Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft was disabled. Hit by Soviet surface-to-air missiles, the plane fell from 70,000 feet to 30,000 feet before Powers could release himself and bail out of the damaged cockpit. It was May 1, 1960, and the Cold War was heating up.
At Lockheed’s advanced development group, the Skunk Works® in Burbank, work had already begun on an innovative aircraft to improve intelligence-gathering, one that would fly faster than any aircraft before or since, at greater altitude, and with a minimal radar cross section. President Eisenhower deeply valued the strategic benefits of the U-2’s airborne reconnaissance during these tense Cold War times. And now the call came from Lockheed’s customer in Washington to build the impossible – an aircraft that can’t be shot down – and do it fast.
“Everything Had To Be Invented.”
Kelly Johnson, one of the preeminent aircraft designers of the twentieth century, and his Skunk Works team had a track record of delivering “impossible” technologies on incredibly short, strategically critical deadlines. The U-2 was but one example. The group was known for its unfailing sense of duty, its creativity in the face of a technological challenge and its undaunted perseverance.
This new aircraft was in a different category from anything that had come before. “Everything had to be invented. Everything,” Johnson recalled. He committed Skunk Works to succeed in its toughest assignment to date: to have the innovative, challenging, envelope-bursting aircraft flying in a mere twenty months.