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The Lockheed U-2 is the world's highest flying single engine piloted aircraft. It holds the current unlimited single engine aircraft altitude record of 68,700 feet. This was set on Nov. 24, 1998.
The aircraft first flew flew on Aug. 6, 1955. Updated aircraft are still flying today. They are primarily used for intelligence gathering. Lockheed U-2 aircraft have also been used for high altitude atmospheric research, global resources mapping, electronics, and satellite research and development.
U-2 development dates back to the early 1950's. At the time the U.S.A.F. was looking for a high altitude, long range aircraft to fly reconnaissance over the Soviet Union, out of the range of conventional interceptors and surface to air missiles.
The aircraft were deployed in 1956 to fly over the Soviet Union. The over flights contributed greatly to intelligence information. Shortly after they started, sufficient information was gathered to show that the United States and the Soviet Union had roughly equal numbers of long range missiles. Prior to the flights it was thought that the U.S. was far behind in long range missile deployment.
The Lockheed U-2 is probably best remembered as the aircraft that was downed by surface to air missiles while being flown over Russia by Francis Gary Powers on May 1, 1960. It is also remembered as the aircraft that discovered the build-up of missiles in Cuba on Aug. 29, 1962.
U-2 aircraft were also constantly gathering intelligence information on their flights over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Today the high flying U-2 surveillance planes continue to provide intelligence on areas of importance, primarily Korea and the Middle East.
The USAF explored the possibility of turning U-2 aircraft into remotely piloted vehicles. The pilot is the limiting factor to the aircraft's mission endurance. Without a pilot, endurance could be extended from a maximum of about 12 hours up to about 18 hours. Software development time and total cost involved was found to make such a conversion impractical. Instead, the Air Force has chosen to upgrade all U-2 aircraft, extending their service life by an additional ten years. The oldest of the aircraft have been flying for over 41 years.
A total of 86 Lockheed U-2 aircraft were built of which 33 are still flying.
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