To extend the range of the aircraft and reach more remote targets, the CIA approached the Navy proposing to develop the ability to launch and land U-2s from carriers.
Project Whale Tale began on an August morning in 1963, when test pilot Bob Schumacher took off with his U-2 from the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier that sailed out of San Diego Harbor. After his successful launch, Schumacher performed several landing approaches, proving that the U-2’s performance made arrested landing and wave off (if needed) possible.
But while he was attempting his first landing, one wingtip struck the deck. Schumacher barely managed to take to the air again preventing the plane from crashing overboard.
In spite of the close call, the program continued and three U-2As were modified and got a stronger landing gear, an arresting hook, and wing spoilers that decreased lift during landing. While these modifications were taking place, Schumacher and several CIA pilots developed their carrier landing skills flying T-2 Buckeye trainers from USS Lexington aircraft carrier.
Carrier flight training began in earnest for the CIA pilots at Pensacola and Monterey Naval Air Stations. The CIA aviators were already crack airmen—now training with one of the most difficult and demanding aircraft ever flown. Given their already impressive aviation skills, training focused on the specifics of carrier ops. By February 1964, two groups were qualified and the carrier USS Ranger was positioned offshore from Southern California, commencing all-up U-2 takeoffs and landings.
on Mar. 2, 1964, Lockheed test pilot Bob Schumacher got the jet glider off the deck using its enormous lift in a little over 320 feet—a dramatic climb that stunned the sailors below. Landing proved more of a challenge and Schumacher settled for a touch-and-go before taking the U-2 to land at Lockheed’s Burbank airfield over a hundred miles away. But the point was proved: the Dragon Lady could launch from a carrier.
The three newly-designated U-2Gs featured special flaps, beefed-up landing gear, internal stiffening and a tail hook covered by a jettisoned shroud. The Ranger changed out its standard arresting cables for thinner ones less likely to rattle the delicate plane.
On the first landing test, everything worked. But when the tailhook caught the wire, the aircraft bounced and pitched nose-down, resulting in some minor damage which was repaired aboard. Given the U-2’s challenging landing behavior, this was a remarkable testament to the CIA’s aviation skills. Further tests smoothed out the procedures and the seaborne U-2s were ready for action. Despite all this effort, the U-2Gs were only deployed once—and not against an enemy.
Even if the operational ability to take off from and land on a carrier was used only once, in May 1964, when a U-2G operating off the USS Ranger was used to monitor the French nuclear test range, at Mururoa Atoll, in the South Pacific Ocean, well out of range of any land-based U-2 aircraft, the program continued to advance in the following years.
In 1967 Lockheed introduced a new variant, designated U-2R, that was larger (by about 40 percent) and featured about twice the range and four times the payload of a standard U-2G.
This plane was equipped with an integral arrestor hook, and with wings folding mechanism that reduced the aircraft’s footprint and made carrier operations easier.
Lockheed test pilot Bill Park and four CIA pilots conducted tests with the new type of U-2 in November 1969, from the deck of USS America sailing off the Virginia coast: as part of the tests, a U-2R was successfully moved using one of America’s elevators.
Still, none of this carrier-capable spyplane ever entered active service, being replaced by cheaper spy satellites.
In the impressive footage above you can see several U-2s perform carrier takeoffs, touch and goes and landings and even if today carrier-based U-2s are only a footnote to Cold War history, the last variant of this legendary aircraft, designated U-2S, is still in service and it remains one of the best intelligence platforms among those operated by the U.S. Air Force.