at once. James May is given the opportunity to take a ride in a U-2 and films the entire thing. The video is incredible. They are flying on the edge of the atmosphere and when he looks up its just black space. Looking out you can see the curvature of the earth and its blue atmosphere. The sight is so awe inspiring that James starts to get emotional.

  • If they were going to keep the U-2 around that long, they should have commissioned teh SR-71 and we could have had a much more effective machine for the last 30 years.

  • The A-10 Warthog (Thunderbolt) was designed in the 70's and is supposed to remain in service until 2028! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairchild_Republic_A-10_Thunderbolt_II#Replacement [wikipedia.org]
  • Thanks guys (Score:5, Funny)

    by AbRASiON (589899) * on Saturday January 28, 2012 @06:41PM (#38851979) Journal

    I just spent 90 minutes reading about aircraft on wikipedia!

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