U-2C World Record Flights

Today and tomorrow are the 25th anniversary of 16 world altitude and time-to-climb records set by pilots Jerry Hoyt and Ron Williams in the museum’s Lockheed U-2C “Dragon Lady” reconnaissance aircraft, serial number 56-6682. The records, set on 17 and 18 April 1989, still stand today and are ratified by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the organization that governs world records for air sports, aeronautics and astronautics.

56-6682 was the ninth U-2 built. At this point we know very little about its early service history. Aircraft records indicate it received a variety of modifications during its operational career, including the installation of a tail hook for aircraft carrier operations. In 1971, the U.S. Air Force transferred 56-6682 to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a U-2C. NASA gave it the number “709” and used it to collect environmental data. By 1989, 56-6682 was the last of the original U-2s in operational service.

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U-2C 56-6682 in flight. The caption from the Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company’s April 20, 1989 issue of the Star newspaper says, “Time to climb—this composite photo shows the approximate angle of ascent taken by the last flying U-2C enroute to shattering many time-to-climb records…”

What a great way to end a career! Here are some details of the record flights from the FAI website:

Date: 17 April 1989

Class: C (Powered Airplanes)

Sub-Class: C-1f (Landplane, takeoff weight 6,000 to 9,000 kg (13,227 to 19,841lbs))

Location: Edwards AFB, California (USA)

Pilot: Jerry Hoyt (USA)

Aircraft: Lockheed U-2C (NASA 709, 56-6682)

Time to climb to a height of 3,000 m (9,842.5 ft)         00 min 55s

Time to climb to a height of 6,000 m (19,685 ft)          01 min 50s

Time to climb to a height of 9,000 m (29,527.6 ft)       02 min 51s

Time to climb to a height of 12,000 m (39,370.1 ft)     04 min 17s

Time to climb to a height of 15,000 m (49,212.6 ft)     06 min 16s

Time to climb to a height of 20,000 m (65,616.8 ft)     12 min 14s

Altitude                                                                                  22,482 m (73,759.8 ft)

Altitude in horizontal flight                                                 22,475 m (73,736.9 ft)

Date: 18 April 1989

Class: C (Powered airplanes)

Sub-Class: C-1g (Landplane takeoff weight 9,000 to 12,000 kg (19,841 to 26,455 lbs))

Location: Edwards AFB, California (USA)

Pilot: Ronald R. Williams (USA)

Aircraft: Lockheed U-2C (NASA 709, 56-6682)

Time to climb to a height of 3,000 m (9,842.5 ft)         1 min 09s

Time to climb to a height of 6,000 m (19,685 ft)          2 min 13s

Time to climb to a height of 9,000 m (29,527.6 ft)       3 min 30s

Time to climb to a height of 12,000 m (39,370.1 ft)     5 min 10s

Time to climb to a height of 15,000 m (49,212.6 ft)     8 min 09s

Time to climb to a height of 20,000 m (65,616.8 ft)     19 min 37s

Altitude                                                                                  22,198 m (72,828.1 ft)

Altitude in horizontal flight                                                  22,198 m (72,828.1 ft)

The U-2C set records in two different weight classes. The first eight records were in the “C1f” class for landplanes with a takeoff weight of 13,227 to 19,841pounds. Eight similar records were set in the “C1g” class for landplanes taking off weighing 19,841 to 26,455 pounds. No special modifications were made to the aircraft, though for the C1f flight, the U-2C carried only 395 gallons of fuel—less than a normal load. For the C1G flight, 56-6682 carried a normal fuel load of 1,020 gallons. The 1950s-era U-2C took records away from three sleek multi-engine, swept-wing business jets: Learjet 28, Canadair Challenger, and Falcon 900.

In climbs from takeoff to 15,000 meters (49,212 feet), the U-2C didn’t just break the preview records—it crushed them. Pilots Hoyt and Williams kept climbing of course and established records for time-to-climb to 20,000 meters (65,616.8 feet).

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This graph was prepared shortly after the record flight on 17 April 1989 and shows how the U-2C’s rate of climb in the C1f weight class (line marked “NASA 709”) compared to that of the previous record holder, a Learjet 28.

These weren’t just “zoom” climbs either. On the record flights, Hoyt and Williams flew the U-2C in horizontal flight at up to 22,482 meters (73,759.8 feet)—almost 14 miles above the ground. Historian Glenn Bugos, in his book Atmosphere of Freedom: Sixty Years at the NASA Ames Research Center, says, “These records were the first official acknowledgment of the U-2’s previously classified altitude capability.”

Ben Rich, Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company executive vice president and Advanced Development Projects general manager, summed up the record-setting flights this way: “These flights pay tribute to the people and pilots associated with an aircraft that has served the U.S. Air Force and NASA for 34 years.”

56-6682’s final flight was on 27 April 1989, when it was flown from Palmdale, California, to Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, for preservation at the museum. The aircraft is on display in the Century of Flight Hangar.

Mike Rowland, Curator

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