June 27, 2006:
The U.S. Air Force has put a new model of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft into service. The first U-2S Block 20 model recently arrived in South Korea. This model has a digital "all glass" cockpit. That means that nearly al the information the pilot needs can be obtained from three 6x8 inch multifunction displays, and two smaller ones. With these displays, a lot of additional information can be displayed, like checklists, and a moving map to show where the aircraft is (at it flies at up to 70,000 feet altitude.) The new electronic systems contain more self-diagnostics and software that helps the pilot quickly figure out problems, and solutions to them. With a range of over 11,000 kilometers, U-2s typically fly missions 12-18 hours long. The U.S. has 29 of the 18 ton U-2s in service, with another seven used for training and research. All will be upgraded to the Block 20 standard, and kept in service another five or ten years. Or at least until the robotic RQ-4 Global Hawk is completely debugged, and available in sufficient quantity to replace all the U-2s. The U-2 has been in service since 1955, in small numbers. Only about 850 pilots have qualified to fly the U-2 in that time.