Cold War veteran still plays important intelligence role

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The jet-black U2 "spy-plane" first flew in 1955, became one of the most potent symbols of the Cold War, and was powerful enough, in one instance, to photograph Russians on a latrine from 70,000 feet, writes Jojo Moyes.

Satellites and a new generation of spy planes have taken over much of the U2's reconnaissance role, but the Lockheed-built aircraft still serves an important intelligence role. It can fly above the range of most missiles and is able to look into one country from the airspace of another. Unlike a satellite, it can photograph a target at any time.

"I understand that they're used on a quite regular basis to support the UN, as indeed the RAF is using Canberras but not telling anybody, and the French are using Mirage 4s - all for strategic reconnaissance," said Paul Jackson, editor of Jane's All The World's Aircraft. Flying at nearly 14 miles above the earth, it is equipped with sensors to provide continuous surveillance of a battle zone. Although relatively slow, with a top speed of 430mph, the jet has a range of more than 3,000 miles. "The U2s are more manoeuvrable than satellites and relatively cheap to use," said Professor Christopher Andrew, a leading expert on military technology.

The aircraft first gained notoriety when the Soviet Union shot down a U2 piloted by Gary Powers near Sverdlovsk in 1960. Two years later a U2 obtained the first photographic evidence of Cuban missile sites, triggering the US-Soviet confrontation which had the world poised on the verge of a nuclear war. It also played an integral part in gaining intelligence information during the Gulf war.

The U2 has an unusually wide wing span to enable it to fly at high altitudes like a glider. This makes it unstable on take-off so it has "stabilisers" on its wings, which drop off onto the runway once it is airborne. If one of the stabilisers fails to drop the aircraft becomes unstable.

According to Mr Jackson the U2R involved in yesterday's crash was a "larger and cleverer" version of the original. "It's well within the abilities of a pilot of reasonable competence. It would be no more or less dangerous than any other aircraft taking off or landing," he said.

Professor Andrew said all combat aircraft ran a higher risk because they operated on the limits of technology, but by the standards of military aircraft he did not believe the U2 was more accident-prone than any others.