(FOX40.COM) — When thinking of a spy one might imagine an MI-6 or CIA agent slinking through shadows with a briefcase that is also a camera, but in Northern California, spies wore bright orange spacesuits and flew higher than any aircraft before or since.
Located about an hour northeast of Sacramento, in the distant rural fields of Yuba County, is Beale Air Force Base, home of the U-2 Dragon Lady and the former home of the SR-71 Blackbird.
For nearly two decades, Beale hosted two of the United States’ most high-tech reconnaissance aircraft of the Cold War.
The SR-71 Blackbird
As the United States neared the second decade of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the first supersonic SR-71s left the hangers of Lockheed’s Skunk Works facilities in Burbank, California.
Capable of Mach 3 flight at an altitude of more than 80,000 feet, or 15 miles above the surface of the Earth, the Blackbird was designed to pass over the Iron Curtain and defeat any Soviet air defenses on the other side.
On Jan. 7, 1966, Beale Air Force Base was thrust into the future of aviation when it became the nation’s first and only state-side base for the Blackbird, with the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.
According to the United States Air Force, 86 pilots were trained to fly the Blackbird.
In an interview with the USAF, retired Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua said that even though there were so few pilots to fly the mission they rarely got much seat time in the state-of-the-art aircraft.
“Throughout the seven years I was in the SR-71 program I only accumulated 738 flight hours, but that was more than a lot of people,” Bevacqua told the USAF. “You’d be lucky if you got two flights a month on the SR-71, maybe three or four when you’re doing the real stuff out in Kadena.”
According to the National Museum of the Air Force, the first operational SR-71 had 2,981 flying hours over 942 total missions, which is more than any other SR-71.
During its nearly 23-year career in the United States Air Force, no SR-71s were shot down, deeming the project an absolute success by the United States military.
One of the most significant missions the SR-71 was involved in was collecting images of the Son Tay prison camp in Vietnam, where more than 500 American prisoners of war were rescued in a raid by American forces.
Despite its success, the SR-71 program was shut down due to mounting costs and improved surveillance technologies.
The last ever flight for the Blackbird was on Oct. 9, 1999, during the Edwards Air Force Base Open House Air Show.
The U-2 Dragon Lady
Beale received their first U-2 in 1976, although the Dragon Lady was a predecessor to the Blackbird, having entered service with the USAF in 1956.
The addition of the U-2 would also see the creation of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, which would replace the 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.
To this day, Beale is the home base for the U-2S and operates all 27 single-seater variants of the aircraft and the four dual-seat trainer aircraft.
The U-2 was also developed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division and was tasked with reconnaissance missions at an altitude of above 70,000 feet.
The U-2 did have a much slower top speed of about 430 miles per hour, which was proven to be one of its greatest weaknesses when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union by a surface-to-air missile.
Over its continued service in the USAF, the U-2 has provided such roles as mapping studies, atmospheric nuclear sampling and surveillance of enemy territories.
Some of the Dragon Lady’s non-combat roles include working with the Department of Agriculture to collect photos of crop and land management and the recon of disaster areas affected by floods, earthquakes and wildfires.
According to Lockheed Martin, the U-2, now the U-2S, has evolved from its original mission as a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
The Quantum Leap U-2, as named by Lockheed Martin, plans to use the U-2 as a data collection point to then share over an integrated network with naval vehicles and fellow aircraft, including 5th-generation fighters.
In a 2015 report, the USAF said that since 1994 the U-2 airframe has received $1.7 billion in modernization upgrades that could allow it to live out its expected service life until 2050.
However, some information indicates that the Dragon Lady’s final days could come as soon as 2026.
In the U-2 pilot application from Beale AFB, the question of the U-2S early retirement is addressed.
“We’ve heard the same thing many times over the course of the Dragon Lady’s tenure,” the form reads. “Right now, the program is funded and there is no “sunset” or retirement order. While the original “Deuce” was designed in the 1950s, the modern U-2 is much newer and is outfitted with state-of-the-art sensors and equipment, making it the most effective and least expensive tool for the job.”
For the time being, Beale Air Force and the pilots of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing continue their high-flying missions and surveillance of the world below.