When you think of a spy, you might imagine an MI-6 or CIA agent sneaking through shadows with a briefcase that doubles as a camera, but in Northern California, spies wore bright orange spacesuits and flew higher than any aircraft before or since.
About an hour northeast of Sacramento, in the remote rural areas of Yuba County, lies Beale Air Force Base, home of the U-2 Dragon Lady and former home of the SR-71 Blackbird.
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For nearly two decades, Beale hosted two of the United States’ most advanced Cold War reconnaissance aircraft.
The SR-71 Blackbird
As the United States approached the second decade of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the first supersonic SR-71 aircraft rolled out of the hangars of Lockheed’s Skunk Works facility in Burbank, California.
Capable of flying at Mach 3 at an altitude of more than 80,000 feet, or 15 miles above the Earth’s surface, the Blackbird was designed to cross the Iron Curtain and defeat any Soviet air defenses on the other side.
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On January 7, 1966, Beale Air Force Base was catapulted into the future of aviation when it became the nation’s first and only government base for the Blackbird with the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.
According to the US Air Force, 86 pilots were trained to fly the Blackbird.
In an interview with the USAF, retired Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua said that even though there were so few pilots carrying out the mission, they rarely got much seat time in the state-of-the-art aircraft.
“In the seven years I participated in the SR-71 program, I only accumulated 738 flight hours, but that was more than many,” said Bevacqua of the USAF. “You’d be lucky if you had two flights a month on the SR-71, maybe three or four if you really got going in Kadena.”
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According to the National Museum of the Air Force, the first operational SR-71 had 2,981 flight hours on a total of 942 sorties, more than any other SR-71.
During his nearly 23-year career with the US Air Force, no SR-71 was shot down, making the project an absolute success for the US military.
One of the most significant missions in which the SR-71 was involved was collecting images of the Son Tay prison camp in Vietnam, where more than 500 American prisoners of war were rescued during a raid by American forces.
Despite its success, the SR-71 program was canceled due to rising costs and improved surveillance technologies.
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The Blackbird’s final flight took place on October 9, 1999 during the Edwards Air Force Base Open House Air Show.
The U-2 Dragon Lady
Beale received his first U-2 in 1976, although the Dragon Lady was a predecessor to the Blackbird and entered service with the USAF in 1956.
The addition of the U-2 would also create the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, which would replace the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron.
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To this day, Beale remains the home base of the U-2S and operates all 27 single-seat variants of the aircraft as well as the four two-seat trainer aircraft.
The U-2 was also developed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division and was responsible for reconnaissance missions at altitudes of over 70,000 feet.
The U-2 had a much slower top speed of about 430 miles per hour, which was revealed to be one of its greatest weaknesses when Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the Soviet Union.
During its continued service in the USAF, the U-2 has undertaken tasks such as mapping studies, atmospheric nuclear sampling, and surveillance of enemy areas.
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The Dragon Lady’s non-combat duties include working with the Ministry of Agriculture in collecting photos of crop and land management, as well as reconnaissance of disaster areas affected by floods, earthquakes and wildfires.
According to Lockheed Martin, the U-2, now U-2S, has evolved from its original mission as a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
Designated by Lockheed Martin, the Quantum Leap U-2 is designed to use the U-2 as a data collection point, then share it over an integrated network with naval vehicles and other aircraft, including 5th generation fighter aircraft.
In a 2015 report, the USAF stated that the U-2 airframe had received $1.7 billion in modernizations since 1994 that could allow it to reach its expected service life by 2050.
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However, some information suggests that the Dragon Lady’s final days could come as early as 2026.
Beale AFB’s U-2 pilot application addresses the issue of U-2S early retirement.
“We have heard the same thing many times over the course of the Dragon Lady’s tenure,” the form reads. “Right now the program is funded and there is no “expiration” or retirement order. While the original Deuce was designed in the 1950s, the modern U-2 is much newer and equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and equipment, making it the most effective and cost-effective tool for the job.”
For now, Beale Air Force and the pilots of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing continue their high-flying missions and surveillance of the world below.