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Angels in Paradise: The Development of the U-2 at Area 51

Angels in Paradise: The Development of the U-2 at Area 51


Where did it come from? Let’s follow this transport plane and
find out. This the desert of western Nevada; already well known for its nuclear tests
by the Atomic Energy Commission here at Yucca Flats. Adjoining this AEC test site is
inactive aerial gunnery range. Early in 1955, by
presidential order, sixty square miles of this prohibited area
were set aside for a special purpose. There’s a narrow air corridor to reach this spot on the map. Air charts ordered closed to all
personnel and aircraft, except on orders from the Chief of Staff,
US Air Force. The name of this isolated spot in Nevada
is Watertown, and its very isolation is of the greatest importance. The specialists that come off this
transport are hand-picked. They are checked every time they arrive at Watertown. Overall security in this area is the
highest yet to be maintained in this country, even higher than that of the Manhattan
Project. Selection of Watertown was dictated by
several unique considerations. The area is isolated from from prying eyes
by the AEC range with lethal reminders of past atomic
explosions. AEC guards maintain regular patrols. Supplies destined for Watertown channel
into the area through regular AEC routes. In Watertown radio and teletype
communications, the Angel is referred to as an “article.” Her pilots are called drivers. The geographical spot of Groom Lake is called “homeplate.” The Angel was designed to do a single
job: obtain the largest amount of
reconnaissance information ever collected on any single flight. For the first time in jet history, it is possible to inspect 400
square miles with a single cartographic photograph. For the first time in jet history,
sensitive electronic equipment is being carried to heights where it
can search for any number of radio, TV or radar signals and record this
information for detailed analysis. There are already twelve alternate
equipment loads for the U-2. Development of the Angel and the information gathering equipment
that it carries is the result of the most experienced
judgment applied at every critical point. A select group of capable, dedicated men in
industry and government, working with trust and cooperation, completed this specific project at the utmost speed. The idea for the Angel itself was born when Lockheed started a
design study on the maximum altitude possible from
a jet airframe for reconnaissance purposes. The Angel, then called the CL 2-82, took
sufficient form to be presented as a proposal. Members of the Killian Committee, a portion of the Scientific Advisory
Group, defined the technical feasibility and urgency of the program. The optical and photographic concepts
were envisioned by Dr. James Baker and Dr. Edwin H. Land. The original CL-282 proposal was then modified to produce even more spectacular results. On December 9th, 1954 the go-ahead was
given, and Lockheed’s Chief Engineer Kelly Johnson
called together his tiny 26-man special projects engineering group. Here were the problems they faced: to design, build an airplane and fly it in eight months. An airplane that would cruise well
above 70,000 feet. One that would travel almost as far as
a B-52 and remain in the air for ten hours. A plane that would be completely
reliable with forced landings out of the question. A plane that would be the world’s most
stable aircraft for high-altitude photography. A plane that would be flexible in concept to carry at least twelve different
equipment loads and have no one penalize the others in
weight. A plane that would weigh only one and
one half times the weight of the power plant. Weight was the critical factor in the
whole project. Designers said they would trade their
collective grandmothers for 10 pounds of empty weight. Pounds in fact were called grandmothers. But weight could not be saved at the
expense of reliability. A real engineering challenge met with proven know-how and a basic
design so simple that it was almost revolutionary. The Angel is simplicity itself. All control surfaces are cable operated. The tail section of the fuselage
attaches with only three bolts. The inside of the 80-foot wing
is just four big fuel tanks. The interior of the fuselage is
plain and uncluttered. The cockpit canopy stressed to handle a pressure differential
of five pounds per square inch is operated by hand. The pant leg engine intake ducts
presented a problem. At altitude near-perfect ram-air
distribution was needed to keep the engine running. The final intake on the Angel gives as
good pressure distribution as would be found in a power plant wind tunnel. A unique gust-relieving feature was
designed into the wing of the Angel to reduce tail loads and wing bending in
turbulence. The flaps tilt four degrees upward and the ailerons tilt ten degrees to completely change the airfoil
characteristics. During development of the Angel, Kelly
Johnson met with each member of the special projects group at seven every
morning. Any problems occurring on the previous
day were discussed and corrective decisions were made immediately. Subcontracting was virtually impossible. Eighty-seven percent of the prototype Angel was fabricated in one building in Burbank. Components were run through the
company’s big presses at night and on Sundays… then hidden from dayshift workers. The CMJ Manufacturing company
for Clarence Johnson was formed in an unmarked downtown warehouse to handle shipments from vendors in
unmarked trucks. Designers of the Angel couldn’t even get
into a high-speed wind tunnel, so calculations were made with
computers. Fifty percent of production took place
in this building at Bakersfield. At peak production of the 50 U-2s, only 600 people were involved. Just one man in every 60 on the
Lockheed payroll. The Angels were completely assembled
here, checked out, disassembled and shrouded in canvas for
airlift to Watertown. Fuel and hydraulic fluid were added for
the first time that Watertown and the Angels were tested by company
pilots. Because of its long, thin wings, the
Angel has been referred to as a jet glider. It has the world’s most efficient lift-
drag ratio for powered aircraft: 25.6 to one. That’s better than many competition
sail planes. From 70,000 feet, the Angel can glide 300
miles without power. The engine for this aircraft was
originally the Pratt and Whitney J57-37 A 10,500-pound thrust
unit built for the B-52. A later 11,500-pound
version, known as the -31, was developed specifically for the Angel. Pratt and Whitney President Jack Horner and Chief Engineer Wright Parkins crammed a normal three-year engine development program into 12 months. The new engine has a 16-stage
compressor with 9 stages in the low range and 7 in the high pressure chamber. The low-range compressor is driven by a
hollow shaft and turns at a lower speed than the high
compressors. The Pratt and Whitney engine operates at
full power for the duration of the flight. At sea level this unit gulps nearly 9,000 pounds of fuel oil per hour. At 70,000 feet this drops to
700 pounds per hour. At 74,600 feet, the engine will quit from oxygen
starvation. In early stages of the program as many
as six flameouts occurred on a single flight. With the new fuel system and turbine
design of the -31 engine, flameouts have ceased to be a critical
problem. An improved ignitions system ensures
air restarts at high altitudes. In the first 20 months that the
Angel flew, logging over 5,000 hours in the air, there were just two forced landings away
from Watertown. Both planes, equipped with the older -37 engines, landed at Kirkland Air Force Base Albuquerque, New Mexico. After each development flight, a careful
accounting is made of fuel consumption. A special fuel, dubbed lighter fluid, was developed by Shell Oil Company
specifically for the Angel, and the finished product was shipped to
Nevada in tank cars labeled LF 1A. This blend will not boil at the low
pressures encountered at altitude, yet will still give adequate air starts. It is so involatile that fire seldom
follows a mishap. A simple 100 gallon-slipper
tank has been developed to fit each wing for extremely long flights. These pressurized tanks contain enough
fuel to carry the Angel to cruising altitude where they have no significant effect on
speed or range. Even after the addition of an external
drag chute, three times the normal oxygen supply, improved breaking and an autopilot, the final all-up weight was within ten
pounds of the original proposal. The Angel exceeded original performance
limits in both ceiling and range. When the prototype Angel was flown
across Death Valley to Watertown, Lockheed also found itself in the
transportation business. Their own DC3 made almost daily
flights to Watertown with a hand-picked crew of flight line mechanics. The first unofficial name for Watertown
was Paradise Ranch. This description was dreamed up
tongue-in-cheek to encourage key personnel to accept
assignment on this special project before they could be told what it involved. Anyone for golf? Many newcomers guessed that the project
involved an atomic powered aircraft and were astonished to find that they
were to work with [missing audio]. Two days later, in a rainstorm, the Angel went to 8,000 feet. That day it took five attempts to land
the plane because it would fly on idle engine thrust. The unusual bicycle landing gear, designed for the lightest possible
structure, weighs 257 pounds. The conventional gear on a comparable
aircraft would weigh 750 pounds and take room out of the wings that is vital
for fuel. Wing mounted pogos drop off
during takeoff; again in the interest of saving weight. Weight and space that paid off in an
extra 1,500 feet of altitude and 100 miles in cruising
radius. As the operation at Watertown grew in
scope, more transportation was required. A daily military air transport shuttle
system was begun with C-54s from Burbank. In bad weather, one of these transports crashed into
Charleston Peak a few miles north of Las Vegas. Fourteen members of the Watertown
project were aboard. The program has not been without other
casualties. One Angel crashed at Watertown. Another disintegrated over an Indian
village named Wide Ruin in Arizona. A third with Lockheed pilot Robert Seeker aboard
disappeared near Watertown. By the time this plane was found some
information about the project at Watertown reached the public. This nearly three years after its
conception. That dust cloud is an actual crash. Rescue crews rushed to the end of the
runway where an Angel has landed short. The pilot here was uninjured. But emergency crews take no chances
with leaking fuel. Salvage operations mean that this
fallen Angel will soon fly again to rejoin its sister ships already in the
air. This project has had fewer mishaps than
is normal with new aircraft. Yet unique ground handling equipment, designed solely for the Angel, operates as well at this crash scene as
it does on the flight line. Not all the difficulties at Watertown
have come from the Angel herself. Extremes in weather, wind, sand and heat. Snow. Cloud bursts. Biting cold. An ever-present headache. But the Angels must be ready for
tomorrow’s flight. It’s almost all work and no play for the
temporary desert dwellers at Watertown. Just 72 airline miles distant
is Las Vegas. However, none of Watertown’s workers can
visit these bright lights or refreshing scenery. Security is just that rigid. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, volleyball, pool and a 16-millimeter movie in a tiny
converted mess hall are just about the only diversions. Those who remain over a weekend may
explore long deserted goldmines. Remnants from another era of rugged
desert pioneers. Here as seen by few men is what the world looks like from
70,000 feet. These scenes were photographed over
Arizona by Ray Goudy, one of the five Lookheed test pilots who have handled all
development and production testing of the Angel. Training of new pilots begins with the
T-33 for familiarization flights. The pilot must be able to hold the T-
bird inches in the air for the length of the lake, so that he will be able to hold
the Angel at the same altitude until its broad wings lose all their lift. This mastered, he graduates to the Angel and
transition landings on the dry lake. A chase car and chase plane both with two-way radio are used during this phase of training. Seat belts in the chase car are good
insurance. The new Angel pilot makes at least
three landings with the pogos installed. She’s a little easier to handle that way. Takeoffs are smooth from Groom Lake. A wide circle as the chase plane plays
follow the leader. “Now turn in on final approach,” says the
instructor in the chase plane. Your air speed is 92 knots. The chase car pulls into line and picks
up speed. He’s leveling off, just a little high. And at 72 knots here comes the stall. The best way to land the Angel is in a full stall, just like the old fashioned airplanes
with tail wheels. The broad, dry lake at Watertown makes
an ideal location for this type of transition training. After the landings improve, the pogo safety pins are removed and the new pilot is on his own. Sometimes the drivers taxi right up to
the hangar doors. Not bad at all for an airplane that’s
supposed to be hard to handle on the ground. After a number of day flights, the new Angel pilots are ready for
night transition and long cross country flight. It’s no accident that the complete Angel and all its intricate cargo can be disassembled and packed quickly, ready for airborne transport. Everything about the Angel can go aboard a cargo plane. Cameras in their dog houses, engines, lab equipment and supplies, ground support equipment and of course the Angel. The result of foresight and planning, engineering, precise and rapid manufacturing. That’s it. What it is and what it can do. A vital chapter in modern American
achievement. From the desert wastelands of Watertown,
it’s but a matter of hours to anywhere in the world where reconnaissance might be desired. The most important airplane, the most
important cargo in the air today is in this single package, the inquisitive Angel. [music playing]

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