U2 - Spy Plane of the Cold War


The U2 was one of the most famous military planes of the Cold War. It was designed to fly high over a foreign country, take pictures and gather information.
The U2 was built in Area 51, a secret place in Nevada, known for UFO sightings. The US Air Force built the area to create such a secret plane and test new weapons.

The single-pilot plane  could fly at an altitude of over 20 km above the earth's surface. With its special cameras it could take detailed photos and close-ups   of objects on the ground.

U2 pilots had to undergo special training. Although the plane had excellent gliding capabilities it was difficult to land.

U2 pilots trained like astronauts. Breathing pure oxygen, they wore pressurized suits because a loss of air pressure would have led to unconsciousness. On long missions they received food and drink from a tube.

After the end of World War II the Cold War began. At that time gathering information and taking pictures over Communist territory was a difficult and daring task. Planes could not fly at such a high altitude and were regularly shot down.

U2s were built in the 1950s and originally used for flying over the Soviet Union. In the 1960s engineers worked to develop a U2 that could fly longer missions. During the Vietnam War the Americans used them to fly reconnaissance missions over Communist North Vietnam.

There were many incidents involving the U2. In 1960 one of America’s spy planes was shot down over Soviet territory. The pilot was captured by Soviet authorities and held in prison for two years. During the Cuban missile crisis U2s were sent over Cuba to find out if the Soviets were putting nuclear missiles on the island. One U2 was hit by Cuban air defence rockets.



Today, the US Air Force still operates a modified version of the U2, however it is not used as a spy plane any more. Current planes have a larger fuselage and need less fuel than their predecessors of the Cold War. They are also equipped with more sophisticated instruments.

Some of them fly over Afghanistan and support American soldiers on the ground. They also saw action during the Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans.

U2s are also used for research. NASA uses the former spy planes for tests in the atmosphere.




Related Topics




  • action = battle, fight
  • air defence = here: rockets that can shoot down enemy airplanes
  • although = while
  • altitude = height
  • area = place
  • authorities = here: people who work for the government
  • breathe = to take air into your body through your nose and mouth
  • capability = being able to do something
  • capture = to catch a person and keep them as a prisoner
  • close-up =a photo in which a camera seems to have been very close to an object
  • current = today’s
  • daring task = a very brave and heroic job
  • design = plan
  • detailed = very exact
  • engineer= person who designs and builds something
  • equip = carry
  • foreign = here: faraway, enemy
  • former = earlier
  • fuel = substance that you burn to produce energy and make a machine work
  • fuselage  = the main part of a plane
  • gather = collect
  • however = but
  • incident = an unusual event
  • involving = with
  • lead – led = the result would be
  • loss = losing something
  • missile = rocket
  • mission = journey, trip
  • modified = changed
  • nuclear missile = here: a weapon that can deliver a nuclear bomb to another country that is farther away
  • originally = at first
  • oxygen = gas that is present in the air and that we need to live
  • predecessor = here: the older version used in the Cold War
  • pressurized = air or gas that is kept in a container under pressure
  • receive = get
  • reconnaissance = inspect, explore, find out facts
  • regularly = very often
  • research = finding out facts about a special topic
  • secret = known only by very few people
  • single pilot = only one pilot
  • soldier = person who fights for their county in a war
  • sophisticated = modern, advanced, well-designed
  • support = help
  • surface = top layer of something
  • territory = land
  • unconsciousness = being unable to move or feel something because you cannot think; like sleeping
  • undergo = here: to work hard
  • weapon = something that you use in a war to fight or attack someone with