2021—The Dragon Lady Still Flies High

One of the original 55 top secret high altitude U-2 reconnaissance jets of the Cold War flies indoors now at the Strategic Air Command Museum in Ashland, Nebraska, at a significantly lower altitude. The sleek and streamlined U-2 flies at 70,000 feet, higher than any other aircraft and has a wingspan of 103 feet. Dubbed the Dragon Lady, the U-2 was catapulted into the headlines when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR on May 1, 1960 during a spying mission. U-2 and Francis Gary Powers became household names.

Growing up in the early Cold War era with all its hype of the Red Peril and of Doomsday imminence, I was fully aware, even at age 13, of the significance of this event. I followed the story closely in the newspaper. The US denied the U-2 was a spy plane and issued a cover story that it was doing high altitude weather research for NASA. Already strained US-Soviet relations rapidly deteriorated when photos of the recovered U-2 wreckage and of Powers as a prisoner of war were published. When I read that Powers had been taken prisoner, that he had survived being shot down, I was relieved. And then I was horrified to learn that he was branded a coward or traitor by some for not destroying secret information on his aircraft before it crashed or for not taking his own life before being captured by the Soviets. The crisis that followed made me worry that we were one step closer to World War III.

Of course that didn’t happen and Powers was released in a famous prisoner exchange after 2 years of captivity. But seeing this aircraft so close gave me chills. Using may brand new Nikkor Z14-24mm f/2.8 lens with the Nikon Z6II I was able to capture the entire 103 foot wingspan standing on the museum balcony underneath the airplane.