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Base is home to historic spy planes

From 1976 to 1990, Beale Air Force Base was home to two formidable spy planes: the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird, both built by Lockheed.

Although the U-2 is downright dowdy in looks and performance compared to the SR-71, it easily outlasted the Blackbird and is still flying out of Beale today.

The U-2 was built in 1955 and was a Cold War secret until pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, according to the U.S. Air Force Museum Web site. Powers was convicted there of espionage but was released early in 1962 in exchange for a Soviet spy.



The U-2 flies about 400 to 460 mph when taking pictures, with a top speed of just under 500 mph. The United States began thinking about building the supersonic SR-71 after Powers was shot down in the relatively slow U-2.

The SR-71 was first built in 1964 with a flat profile, the nation’s first stealth aircraft. It set flight records for speed at 2,193 mph and altitude at 85,000 feet.




In a 1990 flight, the SR-71 went from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in one hour and four minutes, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Web site.

From 80,000 feet, the SR-71 could view 100,000 square miles per hour. The plane had two massive engines that produced 32,500 pounds of thrust apiece with an afterburner.

But the futuristic, fastest plane in the world was expensive to fly and was eventually retired from Beale in 1990. A few others flew until 1999 as Air Force budgets dipped.

While the SR-71 personified grace and speed, and the unmanned Global Hawk is now also based at Beale, the U-2 remains the Air Force’s pack mule for intelligence and is expected to do so for another 25 years.


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