Meet Sweet Pea, the First U-2 to Achieve 30,000 Flight Hours

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The U-2 has been a hotbed for impressive milestones during the past year. First, the U-2 program celebrated 60 years of operational excellence. Then, the U-2 celebrated 40 years of exceptional service for the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron at Osan Air Force Base, Republic of Korea.

Now we recognize another momentous occasion, the first U-2 to achieve 30,000 flight hours. Affectionately known as Sweet Pea, this U-2 began its career flying with the original Blackcats out of Taiwan.

“Sweet Pea will soon become the first U-2 to exceed 30,000 flight hours, and it is only fitting that the Blackcats have the honor of meeting this significant milestone,” said Lt. Col. Todd Larsen, Commander of the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron. “This aircraft’s story is far from over, and it is a humbling experience to play a small role in yet another feat achieved by this historic aircraft.”

Let’s put this in perspective. The lifespan of the U-2 is an astounding 75,000 flight hours, which means that this U-2 can fly for another 45,000 hours. There are only a couple of other U-2s that are close to this milestone, while the baby of the U-2 family has just over 9,000 flight hours.

“There are many great sayings out there about the U-2,” said Melani Austin, vice president at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works®. “But, the best, and one that Sweet Pea has epitomized for the last 49 years, is ‘toward the unknown,’ a cornerstone of U-2 tradition, symbolizing the many discrete, diverse and first-time-ever missions that permeate and define the legacy of the program.”

Sweet Pea's History

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After the U.S. Air Force approved the production of three U-2Rs, Sweet Pea came off the production line 49 years ago, and in August 1967, flew its first test flight. 

Initially, Sweet Pea was used for test and development. Then the aircraft was configured to production standards, and it was then delivered to the CIA in March 1969. After a few years of CIA missions, the aircraft was than reallocated to flight testing, and from there, Sweet Pea transferred to Beale Air Force Base in 1981.

Sweet Pea has flown more than 2,000 essential intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties around the world, and continues down an illustrious flight path.

“A few years ago, I met a commander who was worried that three U-2s assigned to his location would break a lot given their production in the late 1960s, and I assured him those U-2s work hard and are among the best in the fleet,” said Bob Gibson, U-2 customer field service representative at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “I told him, ‘What you need to worry about are the other commanders, and how jealous they’re going to be after they see your success rate flying!’” 

From U-2R to U-2S

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As a 60-year program, the U-2 has evolved since its first flight in 1955 as an A model. It was in the late 1960s that the U-2 was redesigned and went through production with the U-2R designation. The 12 R models produced were 40 percent larger than the 1950s U-2A and U-2C models, with a modular payload and a larger cockpit that accommodated a pilot’s full pressure suit.

In the 1980s, the TR-1 –structurally identical to the U-2R– went into production. The TR-1 included provisions for more developed sensors. Then, with the stand up of Air Combat Command, all U-2s were updated to a common configuration and designated U-2R.

Today’s designation, U-2S, was assigned when U-2Rs were outfitted with a new GE F118 engine and power generation.

“Sweet Pea is always ready, and we expect many more years from this work horse,” said Gibson.

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