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Boston Globe June 23, 2005

Cold War echo in fatal crash of U-2 spy plane

By Bryan Bender

WASHINGTON -- A half-century after they began secretly hunting for Soviet missile bases from at least 80,000 feet, the Air Force's U-2s briefly emerged from the shadows yesterday when the military announced that one of the storied spy planes had crashed and that its pilot was killed while returning from what was described as an antiterrorism mission.

In a brief statement, the US Central Command said the plane crashed late Tuesday. It declined to reveal where it went down, referring only to Southwest Asia, commonly meaning the Middle East. Several military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U-2 had crashed in the United Arab Emirates as it was returning to its base in that Persian Gulf nation.

The military statement also did not specify the nature of the U-2's classified mission, saying only it was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in 2001 when US forces ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and where US forces have seen an upswing in guerrilla attacks in recent weeks.

In an era in which threats to the United States come from suicide attacks rather than military invasions, the crash provided a reminder that the US arsenal still relies heavily on some of its Cold War workhorses for missions in the war on terrorism, including searching for terrorist hide-outs or covert nuclear weapons programs. Spy satellites and unmanned drones are playing a larger role in gathering intelligence, but the U-2 can still do things others cannot, according to specialists.

''It provides persistent surveillance capability," said John Pike, a military specialist at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. ''Satellites give you snapshots every now and again. You can keep the entire battlefield under surveillance with a U-2," which can fly missions of up to 12 hours.

The early model U-2 was first flown in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, when the need to analyze the Soviet Union's military capabilities was at a premium. It first came to international attention in 1960, when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. Powers was released in 1962 in exchange for a KGB agent.

The same year, images snapped by a U-2 revealed the Soviet Union was secretly deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba, setting off the worst crisis of the Cold War.

A lot has changed since then. The modern version is 40 percent larger, more reliable, and far more advanced than the original U-2 that was built in 88 days at Lockheed Martin's famed SkunkWorks facility in California and initially operated by the CIA.

The U-2 can now carry several types of high-tech eyes and ears, including high-resolution radars and electro-optical sensors that can see through all kinds of weather and other secret gadgets to detect enemy signals from hundreds of miles away. Instead of having to develop the wet rolls of film of yesteryear upon returning from a mission, a pod on the top of the plane beams information off a satellite in real-time to commanders thousands of miles away.

''It is not your father's old film camera anymore," said Lieutenant Colonel Bill Schlecht, deputy commander of the 9th Operations Group at Beale Air Force Base in California, the U-2s' home base. ''It carries some of the most modern equipment available. And it has excellent legs. We cover large parts of the world."

One of its key selling points remains its ability to fly so high -- pilots wear suits similar to those worn by astronauts -- reducing the chances of being shot down.

Still, the experience of piloting the single-seat plane is reserved for the most select pilots. Handling the aircraft is extremely difficult. With a wing span of about 100 feet its bicycle-type landing gear requires a high degree of precision. Its field of vision is limited by an extended nose. To assist in landing, a second aircraft often trails behind the U-2.

The cause of the crash Tuesday is under investigation. The identity of the pilot was withheld until family members could be notified.

''The airmen of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing mourn the loss of a true American hero in the service of his country," said Colonel Darryl Burke, the wing's commander.

The U-2 mission will probably remain a mystery. Specialists said yesterday that the plane could have been gathering intelligence for operations in Afghanistan.

It could also have been spying over the eastern border into the mountainous regions of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. Another possibility, they said, was Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west and where the United States suspects a covert nuclear weapons program is underway.

Operation Enduring Freedom ''is not synonymous with Afghanistan," Pike said. ''What they were looking at and what they were flying over could be two very different things."


Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company