At virtually any moment — day or night — you can look up and know that somewhere over Earth there's a U-2 pilot at the edge of outer space, watching and listening.
The U-2 is the most famous spy plane in history. Developed in secret for the CIA more than 50 years ago, the U-2 first detected the movement of Soviet nuclear weapons into Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the U-2 is not just a piece of Cold War history; it has been quietly brought into the space age and is now flying more than ever.
The military doesn't like to talk about the U-2 plane much. Its missions are secret, much of its technology classified.
More than a year and half ago, I asked the Air Force for an opportunity to see the U-2 in action and, if possible, to actually fly in one. This was not an easy request. Few civilians have ever flown in a U-2. And almost all of them have only one seat; only five in the world have two.
But this week, after some intense training, the Air Force agreed to allow me to become one of the few civilians in history to fly to the edge of Earth's atmosphere in a U-2.
The U-2 flies so high, so fast, the pilot wears a spacesuit, the same one worn by astronauts on the space shuttle.
Before flying, I went through two days of training and preparation at Beale Air Force Base in northern California, home base for the U-2 since the 1960s.
Out on the runway at Beale, you can see why the U-2 is considered the most difficult plane in the world to fly. Each pilot has a co-pilot, who chases the plane on the runway in a sports car. Most of the cars are either Pontiac GTOs or Chevrolet Cameros — the Air Force buys American.
The chase cars talk the pilot down as he lands on bicycle-style landing gear. In that spacesuit, the pilot in the plane simply cannot get a good view of the runway.
Upon takeoff, the wings on this plane, which extend 103 feet from tip to tip, literally flap. To stabilize the wings on the runway, two pogo sticks on wheels prop up the ends of the wings. As the plane flies away, the pogo sticks drop off.
The plane climbs at an amazing rate of nearly 10,000 feet a minute. Within about four minutes, I was at 40,000 feet, higher than any commercial airplane. We kept going up to more than 70,000 feet, about 14 miles above Earth's surface.
You get an incredible sensation up there. As you look out the windows, it feels like you're floating, it feels like you're not moving, but you're actually going 500 mph.
The U-2 was built to go higher than any other aircraft. In fact today, more than 50 years since it went into production, the U-2 flies higher than any aircraft in the world with the exception of the space shuttle.
Since this spring there has been what you might call a U-2 surge. It is flying more missions and longer missions than ever before — nearly 70 missions a month over Iraq and Afghanistan, an operational tempo that is unequaled in history. The pilots fly for 11 hours at a time, sometimes more than 11 hours up there alone.
By flying so high, the U-2 has the capability of doing reconnaissance over a country without actually violating its airspace.
It can look off to the side, peering 300 miles or more inside a country without actually flying over it. It can "see" in the dark and through clouds.
It can also "hear," intercepting conversations 14 miles below.
The U-2, an incredible piece of history and also a current piece of high technology, is at the center of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.